By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – When the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics needed a keynote speaker for a Sept. 12 symposium marking the silver jubilee of “What We Have Seen and Heard,” the 1984 pastoral letter issued by the black Catholic bishops of the United States, it went to the source.

Bishop J. Terry Steib of the Diocese of Memphis was one of 10 bishops who issued the pastoral. Actually, he barely made the cut.

Louisiana-born and a priest of the Society of the spanine Word, the former provincial for his congregation was ordained a bishop just seven months before the pastoral was issued. At the time he was an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He is one of three of the document’s authors still in active ministry.

The pastoral was issued Sept. 9, 1984, the feast of St. Peter Claver, Bishop Steib told his audience of several hundred African-American Catholics, priests and religious who work in the black apostolate assembled at St. Raymond of Penafort Church in Northwest Philadelphia for the symposium.

“We issued the pastoral letter because we had decided that the time had indeed come to share with the Church, in our own language, the experience, the history, the insights, the understanding of the past,” he said. “We decided it was time to shape the hopes for the future.”

The main thrust of the pastoral was evangelization, Bishop Steib emphasized. “The Catholic Church is universal, there is room in the sanctuary for everybody, and it is our responsibility to work within our community and lead others to our faith which we believe in,” he said. “That’s what evangelization is all about.”

The relative dearth of black Catholic leadership in the Church at the time the pastoral was issued was due to “subtle racism,” he charged.

Since that time tremendous strides have been made, and he cited the election of Barack Obama as president as an example.

“Most of us probably believed that would never happen in our lifetimes,” he said. “To say the world has not changed is to dishonor all of those who fought the battles for us.”

Some racism still exists, he said, and cited the recent furor in Catholic circles over the honorary degree awarded by Notre Dame University to Obama, who supports abortion on demand.

Other presidents have had disagreements with the positions of the Catholic Church, for example, in war policies and capital punishment, but have received honorary degrees without similar objection, he noted.

It is the subtle racism that still exists which contributes to the lack of priestly vocations among young black men because “it leads to a mistrust of the Church among young black men and women,” he said. “Let’s acknowledge that.”

On the other hand, the African-American community “has contributed to some of the difficulties they are facing,” Bishop Steib said, quoting Obama on the collapse of the two-parent family in the black community and the failure of many black men to live up to responsibilities to their children.

If evangelizing is the highest priority, Catholic education is a tool for evangelization, and Bishop Steib decried the closing of so many schools in inner-city neighborhoods.

In his own diocese he has reopened several previously closed schools, largely through assistance from anonymous donors and foundations. Many if not most of the children who attend these “Jubilee Schools” are not Catholic, but that’s not the point, he said.

“Our mission, because of our baptism, is to teach our children the Good News about Jesus Christ. What better way to go about it than through the Jubilee Schools?” he said. “We don’t maintain the Jubilee Schools because the children are Catholic, we maintain the Jubilee Schools because we are Catholic.”

As an example of the Catholic influence that permeates the schools, Bishop Steib told the somewhat humorous story of one young pupil who was the daughter of a minister.

In her own church her father asked her to lead the congregation to pray. She did so just as she was taught – “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Hail Mary, full of grace…”

Also at the symposium were brief opening remarks by Auxiliary Bishop Robert Maginnis and closing remarks by Father Stephen Thorne, executive director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics. All were received with enthusiasm by those in attendance.

“It was really great. A lot of issues he (Bishop Steib) brought out we already knew,” said St. Raymond parishioner John King. “Things have changed and changed for the better.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.