The Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, Fla., organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the first week of July, deservedly received much attention. Another large group of Catholics met a couple of days later in that same Florida city—in the same hotel, in fact.
That meeting was the 12th National Black Catholic Congress, which is convened every five years.
“Orlando was a lot more Catholic than it would normally be during this particular time,” said Brother Tyrone Davis, C.F.C., director of the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry, who headed the 35-member delegation from the Archdiocese of New York. (He also was one of the archdiocesan delegates to the Convocation of Catholic Leaders.)
The National Black Catholic Congress flowed from the keynote address delivered by Cardinal Peter Turkson, of Ghana, the first prefect of the Promoting Integral Human Development dicastery at the Vatican. His talk was “The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Me: Act Justly, Love Goodness and Walk Humbly With Your God.”
Cardinal Turkson and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, were present for the full July 6-9 conference, which Brother Davis called “very significant.”
Also significant were the more than 2,000 black Catholics from around the country who joined them. The gathering’s size and diversity made for a “different experience of Church” than normally experienced in parish churches, Brother Davis said.
The archdiocesan delegation included the pastor and three permanent deacons from St. Charles Borromeo parish in Harlem, as well as five Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, also from Harlem, and parishioners from several Bronx parishes, including St. Frances of Rome, SS. Philip and James and St. Augustine-Our Lady of Victory. There were also some young adults, including two Pierre Toussaint Scholars.
“Our delegation was as large and strong as it was because Brother Tyrone was there,” said Father Gregory Chisholm, S.J., the pastor of St. Charles Borromeo and dean of the Central Harlem Vicariate. Brother Davis gathered the New York group for a day of reflection at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx June 2.
Father Chisholm said his spiritual batteries were charged by the Congress liturgies, especially the opening Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe. “When black Catholics gather, there is always such a Eucharistic focus,” he said. “It’s such a natural way to begin the gathering. Black Catholic Masses are so celebratory of God and the people.”
As a member of the team charged with drawing up the Pastoral Plan of the Congress, Father Chisholm said that the plan would be “driven” by a justice mandate as exemplified by the keynote talks of Cardinal Turkson, whom he complimented for applying Scripture directly to the situations in people’s lives, and attorney Bryan Stevenson, who spoke on “Love Mercy and Do Justice: Confronting Mass Incarceration, Racial Bias and Poverty.”
“Many black people present a way of talking about race, where we are defending ourselves,” Father Chisholm said. “We’re all right.”
Desmond Pierre, a parishioner of St. Frances of Rome, attended the congress along with his 14-year-old nephew, Demitrius Dunston. It was Pierre’s third congress, and his nephew’s first.
“It was special to me, to reach out to him and get him to come. He was involved and he enjoyed it,” said Pierre, who said he had to overcome physical problems associated with a hip replacement operation that nearly derailed his trip.
He was able to rent a motorized scooter to move around the congress, with assistance from his nephew. “It was a struggle,” Pierre said. “I thought I wasn’t going to make it, but I prayed on it. I’m happy I got there.”
Another person who attended the congress for the first time was Junelle Addei, 18, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception on East 150th Street in the Bronx. She is a Pierre Toussaint Scholar who will be a sophomore at Hunter College.
Miss Addei said she found Ajani Gibson’s session on “Spiritual Lemonade: A Recipe of the Spiritual Life of Millennials” quite refreshing.
It’s important that “fresh” spiritual lemonade is shared with other groups, including prisoners, teen moms or college students away from home who may not have tasted any in some time, she said. Miss Addei, who is a youth leader at her parish, said she could easily apply the talk to her parish service. She said she planned to suggest that Gibson lead the next annual retreat of the Toussaint Scholars.
Even though the session was geared toward millennials, Miss Addei said she appreciated the varied audience that was present. “It was a mix of all of us,” she said. “We were hearing everyone’s thoughts on what he said.”