In a dramatic homily that began with a scream and ended in tears, the black homilist expressed words of anger and frustration over racial injustice and social unrest in the United States over the past year.
After the homily, Father Gregory Chisholm, S.J., returned to his seat amid fellow concelebrants. A few moments later he wiped his face with a handkerchief delivered by an altar server who had walked across the sanctuary after receiving the handkerchief from Cardinal Dolan.
The cardinal was the principal celebrant of the annual Black History Month Mass offered Feb. 7 at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Father Chisholm is pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, Resurrection and All Saints parish in Harlem, and dean of Central Harlem.
“I feel a lot better now, thank you,” said Father Chisholm after the loud scream that opened his homily. He spoke of feeling overwhelmed with the nation’s deadly unrest amid the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in “pain and anger and disappointment that I have felt for most of this last year.” And he talked of how African-American writers and artists have long depicted “black pain” in their work.
He spoke about recording star Marvin Gaye singing decades ago about racial and social injustices and wanting to holler. And he spoke of the inspirational poem, “The Hill We Climb,” recited last month by Amanda Gorman during the presidential inauguration. “Her poetry reflects her black Catholic roots at St. Brigid Church in south central Los Angeles,” said Father Chisholm of the young poet.
Father Chisholm noted the insurrection at the Capitol Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., the angry mob that besieged “the world citadel of democracy to force our representatives to reject the will of the majority of the people...”
He also noted that the vaccine protection against Covid-19 “is facing the historical skepticism of black people...I mourn the fear of my people to receive curative relief of a vaccine.”
Father Chisholm, in citing Scripture, also preached about the anger of Abraham and the suffering and isolation of Job. He noted the healing power of Christ, saying He came “to preach the need for repentance of sin and the Good News of forgiveness...They brought to Jesus all who were ill, all who were possessed by demons; they had come to the Lord in humility and in need...The people of Capernaum had sin-sick souls. They came to Jesus because He was Light and they were in darkness.”
He concluded, “Racism is America’s oldest sin. And in a year like this one it makes me want to scream...Racism has flowed almost unimpeded through our politics, our economy and our national churches...There is a balm in Gilead, a balm to heal our sin-sick soul.”
Quoting Auxiliary Bishop Fernand J. Cheri, O.F.M., of New Orleans who is African-American, Father Chisholm said, “Until black men and women are free in our government, in our own economy, in our own Church, no one, no American in our country will ever be free.” Then the pastor said, in tears, “I think the bishop is right. I think the bishop is right.”
At the end of Mass, Cardinal Dolan said, “Praise be Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for the inspiration, the examination of conscience, the togetherness of this magnificent Mass. Thanks to all of you.”
Wendyam Yameogo, 45, a parishioner of St. Joseph of the Holy Family in Harlem, was among the faithful at the Mass. In a CNY interview beforehand, he said the annual Black History Month Mass was important “because we are all God’s creation. He can give us the strength to live together in love, to live together in the power of Jesus Christ.” Yameogo, an Uber driver, was born and raised in Burkina Faso in West Africa.
The annual Mass, coordinated by the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry, is traditionally offered on the first Sunday in February. It also celebrates the National Day of Prayer for the African American and African Family.
On Feb. 6, the Office of Black Ministry sponsored a “Goods for Good” drive to collect non-perishable food items, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for Catholic Charities agencies. The event occurred at the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Community Center in Harlem. Volunteers also collected homemade greeting cards for the elderly and homebound.
On the evening of Feb. 5, organizers held a virtual panel discussion on the documentary “Facing an Uncomfortable Truth” in collaboration with the Sheen Center. Brother Tyrone A. Davis, C.F.C., executive director of the Office of Black Ministry, said the food drive and the panel discussion “went extremely well.”
“It has been a highly successful weekend,” he said.