In her groundbreaking historical account “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle,” Dr. Shannen Dee Williams shares a story which has stuck with me. I offer it as a framework for marking Black History Month and entering the penitential season of Lent.

Dr. Williams recounts how amid the Great Migration – the 60-year period beginning around 1910 during which some six million African Americans moved out of the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West – “white [religious] orders that expanded or adopted ministries to Black Americans in these areas experienced a marked increase in applications from Black women and girls, often their former pupils.”

However, white women religious orders (as well as diocesan seminaries and orders of men) persisted in anti-Black admissions policies. This was true even in the face of positive pressures from Church moral teaching requiring social equality and recognition of human dignity, from the desire of some white priests and sisters to maintain and spread the faith in Black migrant communities, and from belief among white Catholic interracialists that the Church’s segregationist practices would push Black converts to join the Communist Party.

“Some white priests,” writes Dr. Williams, “began to challenge white female leadership councils to reconsider their discriminatory practices.” For example, Fr. John F. O’Brien, a white assistant pastor at Harlem’s Church of the Resurrection, wrote to all the white orders in the greater New York City area. His inquiry ended with a simple and “searing” moral question: “Is the order Catholic enough to accept colored vocations?”

The purpose here is not to pile onto women religious orders, who in many cases are leading the way in opening their history and contemporary practices to scrutiny in a desire for gospel justice. Rather, this Lent let us sit with the question: Are we Catholic enough?

Are we Catholic enough to take some time to learn about Black history? (For example, Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire website has a free streaming video series called, “Gloria Purvis: Racism, Human Dignity, and the Catholic Church in America” that recounts some of that history. Williams’s book is also recommended.)

Are we Catholic enough to take time to read accounts of convict leasing and sharecropping, racial terror lynching, Jim Crow, GI benefit exclusion, redlining and sundown policies in Orange County, drug sentencing disparities and mass incarceration? Accounts that don’t try to soften these events?

In his magisterial The History of Black Catholics in the United States, Benedictine monk Cyprian Davis highlights the commentary of the great Alexandrian church father Origen (third century AD) on verse 5 of chapter 1 in the “Song of Songs.” The translation of the Old Testament he was using had the wording: “I am black and beautiful.” Solomon is a type of Christ and the black Queen of Sheba is a type of the Church.

Origen wrote: “She came to Jerusalem, then, to the Vision of Peace, with a single following and in great array; for she came not with a single nation . . . but with the races of the whole world, offering moreover worthy gifts to Christ.” Are we Catholic enough to put energy into this queen’s inclusive vision?

Davis goes on to give a sense of the African roots of Catholicism, from the Catholic kingdoms of Ethiopia and Nubia, to the early Church fathers and mothers from North Africa: Tertullian, Cyprian, Perpetua and Felicitas, Augustine and Monica, and popes Victor I, Miltiades, and Gelasius I. The complicated history of the rise and fall and rise
again of Catholicism in Africa. Are we Catholic enough to celebrate the Africanness of these fathers and mothers?

El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (LA) was built on a Black and Indian presence. Davis notes that when eleven families of settlers arrived in 1781 with their military escorts to their new home not far from the San Gabriel Mission, only two of the original settlers were white: all Catholics, over half of the adults were Black, two
Spanish and the rest Indians. “Spanish California would be in large measure Afro-Hispanic in its racial heritage, Hispanic in its culture and Catholic in its faith.” Are we Catholic enough to see ourselves as co-heirs with Afro-Hispanic Catholics?

John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States, was pastor of Maryland where about a fifth of the Catholic people were enslaved persons. He founded Georgetown University. In 1838, when the Jesuit priests who ran the university needed money to keep the institution afloat, they sold 272 slaves to save it. This was not an anomaly. Before abolition nearly every religious order and most dioceses either held people in slavery or otherwise participated in a slave society. As Davis puts it: “American slavery existed in the United States in one of its most brutal modern forms and marked the American Catholic church in a way that no other American institution would do.”

Born into slavery, although sponsored by his mentor Irish Father Peter McGirr, freeman Augustus Tolton was refused admission to every Catholic seminary to  which he applied. He was able to study at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, where he was ultimately ordained. He was prepared to go to missions in Africa but instead was sent to the mission-field back in the United States, where he led a heroic ministry as the first openly African American priest. Are we Catholic enough to revere Fr. Tolton as a hero of the American Catholic Church?

The story of the United States is filled with “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” (Gaudium et spes) of Black Catholics. Dr. Williams developed the hashtag #BlackHistoryIsCatholicHistory (and vice versa) to draw these connections for us. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians of the Body of Christ: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Are we prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers? Are we Catholic enough?

[The Knights of Peter Claver Thea Bowman Council 406 serving the Diocese of Orange is hosting a virtual fundraiser “MLK to Ash Wednesday: A Journey in Social Justice and Faith” as part of its annual appeal. To learn more visit rcbo.org/claversoc. Donations are accepted at gofundme.com/f/kpc406.]