Pillar of social teaching: How we treat the most vulnerable
Rev. Bryan Massingale of Marquette University is welcomed to St. Columba Parish in Oakland last month by pastor Rev. Aidan McAleenan during the parish's annual celebration of Black History Month.
MICHELE JURICH/THE CATHOLIC VOICE
In March 1965 after a group of civil rights protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, were violently attacked by state troopers, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called on religious leaders throughout the country to take up the cause, and lead a new march. Among those answering the call were a group of women religious who came to be known as the "Selma Sisters."
One Sister in particular stood out — a black nun named Sister Mary Antona Ebo. Her appearance in a black habit from head to toe drew the attention of a number of reporters covering the march. "Why are you here?" they asked. "This is no place for a nun. Nuns should be in their convents praying or in schools teaching and not in a protest." Sister Ebo answered, "I am here because I am black, because I am a nun, because I am Catholic and because I want to bear witness."
Now in her 90s, Sister Ebo continues to inspire Catholics to bear witness, said Rev. Bryan Massingale, STD, a theologian and professor from Marquette University, who recalled meeting the civil rights icon during his appearance at St. Columba Church in Oakland last month, as a guest speaker during the parish's annual observation of Black History Month.
Father Massingale, who has participated in the African American Celebrations at St. Columba previously, shares these stories as a way to help educate many black Catholics about "their story."
Many Catholics of African descent just don't know about the many ways that black Catholics have contributed to the life of the church and their country, the priest said. "We have a long and proud history in the Catholic Church of people who have stood up for justice," he said. "And they stood up because of their faith, not despite their faith."
In addition to Sister Ebo, he mentioned Sister Thea Bowman, the late Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, an educator known for her unique brand of ministry of service that included singing, storytelling and prayer. Appointed by her bishop in Jackson, Mississippi, to serve as a consultant of innercultural awareness, Sister Bowman traveled about the country holding workshops, making presentations and visiting schools, all in her efforts to encourage people of different races and cultures to come together and to learn the traditions and cultures of one another.
In 1989, Sister Bowman was invited to a meeting of the U.S. Bishops where she was welcome to speak about Black Catholicism. Although weakened by the cancer that took her life in 1990, she spoke to the assembly from her wheelchair. Sister Bowman told the bishops that she brought with her the "whole culture and traditions" of black Catholics as "a gift to the church." "That doesn't frighten you, does it?" Father Massingale said recalling the passion of the charismatic evangelist.
Yet, despite the mission of Sister Ebo and others in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the ministry of understanding and love of Sister Bowman in the 1980s and even the election of the nation's first black president, "our shameful past is not past," Father Massingale said. He spoke of the new focus on race, noting that generation of mostly young black men killed by what many have called excessive brutality by law enforcement officers in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, Oakland and in other cities around the country.
What role can African American Catholics take in this current national conversation about race?
"One thing we need to do is lift up Black Lives Matter not simply as a political slogan but Black Lives Matter as a religious slogan. It is religious because it's saying that all lives matter, especially those who are most vulnerable and the ones who are most abused," the priest said.
"We can remind people that the political correctness always has a faith dimension," he said. "This is not a foreign notion to American Catholics. Remember the preferential option for the poor? This is a pillar of Catholic teaching." That option, part of Catholic Social Teaching, is that the moral test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.
"We are still here despite slavery, we are still here despite forced segregation, we are still here despite the scourge of HIV/AIDS, we are still here despite white supremacy," Father Massingale told the congregation. "We are still here because of God's grace."
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