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Black and Catholic in America | An Interview with Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers | Carl E. Olson | January 16, 2007

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Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, MTS is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, and the founder of Aurem Cordis, an apostolate dedicated "to promote the truth and beauty of the gospel by encouraging others to submit themselves freely to the life-giving love of the Trinity and to become living witnesses to that love in the world." Deacon Burke-Sivers gives talks around the country on spirituality, family life, lay vocations, and other topics, and has appeared on "Catholic Answers Live", Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), and many local television and radio programs. He is the host of the 13-part EWTN series, Behold The Man!, about Catholic spirituality for men. Deacon Burke-Sivers has a BA in economics from Notre Dame and an MTS from the University of Dallas. He, his wife Colleen, and their four children live in Portland, Oregon.

He is also the author of the new foreword to From Slave to Priest, Sister Caroline Hemesath's 1973 biography of Father Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), the first black priest in America. Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently interviewed his former classmate and spoke with him about Father Tolton, the history of black Catholics in America, and the unique challenges faced by black Catholics today.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What stood out the most to you when you read the story of Father Augustine Tolton?

Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers: What struck me most was the fact that Father Tolton, despite enduring a lifetime of racial animosity and prejudice, remained a Catholic. He was taunted by harsh insults and derogatory racial remarks from Catholic school classmates. Many parents, who did not accept a black child in the school, threatened to withdraw their children and withhold financial support from the parish. When a local pastor welcomed young Augustine with open arms, some parishioners, appalled by the presence of the Tolton family, went so far as to petition the bishop asking for the pastor's removal and even threatened to leave the Catholic faith entirely.

With the help of several supportive priests who tutored him in theology and philosophy, Augustine Tolton discerned a calling to the priesthood but was rejected by the Franciscan Order and every seminary in the United States. Upon his return to America after being ordained to the priesthood in Rome, Father Tolton discovered that a white priest often referred to him as the "nigger priest" and told his white congregation that attendance at the black church was not valid for white Catholics.

In the face of such bigotry and hatred, I asked myself, "Why didn't Father Augustine Tolton leave the Church?" As I reflected on the life of this noble priest, it became clear to me. Father Tolton was able to discern what many Catholics today who leave the Church fail to perceive and do not fully appreciate: that what the Catholic Church actually teaches is true, good and beautiful despite the hypocrisy and contradiction of Church members who do not actually live the faith they profess. Father Tolton always acknowledged the great gift of his Catholic faith and recognized that personal sin and human weakness are not greater or more powerful than the strength of objective truth found in Catholicism. Father Tolton was a visionary who saw far beyond issues of race and politics, looking inward--into the heart of the Church herself.

This perspective is echoed beautifully in the words of our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, who addressed black Catholics in the United States with these words: "It is important to realize that there is no black Church, no white Church, no American Church; but there is and must be, in the one Church of Jesus Christ, a home for blacks, whites, Americans, every culture and race. 'The Church is catholic . . . because she is able to present in every human context the revealed truth, preserved by her intact in its divine content, in such a way as to bring it into contact with the lofty thoughts and just expectations of every individual and every people.'" (Pope John Paul II, Meeting with the Black Catholics of New Orleans, 12 September 1987, no. 7; cf. Slavorum Apostoli, no. 18).

IgnatiusInsight.com: Although much has changed since Father Tolton's death in 1897, what can readers--regardless of their ethnicity--learn from his story?

Deacon Burke-Sivers: As Jesus was dying on the Cross, while being mocked by those who condemned him, and as He endured agonizing torture and excruciating suffering, our Lord poured Himself out in complete and perfect love. Jesus calls us to love as He loves, for it is in the crucified Christ that the true meaning of forgiveness and freedom are revealed.

Even though the cross of racism weighed heavily on Father Tolton's shoulders, he acknowledged "it was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors. It was through the direction of a [nun] that I . . . beheld for the first time the glimmering light of truth and the majesty of the Church." Father Tolton's life demonstrates that we are all called to live in Christ: to follow Him, to carry the Cross, to pour ourselves out, to sacrifice ourselves in love, to forgive--for it is in giving ourselves away that we truly find our freedom in God. Father Tolton gave himself totally and completely to the Church in response to God's invitation to share in His life and love. Father Tolton is a role model for all those who seek to be configured more perfectly to Christ.

This humble priest shows us all that being made in God's image and likeness brings with it a tremendous responsibility: the responsibility of love and communion rooted in the obedience of faith. To obey in faith means we must listen to God's voice and allowing that voice to change our lives. The life of Father Tolton bears witness to the truth that when we freely, willingly, and lovingly place all our trust in God, in faithful obedience, then we will find true happiness and peace, a peace that can only come from complete abandonment to the will of the Father.

The lesson of Father Tolton's life teaches us that sometimes God humbles us in order to exalt us (cf. 1 Samuel 2:7), and that He uses our limitations and weakness to show forth his majesty. In his suffering, Father Tolton reminds us that living in the heart of God means uniting ourselves to the Cross of Christ. He shows us that the journey of faith starts with each one of us living, acting and "being" in a way that says, "Yes" to God's truth and love.

IgnatiusInsight.com: How did the relationship between the black community and the Catholic Church change or develop during the twentieth century?

Deacon Burke-Sivers: During the lifetime of Father Tolton, the inaugural Black Catholic Congress, organized by the most prominent black Catholic layman of the time, Daniel Rudd, convened in 1889 at Saint Augustine's parish in Washington, D.C. Father Tolton was the main celebrant and homilist at the opening Mass.

This was a major event for black Catholics--about one hundred delegates attended from all over the country, as well as members of the Catholic hierarchy and various Protestant ministers. President Grover Cleveland received the delegates at the White House and Pope Leo XIII sent his blessing. The delegates issued a post-Congress paper calling for Catholic schools, industrial education, admission to labor unions, and better housing for Blacks. Four subsequent Congresses met in northern cities through 1894 but the sixth Congress did not convene until May 1987. [Editor's note: Please see the document, "Black Catholics in the United States," for additional details about this and related historical events.]

In the ninety-three years between Congresses, black Catholics continued to combat racism and discrimination within the Church. Slowly, American bishops began to speak out against racial inequality and its incompatibility with the Catholic faith. Inspired by a letter from Pope Pius XII commemorating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the American hierarchy, the United States bishops issued a document on World War II in which they stated that the "rights of our minorities must be openly acknowledged and honestly respected. We ask this acknowledgment and respect particularly for our colored fellow citizens. . . . We fully appreciate their many native gifts and aptitudes, which, ennobled and enriched by a true Christian life, will make them a powerful influence in the establishment of a Christian social order."

After the war, individual bishops took stands against segregation, especially in Catholic schools. The religious orders began accepting black candidates. In the period immediately preceding the civil rights movement of the sixties, the bishops issued a statement, Discrimination and Christian Conscience (1958), saying that "the heart of the race question is moral and religious. If our attitude is governed by the great Christian law of love of neighbor and respect for his rights, then we can work out harmoniously the technique of making legal, educational, economic, and social adjustments. But if our hearts are poisoned by hatred, or even by indifference toward the welfare and rights of our fellow men, then our nation faces grave internal crisis."

There were other statements on race from the sixties to the present day, most recently Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself: U.S. Catholic Bishops Speak Against Racism (2001). In their pastoral letter, Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979) the bishops stated that:
Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights. It mocks the words of Jesus: "Treat the others the way you would have them treat you." Indeed, racism is more than a disregard for these words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.
In 1987, a year after the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) established a standing Committee for Black Catholics, the Black Catholic Congress founded by Daniel Rudd was reorganized as the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC). The NBCC represents black Catholics working in collaboration with national Catholic associations and the bishop's conference. The NBCC's mission is to establish an agenda for evangelization, improve the spiritual, mental, and physical condition of African Americans, and work toward the full participation of black Catholics in the Church and society. The NBCC has addressed a number of issues of concern to black Catholics, including: strengthening family values, spiritual development, support for Catholic schools in black communities and, more recently, AIDS, youth ministry and faith formation.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Why do you think various forms of Pentecostalism and liberation theology have been so attractive to many blacks?

Deacon Burke-Sivers: Regarding Pentecostalism, the issue stems from what is perceived to be a major limitation inherent in the Latin Rite Mass: the lack of liturgical forms, expressions, and ways of worship that validate black cultural identity. You often hear criticisms that, "the European Mass does not reflect the black experience and authenticate the black Catholic community" together with observations such as, " the preaching is lackluster," "the singing is repetitious and boring," "the worship lacks emotion," and that the Latin Rite Mass is very "high church" and pedantic in that "you can't breathe, bend, or stand out of place." In many cases the rubrics of the Mass are completely ignored and replaced with a self-described "vibrant" celebration that, in reality, looks more like a Protestant worship service than a Catholic Mass.

This critique fails to appreciate the fact that rubrics help to convey the richness and depth of meaning found in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, a rite pregnant with symbols, gestures and rituals that express the ecclesial nature of liturgical action. The truth is that the Mass allows ample room for legitimate inculturation, which is endorsed by the Second Vatican Council: "Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather she respects and fosters the spiritual adornments and gifts of the various races and peoples. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, as long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 37).

In other words, the unity of the Church does not demand uniformity, which is clearly evident in the liturgical experience of Eastern Catholics. Consequently, there is absolutely no need for African American Catholics to resort to so-called "liturgical dance," use inclusive language or commit other liturgical aberrations in order to find genuine diversity within the Mass. Black Catholics can truly be at home with God at Mass; we can give Him praise and glory, lift our hearts and voices in song, have dynamic preaching, and pray to the Father with joy and with hearts full of love, all without turning our backs on the rubrics, Church teaching, and the rich heritage and Tradition of our Catholic faith.

The second issue, black Catholic identification with liberation theology, flows directly from the experience of slavery. The period between the mid 1800's through the early 1960's saw the rise of the black liberation movement that served as the genesis of black liberation theology. Beginning with the "black power" movement in 1966, black clergy in many denominations began to reassess the relationship of the Christian church to the black community. Black clergy and theologians began to recognize the need for a completely new "starting point" in theology. They insisted that this starting point must be defined by people at the bottom and not the top of the socio-economic ladder. Black theologians began to re-read the Bible through the eyes of their slave grandparents and started to speak of God's solidarity with the oppressed of the earth.

Black liberation theology does not ask what the Church is, but rather what it means to be the Church within the context of liberating the poor and oppressed. Thus, the Church's principal mission is to challenge injustice and identify itself with the poor. In the liberationist world view, the Church is a class of the oppressed who have joined together seeking political means to remedy their subjugation while, in contrast, the Church's Magisterium is a member of the oppressive class since it does not participate in the class struggle:
The people demand more than hierarchy, more than structure, more than rules and regulations from the Catholic Church. African Americans especially have needs that go beyond the racist institutional structures of the United States Catholic Church. African American Catholics carry within us . . . the rage of being despised and used by other human persons who deemed themselves superior to us. Our history unites us to Jesus, the Suffering Servant who dies alone and abandoned by his friends. We, too, have felt abandoned and alone in an alien country, and we still experience that abandonment and loneliness in the racist institutions of our society, perhaps particularly in the Church. It is a Church . . . that prefers the safety of hierarchy to the radical, countercultural mission of Jesus to challenge the status quo and minister to the people; the people of God with all their beautiful diversity and individual needs, the little people who are the Church. It is our responsibility to begin rewriting the history of the Church so that as a community we glorify God . . . not in materialistic, capitalistic expressions, but rather with a commitment to love, respect, forgive, and serve one another. (Black Catholic Evangelization Forum, "Reclaiming and Rewriting Our Tradition," Reach Out!, November 1999, 1).
Liberation theology is shallow in its understanding of the hierarchical nature of the Church. It places the Magisterium on the same level as a secular corporation, comparing Church hierarchy and authority to an obdurate corporate ladder firmly rooted within a callous business conglomerate. This narrow ecclesiology disparages the fact that the Church is both "already" (temporal and transcendent) and "not yet" (eschatological): she exists not merely as the Church on earth but also as the Church resplendent, as the glorified Body of Christ who established and sustains his Church as a visible organization through which he communicates grace and truth to all. (cf. Matthew 16:16-18; 8:18 and Lumen Gentium nos. 1-17).

Jesus Christ transmits divine revelation through the truth and beauty of the Gospel, which he passed on to the Apostles. The Apostles, in turn, handed on the Gospel to us through their preaching and teaching, through the institutions they established, and by their example. "Christ himself chose the apostles and gave them a share in his mission and authority. He has not forsaken his flock but keeps it under his constant protection through the apostles, and guides it still through these same pastors who continue his work today." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1575). Jesus Christ entrusted the authentic interpretation of Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition to the living teaching office of the Church alone--the Magisterium--whose authority is exercised in Christ's name. Despite the fact that some priests and bishops have sinned and have chosen not to live in accord with the faith they are bound to protect and serve, the doctrines and teaching contained in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition still holds true. Individual sin cannot obscure the clarity of God's revealed truth, for Christ has promised that, in his Church, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it! (cf. Matthew 16:18).

Read Part Two of "Black and Catholic in America"


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