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'The beauty of the faith cannot be neglected': Popular Black spiritual deemed deficient by the USCCB

At least one historic Black hymn is on the chopping block alongside Guitar Mass faves, as the USCCB chooses Advent 2020 to release an index of forbidden songs.

In a September document reported on yesterday by the EWTN conglomerate, the USCCB deemed that at least one timeless Black hymn just isn't Catholic enough.

"Let Us Break Bread Together" has made the list of songs that are apparently a bit too loose with the Eucharist.

The list is a part of “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church”, which was created in September by the bishops' doctrine committee—on which sits the auxiliary bishop of the most Black Catholic diocese in the country and a bishop decried over the summer by one of his own priests as a racist.

(His diocese is 12th.)

The document containing the disavowed song(s) was released this month to the bishops at large, respectively tasked with distribution to diocesan officials, pastors, and musicians.

It is not immediately clear how it got to EWTN.

The document honed in on a half-dozen categories of special attention, most of which concern modern controversies—including a low view of the Eucharist, an overemphasis on the humanness of the Church, and antisemitism.

At issue with the popular Black Communion hymn is the nature of the elements after consecration.

Let us break bread together on our knees.
let us break bread together on our knees.
When I fall on my knees,
with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.

How the lyrics could be misconstrued by faithful Catholics as implying a heretical view of the Eucharist is (perhaps) obvious enough, but it's not clear whether this interpretation has been a widespread occurrence.

Likewise, while a recent study has made waves in American Catholicism for its claim that most of the faithful don't believe in the Real Presence, it appeared to make no ethnic delineations.

Thus, with Black Catholics making up only 4% of the Church, it's not clear whether the the study shows that Black Catholics are being led astray concerning the Eucharist—especially by their own music.

“Catholics nurtured on a steady diet of certain hymns will learn from them that at Mass we come together to share bread and wine, which remain bread and wine, a common meal, even if under special circumstances … A steady diet of these hymns would erode Catholic sensibility regarding the fullness of Eucharistic teaching, on the Mass as sacrifice, and eventually on the Church, as formed by that sacrifice.”

While the bishops' recommendations hint at modernity being a factor in the decline of theological accuracy in Catholic hymnody, the Negro Spiritual in question is well over 150 years old.

It is also the only Black hymn mentioned in the article from EWTN—and the only hymn composed prior to the Second Vatican Council.

It was included in the watershed Black Catholic hymnal "Lead Me, Guide Me" in 1987, but was removed in its second edition in 2012—an iteration apparently spearheaded by now-Cardinal Wilton Gregory, among other prominent Black liturgists.

It is not clear what other Black hymns—if any—are included in the bishops' 21st century 'Index', but one hymn suggested by the bishops to replace "Let Us Break Bread Together" is itself a classic Black (Catholic) hymn from 1983, "Taste and See".

Another is in Latin.

"Let Us Break Bread Together", like most distinctly Black liturgical songs used in Black Catholic parishes, dates back at least to the era of the Underground Railroad—and was presumably used exclusively by Black Protestants.

Indeed, the song was likely not a Communion song at all in its initial uses.

A song of survival and secrecy moreso than sacramental sustenance, the hymn is at its base about community—which was easily adapted to the Lord's Supper and, eventually, Catholicism.

This being the origin of a great many African-American worship classics, one must hope that the uncomplicated nature and theology of Black hymnody—the direct result of Black education and literacy being illegal for a significant portion of American history—does not spell doom for its place in the Catholic Church.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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