The National Black Catholic Congress, with some 3,000 delegates representing the nation’s 3 million-plus African-Americans, is meeting in Indianapolis from Thursday, July 19th ending Saturday, July 21, 2012. Rocco Palmo has the background story here. He wonders about how likely this story will be covered by the Full-Salaried Media given all the attention that surrounded last week’s triennial General Convention of the Episcopal church in Indianapolis, which has a million less members.
His article inspired me to do a little searching myself. Lo and behold, this Congress will have a presentation based upon a major study, the first of its kind, of African-American Catholics done by Notre Dame social scientists Darren W. Davis and Donald B. Pope-Davis. The press release of November 17, 2011 struggled to get off the ND website but eventually landed on NCR in a story of February 2, 2012, entitled “Black Catholics are more engaged.” NCR asked for and received access to the full study in late December 2011, so they have more information.
Summary of the Study
We have long known but often ignored the fact that black Protestants (66%) are more engaged than white Protestants (46%) in their congregations. This study showed that black Catholics (59%) are more engaged than white Catholics (35%) in their parishes.
While the study found only 30.4% of white Catholics attended church at least once a week, 48.2% of African-American Catholics said they did so, rising to 57.6% in a predominantly black parish. Ethnicity of the parish helped church attendance with only 33.9% reporting weekly attendance in predominantly white parishes.
Social networking was most important for black Protestants (36.5%), then white Protestants (28.4%) and black Catholics (26.9%), while only to 8% of white Catholics said that it was important to have friends that attend the same congregation.
Both the attendance and social networking findings are very important since the book American Grace found these two variables together produce greater health, life satisfaction, and giving of time and money to both religious and civic organizations
The generation gap experienced among white Catholics has not affected younger black Catholics (not much detail on this).
Black Catholics are much more likely to seek the advice of a priest than white Catholics.
Less than a fourth of U.S. black Catholics thought their church is racist against African-American Catholics, but only 37 percent to 45 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with the way the church promoted or supported various black issues.
Interpretation of the Study
Some might dismiss these findings as not interesting since the combination of ethnicity and religion, e.g. Polish Catholics, Irish Catholics, generally produces greater religiosity, especially when the ethnicity is under duress from outside forces. The situation of African American Catholics, however, is much more complex and its understanding deserves greater attention.
Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington who has served African American parishes for all but four years of his priesthood has some interesting interpretations of the study on his blog.
On the positive contributions of Black Culture to liturgy, Msgr. Pope says:
Blacks, unlike most Whites, share a kind of “sacred culture.” What I mean by this is that spirituals and Gospel Music permeate Black culture…And this shared “sacred culture” finds a vibrant expression in the Mass in the form of Gospel music, joyful exuberance, call and response, lively interaction with the preaching though affirmations like “Amen!….Yes!….Go on preacher!…..Yes Lord!…..Hallelujah…….applause, a stomp, raised hands and so forth.
I think it is this shared sacred culture which has made the “New Mass” work so well in the African American setting. The traditional Latin Mass had a kind of “built in” culture and ethos, a certain music that was prescribed and so forth. But the new Mass stripped a lot of that away, and allowed the local culture to supply more.
That of course works well only when there is a sacred culture to draw on. White America had become largely secularized by 1970 and so the “culture” we ended up drawing on was questionable at best, a kind of Peter Paul and Mary folk sound, and a hat tip to the “protest songs” of the 1960s college crowd.
But in the Black community a sacred music and culture was ready at hand for Catholics to draw on, a music and ethos that powerfully and creatively lifts up God and praises his glory, sings of our “troubles,” but also describes how God brings us “through.” And in Gospel music, the focus is always on God rather than the “gathered community” so often emphasized in Catholic contemporary music.
There were also many other elements I have already mentioned (e.g. spontaneous acclamations) that made the “participatory” element in the New Mass an easy transition for African American Catholics.
On the challenge of Black Culture to Catholic preaching, Msgr. Pope says:
Yes, frankly, we in the Church have not done so well in training priests and deacons to minister well in the things valued most highly by African Americans. Preaching is highly valued among Blacks, and they generally prefer a longer sermon than most Whites. However, more than time, the sermon moment that is preferred is one in which the preacher carefully breaks open the Word of God in a way that is enthusiastic, creative, informative and easily applied for the up coming week. Most African Americans don’t what to hear only the “what,” but also the “so what” and the “now what” of God’s Word.
The “say it in seven” mentality, common in Catholic training, that prizes brevity over anything else is also not a helpful approach. It is quite difficult to preach a transformative homily, (wherein the Word is read, analyzed, organized, illustrated and applied), in seven minutes. Hence African Americans are often less than satisfied with the Sunday sermons they hear from most Catholic priests and deacons, especially compared to what they hear in the Protestant settings they often have contact with.
Pray Tell readers may have some observations and interpretations of their own.
From the Congress program: A four page Executive Summary of the National Black Catholic Survey conducted by the University of Notre Dame is available here. A single page of highlights with some interesting charts is available here. A complete copy of the National Black Catholic Survey is available for purchase. Each booklet is $15 and it will provide an in-depth look into the survey that has helped shape our pastoral plan for 2012-2017. Please contact Megan Purpora at 410-740-5077 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to place your order.
Jack Rakosky, who drafted this post, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.