Part Two of "Black and Catholic in America" | An Interview with Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers | Part One
The Catholic Church, as the expert in humanity, "has the duty of proclaiming liberation in its deeper, fuller sense, the sense proclaimed and realized by Jesus Christ. That fuller liberation is liberation from everything that oppresses human beings, but especially liberation from sin and the evil one." (Pope John Paul II, "Opening Address, 1982 CELAM Conference, Puebla," Quade, 1982, 66-67). To set us free from the bondage of sin and death, we need the indwelling love of Christ, which comes through the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth--for it is the truth that sets us free (cf. John 8:31-38). The truth of God's ever abundant and merciful love is rooted in freedom, a freedom "from" and a freedom "for": the freedom from sin so that we can be free for God.
In this regard, Pope John Paul II called on black Catholics to "help us all remember that authentic freedom comes from accepting the truth and from living one's life in accordance with it--and the full truth is found only in Christ Jesus. Continue to inspire us by your desire to forgive-- as Jesus forgave--and by your desire to be reconciled with all the people of this nation, even those who would unjustly deny you the full exercise of your human rights." (Pope John Paul II, Meeting with the Black Catholics of New Orleans, no. 3; my emphasis). The words of Father Tolton prefigure this sentiment beautifully, "The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery--that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both. [...] In this Church we don't have to fight for our rights because we are black. The Church is broad and liberal [i.e., generous]. She is the Church for our people."
As African Americans continue to contribute their unique gift of Blackness to the overall good of the Church, and as black Catholic spirituality and distinctiveness become progressively normative in Catholic life and worship throughout the United States, we must remember that the Church is One and many, and that the Mystery of Christ transcends all cultures. A truly Catholic theology grounded in African American religious thought and conscience must endorse and incorporate authentic Catholic teaching into its methodology and practice. African Americans should use the significant and invaluable contributions of black Catholics throughout history (like Father Augustine Tolton) together with the doctrinal tenets of the Catholic faith as both the foundation and point of departure in developing a theology that is representative of the black Catholic experience.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You grew up on the East Coast, went to school in the Midwest (Notre Dame), have spent time in the South, and now live on the West Coast. Are there different challenges in each place for blacks? For Catholics?
Deacon Burke-Sivers: There are definitely common threads throughout all parts of the country: racism, substance abuse, violent crime, absent fathers, the disintegration of family life, the rising number of black men in prison, homelessness, poverty, and health issues (particularly HIV/AIDS and heart disease). In the black Catholic community specifically, I would add the lack of religious vocations.
Black men must rise-up--even in the face of discrimination and rejection--and take the lead in meeting these challenges head-on, armed with the sword of genuine Christian love in one hand and the shield of objective truth in the other.
Regarding family life, for example, too many men have bought into the lie of a culture that says love does not mean commitment, self-gift and sacrifice. What is the result of this lie? We "play the field," fornicating frequently with multiple partners and engaging in extramarital affairs, sometimes resulting in the birth of children that men, for the most part, have no interest in raising or financially supporting. There exists an entire generation of fathers who have physically, emotionally or spiritually abandoned their wives and children. Thus, in the absence of fathers to lead, support and nurture their families, women have compensated either by assuming masculine roles within the family, or by constructing innovative support networks for themselves and their children. This changing dynamic has brought us to a critical juncture as men: we are at the genesis of a systemic and fundamental shift in family life where in the near future, if we continue to live as men of the culture, fathers in the family may be considered optional and, in many cases, unnecessary.
As black Catholic men, we "must rediscover the spirit of family life [rooted in our spiritual and cultural heritage], which refuses to be destroyed in the face of even the most oppressive forces" affecting society. (Pope John Paul II, Meeting with the Black Catholics of New Orleans, no. 4). In the face of these challenges, we must protect and defend the dignity of marriage and family life. We must develop a spirituality within marriage that witnesses to the truth that God is love, and that He calls all husbands, wives and children to live in intimate, personal and loving communion with Him. Black Catholic men must stand with the Church in defending the rights of families and in teaching by example "the obligations and responsibilities [of the family] which lead to the fullness of joy and life." (Pope John Paul II, Meeting with the Black Catholics of New Orleans, no. 4).
As family life is restored and renewed, black religious vocations will increase since the family is the primary vehicle of evangelization. During slavery, black religious "bore eloquent witness to the power of the Holy Spirit accomplishing the work of spiritual freedom even in the moment of physical oppression." Drawing from this wellspring, "black religious today offer a comparable witness to the Church and society, proclaiming God's Kingdom to a world shackled by consumerism, mindless pleasure-seeking and irresponsible individualism--shackles of the spirit which are even more destructive than the chains of physical slavery. (Pope John Paul II, Meeting with the Black Catholics of New Orleans, no. 2). You reap what you sew: the seeds of fidelity and truth will yield a bountiful harvest of workers in the Lord's vineyard.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What specific challenges and issues do black Catholics face in the United States today? How are they being addressed?
Deacon Burke-Sivers: I believe that in the black Catholic community, the challenges are two-fold: material (substance abuse, violent crime, absent fathers and the disintegration of family life, as mentioned above) and spiritual (moral relativism, sexual promiscuity, subjective truth, and the influence of liberal theology). Both the material and spiritual influences represent serious affronts to our Catholic convictions and gravely hinder evangelization efforts.
In the face of these challenges, combating the tangled web of systemic racism cannot be the sole response since racism cannot answer the deeper, more serious questions that black Catholics need to ask: Where are our husbands and fathers? Are we so preoccupied with getting drunk or high, or so obsessed with material wealth that we cannot notice what is happening to our children, to our future? Why have street gangs replaced families? Are we so busy watching pornography or sleeping around that we have become completely oblivious to the fact we are treating each other as "things" and objects, and not as equal persons made in the image and likeness of God? Do we even care? To answer these questions we must not simply look outward at the culture in order to accuse and blame. We must also take a serious look inward: we must examine ourselves, rediscover the beauty and truth of our Catholic heritage, and renew our commitment to live the teachings of our Catholic faith with courage, fidelity and enthusiasm!
The most critical issue that black Catholics face today is also the principal threat to our existence: abortion. "Historically, children were always welcomed in African American families, no matter the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy. Tragically, that tradition is changing before our very eyes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black women are about twelve percent of the female population, but account for thirty-five percent of all abortions" (Michelle Williams, "Abortion and the Black Community"). According to census data for the year 2000, abortion has eliminated between fourteen and fifteen million of black Americans since 1973, a total equal to the combined population of eight mid-western states. "Abortion is shrinking our churches, schools, communities and congressional districts, as well as our future" (Gloria Purvis, "What Will It Take to Respect Life in the Black Community?").
As a people, African Americans do a great job raising awareness around issues such as poverty, affirmative action, racism and civil rights, but if we continue to kill ourselves through this egregious abuse of our freedom, there will not be enough of us around for anyone to notice. When we allow abortion, we actually assist in and encourage the elimination of our race, something that hate groups could not accomplish for decades in this country (cf. Purvis). For the black Catholics, and indeed for the entire African American community, abortion is not about opinion or choice: it's a matter of life and death.
In order to combat the challenges of contemporary society and culture, we must rediscover and build upon the solid foundation of our faith; a faith that forms the heart and soul of our spiritual identity as Black Catholics. "Inasmuch as all people are called to a life of holiness, we as black people faithful to the Holy Spirit and our Church's teachings, must seek to pray and work in the spirit of our ancestors in the Faith" (NBCC Congress IX, Spirituality Principle). We must respond with courage, conviction, and unwavering faith to our baptismal call to holiness, to answer Christ's challenge to "be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 6:48): to "shoulder the responsibility laid upon us by our Baptism into the Body of Christ. This responsibility is to proclaim our faith and to take an active part in building up the Church" (What We Have Seen and Heard, 18). In short, we must nurture and cultivate a deep and abiding love for our Lord Jesus Christ in his one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
IgnatiusInsight.com: When and how did you discern the call to become a permanent deacon?
Deacon Burke-Sivers: Like Father Tolton, my mother was my first and deepest spiritual influence. She made every effort to instill the love and truth of the Lord Jesus Christ into my heart by her words and, more importantly, by her example of untiring self-sacrifice and total self-giving. In my eyes, my mother epitomized Christian humility and faith, and it was from her that I developed a deep love for the Mass and fostered a devotion to the Blessed Mother.
When I reached the fourth grade, my mother encouraged me to become an altar boy, which I did with much enthusiasm and great fervor. During this time, I also attended faith discussion groups, joined the parish choir, and attended youth retreats. It was as an altar boy, however, that I developed a profound respect for the priesthood, and it was during the Sacrifice of the Mass that I felt closest to Christ and experienced the power of his love in an intensely personal way. The Mystery and beauty of the Mass enamored me, and my love for Jesus deepened with each passing year. I was in the eighth grade when I first thought about the priesthood.
One of the most significant moments in my life was my decision to attend St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, NJ run by the Benedictine monks of Newark Abbey. It was here that I developed a life-long love for the Liturgy of the Hours, and a deep admiration of and respect for monasticism in the Benedictine tradition. The monks taught me about the centrality of prayer and the meaning of work. My appreciation of the Mass and Sacred Scripture grew deeper. The daily recitation of the Divine Office, together with active engagement in lectio divina, engendered a regimented and systematic approach to prayer, reading, and contemplation that I still follow to this day.
After college, I joined the monastery briefly then met Colleen, the woman who would become my wife. Colleen and I moved to Oregon a year after we were married and joined a local parish. I cherished my role as husband and chief servant of my wife. I understood that my relationship with God and my family must always come first above all else.
Yet, I still felt a great need to play a more active role in the Church, but I wasn't exactly sure what role this should be. During the singing of the Gloria at the 1996 Easter Vigil, I felt God calling me to the diaconate. That following week, I contacted the Archdiocese and after six years of prayer, careful discernment, a graduate degree in theology and with the support of my wife, I was ordained a permanent deacon in 2002.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Tell us about some of the work that you do through your apostolate relating to challenges faced by black Catholics and all Catholics.
Deacon Burke-Sivers: My prayer is that through sharing the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith in love, Aurem Cordis will encourage and motivate as many people as possible to seek a deeper love of Christ and the Gospel. Although I speak on a variety of topics, the two I am asked to present most frequently concern issues important to all Catholics: male spirituality, and marriage and family life.
I approach male spirituality by first examining what it means to be a Catholic man in today's society and analyzing how contemporary culture speaks to men about truth, faith, and the meaning of life. Through the use of Sacred Scripture, the practical application of Church doctrine and the writings of the late Pope John Paul II, I explore how an authentic, Christ-centered male spirituality fosters and nurtures growth in holiness; how it encourages men to become defenders of the culture of life; how it inspires men to become loving servants of their wives, families, and the Church; how it develops an understanding and appreciation of the human body as the temple of the Holy Spirit; and how the power of the Eucharistic Christ can sustain men in the every day lived experience of their faith. I try to show that men who live their faith in fidelity to God's holy will become freer to love and more open to receive the gift of grace in response to the Lord's call to "be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).
When speaking on the family, I provide theological and practical insights into how Catholic families can flourish and prosper spiritually within a culture averse to Christian values. I discuss the meaning of sacramental marriage and its place in the Eucharistic encounter; the Christian family as a communion of persons in the image and likeness of the Trinity; the family as a sacred sign and living sacrament of Christ's love for his Church; the spirituality of motherhood and fatherhood through the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph; the culture's disordered, "self-centered" view of sexuality that hinders and undermines authentic family life; the challenge of domestic abuse and violence; managing the often delicate balancing act of family and work; family crisis as a path to sanctity that flows from the heart of the Cross; key elements to raising holy, faith-filled children in a culture of death; and practical ideas that will foster and encourage better family communication, and a deeper, richer family spiritual life. I hope that my apostolate will assist families in responding generously to the Lord's call to loving and life-giving communion with Him.
IgnatiusInsight.com Articles by Deacon Burke-Sivers:
A Study In Faithful Obedience | Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers | New Foreword to From Slave to Priest
Behold the Man! | An interview with Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers about his EWTN series
Hearing and Living the Truth | Harold Burke-Sivers
The Truth and the Lie | Harold Burke-Sivers
The Meaning and Necessity of Spiritual Fatherhood | Harold Burke-Sivers
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