BUFFALO — More than 2,000 black Catholics from nearly 100 American dioceses — including the Diocese of Rochester — traveled to Buffalo July 12 for the start of the 10th National Black Catholic Conference, which took place July 12-15 at the Buffalo Convention Center.
Participants in the congress, whose theme was “Christ is With Us: Celebrating the Gifts of the Sacraments,” planned to look at the ways the sacraments are related to the congress’s eight core principles, which are Africa, Catholic education, HIV and AIDS, parish life, social justice, racism, spirituality, and youth and young adults.
“Congress X wishes to reflect on these principles through the prism of the seven sacraments. The principles arise from our baptism and anointing, our birthright in the Roman Catholic Church,” remarked Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, after he officially called the congress to order.
The first National Black Catholic Congress was held in 1889, and subsequent congress events were held every two years after that until 1894, when the events ended abruptly. After a nearly century-long hiatus, the congresses resumed in 1987, and since then have been held every five years.
“For blacks in this country, the congress is an excellent way to gather from the north, south, east and west to renew cultural identity,” said Father Ronald Sajdak, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish, the largest black congregation in the Diocese of Buffalo.
“For African-American Catholics in Buffalo, the African-American Catholic community is in the minority in a variety of ways, being African-American and Catholic and being African-American in the City of Buffalo,” he added. “Because the Congress chose to come here, this is a tremendous affirmation to the Catholics in our church.”
The jubilant atmosphere inside the convention center resembled that of a family reunion as participants made their way into the opening ceremony. Bishops, priests and lay people — many of them in traditional African attire — mingled, reuniting with old friends and making new ones as African drummers marshalled them into the opening ceremony, where a choir opened the event with a enthusiastic hymn of praise.
Although they’d only been at the convention center a few hours, first-time congress participants Bess Alston and her husband, Sam, already felt right at home when the ceremony began. The couple from the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., had been longing to attend the congress for years but didn’t have time to make the trip until Sam retired this year, Bess Alston said.
“I couldn’t do it without him,” said Bess, who converted to Catholicism 50 years ago, shortly after meeting her cradle-Catholic future husband. Her Catholic faith has been a blessing, she added.
Bishop Edward Kmiec of the Diocese of Buffalo said Catholics in his diocese felt blessed to be chosen as the site of the congress.
“I hope you really realize your presence is a gift to our city because of your wonderful witness to your Catholic faith,” Bishop Kmiec told participants during the opening ceremony.
African-American Catholics bring a unique vitality and faith to the Catholic Church, but the racial tension that has permeated the nation for years also has permeated the Catholic Church, making African-Americans sometimes feel unwelcome, Father Sajdak said.
“For too long we have denied our own selves to be accepted into a world and a church that does not readily accept us. It is our presence through Jesus Christ that will make it change,” said Brenda Easley Webb, director of Buffalo’s diocesan Office of Black Ministries.
Participants Sandra Moore, from the Diocese of Oklahoma City, Okla., and Marian Johnson, of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., said they are strengthened and encouraged by sharing a weekend of faith and fellowship with so many other black Catholics. Both women have attended each congress since 1987.
“I was happy the first time I came. We had an opportunity to show our side of being Catholic,” Moore said.
“It was thrilling to say the least. I’d never seen that many black Catholics or black priests in my life,” added Johnson, who this year brought her 13-year-old granddaughter, Ceciley Scarbrough from the Diocese of Orlando, Fla.
Johnson said she hoped to learn what other parishes were doing in relation to the eight principles — especially Catholic education — so she could bring fresh ideas home to her parish.
Gracie Middleton, who had traveled to Buffalo from the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, with 52 other adults and teens, said she wanted to learn more about the sacraments during her first trip to the congress and share that knowledge with others who hadn’t made the trip.
“Sacraments are not just pageants or performances or concerts. Something takes place in each sacrament that only God can do, resulting in our sharing life with God, friendship and redemption … while we receive strength for the journey,” Bishop Perry said during the opening ceremony.
As Catholics make connections between the sacraments and the realities of their lived experiences, they begin to enter more fully into the mission Jesus gives Catholics through baptism, noted Bishop Martin D. Holly, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Washington, D.C.
“Our mission is to go out into all the world to share the good news,” Bishop Holley said during the opening liturgy’s homily. “We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to Christ … and he is in the sacraments of the church and he comes to us in a powerful way through all the sacraments.”