Black History Mass Celebrates Serving God in ‘Church and Community’

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Father Kareem Smith urged the people in the pews, “Praise the Lord, Church, everybody!” And he was greeted with a loud round of applause as he began his homily Feb. 6 during the annual Black History Month Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Cardinal Dolan served as principal celebrant. 

The liturgy also commemorated the annual National Day of Prayer for the African-American and African Family. The Mass theme was “Glad to Be in His Service: Acknowledging and Celebrating Service within the Church and Community.” 

“God is good all the time,” said Father Smith, parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Shrub Oak. “And all the time…” The congregation then shouted in unison, “God is good.” The priest is also chaplain of the archdiocesan Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Program. 

Father Smith noted how good it was to gather “on this first Sunday of Black History Month'' in a Mass celebrated by the archbishop of New York, and as the cardinal “celebrates his birthday with us this sacred Sunday afternoon.” And the faithful responded with enthusiastic applause.

Father Smith, citing the Mass readings, spoke of the Scriptures presenting us with “three important biblical thinkers: the prophet Isaiah, the apostle Paul, and the head, the rock, Peter.” He talked of “the feeling and expression of unworthiness by all these personalities,” and said that in doing so, they were already starting out on a “good foot” in their spiritual journeys. 

He also spoke about the virtue of humility, which all three men possessed. “They acknowledged their unworthiness before God,” he said. “Their feelings and humility were indirect means of drawing God’s attention; they needed His grace, they needed His blessing to succeed.” 

The homilist noted that the Lord “makes us worthy of His work…Jesus can make a way out of no way.” In alluding to the long societal struggles of African-Americans, Father Smith noted that progress has been made over the decades, but that many unjust setbacks continue, much more needs to be done about injustices that stem from racism.

Like Isaiah, Paul and Peter, he told the faithful, “All we need to do, friends, is acknowledge the Lord’s blessings and to walk in our purpose. We must be available for God to use us…We do it with those neighbors and friends who may not look like us, but who decided to be in His service.”

Father Smith also cited the ministry of Sister Thea Bowman, a black Catholic religious sister, teacher and scholar who was prominent in the ministry of the Church toward African-Americans. She died in 1990 at age 52; she was declared a Servant of God in 2018.

The Mass readings and the Prayer of the Faithful included words spoken in several African languages. 

Cardinal Dolan, during welcoming remarks, expressed his joy in celebrating “this beautiful, traditional Mass on this first Sunday of February.” He noted that two days later, Feb. 8, would be the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita of Sudan. 

Music was provided by the BHM Young Adult Combined Choir, which accompanied a 14-year-old girl, Nevaeh Blake, while she ministered in dance. The songs included the historic Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Nearly 1,000 people attended.

Speaking with CNY after Mass, Ursula Williams, a parishioner of St. Martin of Tours parish in the Bronx, called the liturgy “wonderful, very beautiful, lovely.” It was her first time attending, and she plans to return next year, she said.

Welcoming remarks were made by Dr. Kim Harris of the BHM Mass Liturgy Committee. Dr.  Harris expressed gratitude to Cardinal Dolan for celebrating the Mass, to Father Smith for serving as homilist, and to the concelebrants for their assistance. She noted that the gathering was a celebration of service to the Lord, and a celebration “of faith, culture and family.”

Closing remarks were delivered by attorney Colin Bereth of the Catholic Anti-Racism Project (CARP), who is a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo-Resurrection parish in Harlem. Bereth urged the congregation to keep the faith and maintain hope in the battle against “this disease, the sin of racism.”

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