Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned
Confessions of a (col)lapsed black Catholic.
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.
The author in front of his house in Brooklyn.
As these transformations began to surface, I held tight to my spiritual anchor. When I was interviewed for admission to the (September, 1966) entering class at Yale, I told the interviewer that my greatest fear of going to that college was losing my faith.
Sure enough, I gained admission and my fear came true. By my sophomore year I was no longer attending Mass or going to confessional booth where as a young boy I would kneel almost weekly and unburden myself of my sins of thought or deed, to the closed eyes and attentive ears of a priest.
Those college days were a time when I and some other lapsed black Catholics at Yale (don't worry, brothers, I will not say your names!) were replacing Holy Communion with a certain Sacred Herb.
There was much in my own transition that was broadly reflective of the 1960s Church and the reaction of young Catholics to it. For many of the impulses that drove me from its bosom were fairly common to that era.
One factor, for sure, was the Church's dogmatic position regarding sex, particularly the insistence on priestly "chastity," which I, as a still hormonally growing teenager, increasingly came to feel was simply unnatural.
Then there were doctrines such as the belief in the "Immaculate Conception" of the Virgin Mary, which struck me and others of that (so we liked to believe) enlightened generation as indefensible.
But, without a doubt, being a black American had quite a lot to do with my cooling to the old Church.
For the American Catholic Church – while correctly declaring that its literal name means "universal" – was historically the church of Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants, who (especially in the case of the 19th century Irish in New York, who were in large part violently opposed to the war against slavery) showed little feeling of common cause with American blacks.
What's more, there was a strong background of segregation in the early U.S. Catholic Church. In the mid-1900s, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where I grew up, there were two Catholic parishes located virtually across the street from each other, one (St. Peter Claver) for blacks and the other (Nativity) for whites.
I attended Our Lady of Victory, which in my day had transitioned from mostly Irish to virtually all black and was located about half a mile from St. Peter Claver and Nativity, which in recent years have merged.
And here with the mention of that merger, we arrive at my current (and not unpleasant) connection with the American Catholic Church, a Church that is fundamentally different from the one in which I was reared more than a generation ago.
It is said that the population of black Catholics in America has more than doubled over the past few decades, to more than two million today, with that increase largely the result of immigration from Africa and the Caribbean.
Because of my own Catholic background, I have felt a special bond with those new groups that goes beyond race. I am comfortable in both French and Spanish (which I attribute to my years of Advanced Placement Latin at my Jesuit high school) and have spent considerable time visiting and writing about Catholic churches in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
Furthermore, there is a new auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Brooklyn – where I have returned to live after many years of travel – and he is the Haitian-born Guy Sansaricq, a man for whom I have great respect because of his service to his home country and to his fellow Haitian immigrants over the years.
I do not expect to attend any of the Masses or other events being held in New York to welcome Pope Benedict (whose doctrinaire positions on sexuality and doctrinal matters I continue to believe are hidebound and are obstacles to the growth of the church).
And even when I do attend Mass these days, for a funeral or whatever else, I do not receive Holy Communion.
But here's my last confession for today: In my moments of private crisis, when I confront some painful inner dilemma, I find myself reverting to the prayers of the Holy Rosary that flowed so naturally in my youth, the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be.
This tendency has other outer manifestations that, in a quiet way, speak loudly of the mystical pull of the Roman Catholic Church for those who were baptized in it.
In the dining room of my home there hangs, on the wall for all to see, a set of large, wooden rosary beads that I picked up several years ago on a trip to Cuba, where I attended a Christmas Midnight Mass.
I wrote about that trip; and it goes without saying, perhaps, that the surface detachment of the journalist rested on an unspoken but very powerful and soul-penetrating foundation.
Ron Howell is a freelance journalist. He blogs at www.brooklynron.com.