Matthew Gambino

Matthew Gambino

A friend told me this week she was disappointed that for the coming “24 Hours for the Lord” initiative March 4-5,  few parishes were participating in Montgomery County where she lives. She went on to describe the apathy with church life that she sees in many parishes, evident in lukewarm liturgies and less-than-full churches on Sundays. Other friends have said the same.

Point taken, even though I know that many parishes offer multiple ministries and do the best they can with limited available clergy. And I am sure an individual pastor’s reasons for not opening his church’s doors all night for Eucharistic adoration and confessions are prudent. (So far 26 parishes will participating.)

My friend’s observation made me wonder if the church, at least locally in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, will ever again fire on all cylinders to become a dynamic, growing community that burns with the Christian faith. Of course there are some such vibrant Catholic parishes, and you know if it’s yours.

But if you’re looking for a model of joyous worship and welcoming community, one exists in our midst, and it’s been here for just about as long as the archdiocese has.

The black Catholic community is that Spirit-filled model for what could be, diocese-wide.

Black Catholics bring their whole being — all of their heart, mind and body — to the Mass in joyful praise, exuberant preaching, dignified movement and the stillness of deep meditation. And how can they keep from singing? It is worship offered to God in the style of praise reflecting the gifts of African American culture in this country. Black Catholics present more than a model for energized liturgy fitting for sacred worship. More important, they offer hope for the entire church.

Catholics like my friend are today grappling with deep disappointment over a church culture that does things “the way they’ve always been done” while church attendance is at best 25 percent of membership. They see small numbers in the pews, sparse collections, sold-off churches and schools, and a weakened voice in society. In their dismay they wonder, Is a church in decline and retreat the best we can hope for, and will it always be so?

Black Catholics, in their experience as a people, are a witness to hope. They’ve survived slavery, legal segregation, persistent bias and the effects of institutional racism, both civil and religious. Through it all there have been courageous pastors and faithful black Catholics in the archdiocese who show us all that numbers (parishioners, dollars, buildings) aren’t everything. Jesus Christ is everything, in everything. He is Lord, there is no other.

Theirs is a witness of endurance despite obstacles, of fidelity to their call to holiness in the church. Theirs is a full voice raised with the gaze of their eyes: always upward in hope, never in despair.

If a change in our Catholic culture toward the example of my black Catholic brothers and sisters in this unwieldy family of faith in Philadelphia were about to start, it’s because we’re beginning to see each other, and Pope Francis might be one to thank for that.

Black Catholics have become more active in the archdiocese following the visit of the pope to Philadelphia last year, believes the director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics, Deacon William Bradley. The pope’s presence drew people from all walks together into the city (and on TV) and allowed them to see fellow Catholics they might not always see, and stand next to and pray with.

The papal visit “woke the community up to existing black Catholics,” Deacon Bill told me recently. “People don’t realize there are black Catholics.”

The slate of events his office is coordinating this year aims to “involve the black Catholic community in the greater life of the archdiocese,” he said, including a presence at archdiocesan events such as the Generation Phaith teen rally (Feb. 27) and Man Up Philly men’s conference (March 12).

That presence is also reciprocal. “When we have a revival,” such as the recent revival at Our Lady of Hope Parish, “everyone is welcome,” Deacon Bradley said.

I personally have experienced the welcome, the preaching and the worship that stay with you long after the priest or deacon says “Go forth, the Mass is ended.”

The sense of a spirit that lingers in the heart and that cannot be contained there, but spills out into the world in which we walk, is the only thing that can reform a church in despair. That’s because it is not due to the work of any Catholic individual or diocesan program or even the efforts of a bishop or pope.

Renewal and the making of a new day is the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s the little light we need to let shine, even when we’re in the darkest night of despair.