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Letter to the editor: Women were skirted at the '23 National Black Catholic Congress

A reader who was present at the event shares their thoughts on various ways the NBCC this year prized men at the expense of others.

Clergy assembled in special seating for Mass on Saturday, July 22, at the 2023 National Black Catholic Congress in National Harbor, Maryland. (Nate Tinner-Williams)

Editor's note: On Monday, July 24, we published an article recapping the 2023 National Black Catholic Congress, honing in on successes as well as some areas for improvement. One reader shared their thoughts in response, which are reprinted here with permission.

To the Editor: 

I very much enjoyed your take on the National Black Catholic Congress, and you totally hit the nail on the head with the sisters and women there.

I don’t know if you were in the room at the time, but at one point in a full session, Paula Gwynn Grant lavished praise and thanks on the priests, deacons and even seminarians in attendance and then moved on to another topic—before someone called her out about the sisters, whom she had totally overlooked. She recovered, but the damage was done.

It’s sad that even she is still so steeped in male Church hierarchy that someone had to point this out to her. I’d wager that there were more religious sisters at the Congress (outside of the liturgies) than there were male clerics. For sure, there were far more lay women than lay men.

Priests process in for the closing Mass of the 2023 National Black Catholic Congress on Sunday, July 23. (Nate Tinner-Williams)

Similarly, we recently held a Town Hall on Racism in Philadelphia, co-sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Archbishop’s Commission on Racial Healing. There were at least 150 people there, but you could count on one or two hands the number of men in attendance. We were grateful for the presence of Archbishop Perez, but racial healing in our Church seems to be one more deeply important issue that too many men think is somehow “women’s work.”

Another Congress moment that spoke volumes occurred while we were all jammed up in the sun waiting to board the buses for the Mass at the basilica. The people in charge of boarding our bus held everyone aside to allow priests and deacons to board first. Not only did this slow boarding, because the clergy weren’t even there—the staff kept yelling for them—but it kept elderly sisters and other elderly women standing in the hot sun outside the empty, air-conditioned bus.

Nor did this deference seem to have a practical purpose: these clergy were on the same buses as the rest of us, so they didn’t arrive at the basilica any earlier. They were just invited to sit down first.

We had to get fairly assertive with the staffer stationed at our bus, to make her let the sisters on (and these were nuns in habits, so it was clear whom she was putting off). Why not have a priests’ bus if they had to get there early to vest? Or if not, couldn’t they let others board and hold a few seats for the priests?

Similarly, there was plenty of reserved seating for the male clergy at the convention center liturgies, but none was offered to the religious sisters as far as I could tell. And, as you say, there were no sessions I saw related to women, even though women dominated the Congress (as they do the work of the Church).

How hard would it have been to invite a woman (religious or lay) to offer a reflection at Morning Praise or after Communion at a Mass? Religious sisters of every color and ethnicity are still greatly beloved in a way that male clerics are not. It is foolish and self-defeating for the Church not to recognize their gifts and to give them platforms.

These are the kinds of thoughtless slights that wound and marginalize the majority of today’s Church. And they don’t require doctrinal change to fix. They just require a willingness to keep our eyes fully open, to make sure that everyone is at the table.

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