Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned

Confessions of a (col)lapsed black Catholic.


Those who know my politics, such as they are for a journalist who’s spent a working life concealing such things, might be surprised at my inner closeness to the old beliefs and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church.

Let’s establish, first of all, that I am no longer a practicing Catholic. I was at a Mass several years ago at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral – for a writing assignment – when an Irish Catholic acquaintance of mine noted my ignorance of the Mass sequence as it had developed in recent years, and pronounced: “You’re not lapsed. You’re collapsed.”

Ah, but let this truth be known also, that in October of 1965, I was about as devout an adherent of that self-described one, true Church as could be found in this land of free worship.

On the fourth day of that month and year, I attended (as an invitee, along with my grandfather, the late Bertram L. Baker, who was then a powerful member of the New York State Assembly) a service where the guest of honor was Pope Paul VI, the first leader of the Roman Church to visit the United States.

Though my grandfather and I were among the very few blacks there, I nonetheless felt in my element. I was 16 years old and for years had harbored desires to enter the priesthood. For all of my four years at (the now closed) Brooklyn Preparatory High School, run by Jesuit priests, I had been the only black in my class and had succeeded academically and on the track field. And in those days I accepted as a matter of faith that the Mass, whether celebrated by a pope or parish priest, was the highest form of worship.

Fast forward to today, as the nation consumes endless commentaries on the Catholic Church – ruminations inspired by the current visit of Pope Benedict XVI – I find myself not only absent from the visiting pontiff’s guest list, but almost totally devoid of any emotional connection to the visit by the guest of honor.

But that’s only to be expected, perhaps.

I am from the Baby Boomer generation of black Catholics who came of age in the 1960s when the Church was going through radical changes, in its liturgy and in some of its long-held teachings about itself. It was also a time when American society at large also was reevaluating itself, against the illuminating background of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.