“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam” (1967)
Three months ago, a small delegation from the Social Justice Committee of St. Ann Catholic Church in Baltimore attained an audience with members of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, to advocate for six of the African Americans on the path to sainthood.
We have heard nothing since our meeting even though we’ve inquired. We sent gifts to Pope Francis upon our return home, which we were not able to hand deliver while in Rome. We have received no acknowledgment of the package.
Perhaps it is because we requested a Zoom session with His Holiness in the letter enclosed with our gifts. Or perhaps it is run-of-the-mill activity. Clearly silence, secrecy, and slowness are the classic Catholic responses to most issues and concerns.
At this point, the silence among bishops in America and Church officials in Rome about our African-American Catholic saints is deafening.
Our committee is located in the oldest diocese in the United States and started an initiative about three years ago to expedite the canonizations of the Saintly Six. We realized there has never been a Black saint or blessed from our country and none of the six candidates has been elevated to a step in the process beyond “Venerable.” Two of the six, in fact, haven’t even attained that.
We fashioned a letter to Pope Francis calling on him to give us our saints now. We circulated the letter worldwide and 3,500 persons (that we know of) signed and returned a copy to us. Some forwarded their letters directly to the Vatican. We have never received an answer or acknowledgment.
The non-responsiveness, accidentally or intentionally, has the proverbial effect of adding insult to injury. Black Catholics from these lands have been denied sainthood—the highest designation for Christian ancestors—and have been routinely referred back to the canonization process, which has never worked for African Americans.
As we look ahead to All Saints’ Day this year, our committee is considering calling for public acclamation of the Saintly Six: Mother Mary Lange, Father Augustus Tolton, Mother Henriette DeLille, Mr. Pierre Toussaint, Ms. Julia Greeley, and Sister Thea Bowman. It is the ancient way of canonization, decided by the people. In this case, our people and our allies.
Many of us on Earth know the six are in heaven, but Black Catholics in the New World have always had to fight for simple fairness (equity) in treatment from our Church. The absence of saints is a sad reminder and remnant of the severe racial segregation practiced within Catholic churches and institutions. One would have thought that by now, the evidence of the sinful, shameful practices of Catholic White Supremacy would have spurred the hierarchy to expedite the six sainthood causes as has been done for others.
But no. They make us push and fight for their acknowledgment and seemingly for their respect, which we already uphold for ourselves. After all, we know in our hearts that White Supremacy comes from a place of weakness, insecurity, and lying to oneself and others.
There was too much Catholic silence about the evils of enslavement from those who chose not to own fellow human beings. There was too much Catholic silence from those who knew racial segregation was wrong for the far-too-many years it was practiced, even in the Church. Who among the White and Catholic spoke up for the Gospel?
There was also a deafening silence during the 4,743 lynchings in the United States between 1882 and 1968. There was silence from most pulpits while White racists held picnics at the sites where Black folks’ bodies were hung and mutilated for souvenirs mailed to those who wanted to “enjoy the show.”
Silence is not the friend of Black Catholics. It isn’t now and it hasn’t been historically. True justice and fairness are the opposites of silence—and inaction. So we say: give us our saints now and atone for your sins. Tell the world that the Catholic Church totally respects Black Catholics.
Don’t whisper it. Show it with the canonizations of the Saintly Six and hear us shout it from every church steeple to every pew, every basilica and cathedral, every Catholic school and hospital and housing development. May we soon—yes, very soon—hear the good news of the Catholic Church doing the right thing on this matter from the heights of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Then and only then can we shout for joy that all apartheid in the U.S. Catholic Church is officially gone and we all can “go tell it on the mountain!”
Ralph E. Moore Jr. is a lifelong Black Catholic, educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Jesuits. He has served on various committees on race, racism, and poverty for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He is a married man with two children and four grandchildren. He is a member of the St. Ann Social Justice Committee. He can be reached at email@example.com.