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Black, African Catholic national gatherings nurture missionary disciples for church, society

Men and women in traditional African dress are pictured in a file photo singing during the closing Mass of the African National Eucharistic Congress in Bethesda, Md. In July, 2023, Black and African Catholics in the U.S. will gather for three national meetings hosted by the Knights of Peter Claver, the African National Eucharistic Congress and the National Black Catholic Congress. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Leslie E. Kossoff, Catholic Standard)

(OSV News) — Three events in July are bringing Black and African Catholics from across the country together in faith, fellowship and a deeper understanding of missionary discipleship.

From July 13-19, the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary holds its 107th National Convention in New Orleans, marking the first national gathering of all six divisions of the organization. Founded in 1909, the group is an historically Black Catholic lay fraternal order open to membership by Catholic men, women and youth of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Celebrating the opening Mass at the convention — which features workshops, seminars and charitable events — are Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond and Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, as well as Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, and Bishop William A. Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida.

The following week, the National Black Catholic Congress convenes July 20-23 in Fort Washington, Maryland, for the 13th time since its inaugural session in 1889. The congress, held every five years, will develop its next five-year pastoral plan based on the theme “Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive.”

The fourth African National Eucharistic Congress takes place July 21-23 on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington. The gathering is organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church in collaboration with the National Association of African Catholics in the United States and the African Conference of Catholic Clergy and Religious in the United States.

This year’s theme explores “A Response to the Lord’s Prayer: ‘That They May All Be One.'” Cardinal Gregory will deliver the congress’s keynote address and serve as principal celebrant of a July 22 Unity Mass, with Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, and Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle also speaking at the congress. Opening and closing liturgies will be celebrated by Bishop Jerome Feudijo of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Bishop Wolfgang Pisa of Lindi, Tanzania, respectively.

At the heart of all three national gatherings is a desire to draw closer to Jesus Christ and to one another — and to renew both the church and society, organizers of the respective events told OSV News.

“We are truly one in the body of Christ, brothers and sisters regardless of who we are or where we come from,” Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., president of the NBCC and pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland, told OSV News. “We want to make sure Black Catholics are recognized for the gifts they have, and we want to support each and every one of us so that we can live our faith … with the church and with our communities.”

The National Black Catholic Congress’ theme — taken from Habakkuk 2:2-4, in which the Lord encourages the prophet to record the divine vision while waiting patiently for its fulfillment — speaks particularly to the Black Catholic experience, said Bishop Campbell.

As the church has reckoned with racism both in and out of the pews, Black Catholics have not given up the faith, he said, “because it is God who calls us, who is with us, who leads us.”

At the same time, “to persevere does not mean to stand by and be stepped on,” said Bishop Campbell.

Rather, it entails being “responsible in living the faith, and to present those things that need to be changed,” while looking at “what we can do in our own sphere of influence to make those changes, and to be ready to help others.”

One key area of transformation lies in “bridging the gap between youth and seniors,” which the Knights and Ladies Auxiliary of Peter Claver seek to do, the Knights’ executive director Grant Jones told OSV News.

“We brand ourselves as a family organization,” he said. “We want to get everyone together as a family.”

The goal is vital to “keeping our youth engaged in our Catholic faith,” Jones said, noting that many teens slip away from the church upon finishing high school and leaving home.

The order also works to ensure a holistic approach to pro-life issues, he said.

“We talk about the totality of the human being, from conception to natural death,” said Jones. “That includes access to proper health care and child care, and it also deals with the death penalty and the criminal justice system.”

Nurturing missionary discipleship is crucial to building the kingdom of God, Sister Joanna Okereke, a member of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and coordinator of this year’s African National Eucharistic Congress, told OSV News.

“One of the things we want to achieve with this Eucharistic congress is to make sure African Catholics lead us as missionary disciples of Christ here in the U.S.,” she said.

African Catholics are present in parishes, said Sister Joanna, but are often “not visible.”

While many wish to serve, they find themselves hesitant, fearful of being fully accepted into parish life, she said.

“So this congress will be an eye-opener that will train them as leaders in the church,” said Sister Joanna. “We want to empower and inspire them, and we want to encourage them to register for the congress and bring their children.”

Investing in the next generation of African Catholic faithful is a priority for the African National Eucharistic Congress, she said.

“We have what we call an ‘episcopal encounter’ with young adults, looking at how we can bring back our young adults once they’ve grown up and left the church,” said Sister Joanna. “If we focus our energy, and if we are united and work together, we see how African Catholics in this country … can be leaders.”

The fruits of ministry in Black and African Catholic communities take time, but “change is coming,” said Bishop Campbell.

While Black and African Catholics live out their faith and culture in a myriad of ways, “all of those differences … make us the church that Jesus calls us to be,” he said.

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.

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