PrayTell welcomes back Darnell St. Romain and Darrell St. Romain as guest posters on the topic of Black Catholics and liturgy. This is their third post for PTB.
By Darrell St. Romain & Darnell St. Romain
Worship wars in a Catholic context have been ongoing since the Council of Trent (1545–1563). Admittedly, that council was addressing abuses in the liturgy, but its reforms and implementation thereof stifled the voices of the many cultures that call the Catholic church home. Four hundred years later St. John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council and liturgy was first and foremost on the minds of the council fathers. Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] (SC) now provides for the representation of cultures in the Roman liturgy. Paragraph 37 states:
“Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.”
This allows for the various cultures to bring their “self” to the liturgy.
The gifts of the African American culture enhance the celebration of the Mass. Recent events have heightened the cultural and racial disparities in the United States. As a result, many predominantly white communities wish to show solidarity with these communities of color, in particular the African American community. Music seems to be the most obvious way to express this solidarity. This is fantastic, but we can do more than sing another Negro Spiritual! Let us explore other gifts in the African American culture that serve the Church.
Part I of the pastoral letter by the African American Bishops What We Have Seen And Heard (1984) splendidly unpacks the wonderful qualities of African American spirituality. It is contemplative, holistic, joyful, and communitarian. Contemplative in that prayer is spontaneous and is based on the awe and transcendence of God. Holistic by not embracing the divisions between sacred and the secular, emotion and intellect, spirit and body, and individual and community. Joyful in celebration. Joyful in know the God provides hope even amid deep sorrow. Communitarian in that “I” becomes “we.” The community worships and lifts the concerns and sufferings of everyone gathered. The spirituality of African Americans always embodies the human person and humanity.
Time and space are hallmarks in African American worship. The people gather to receive the Word and Sacrament. Movement from Khronos time (human time) to Kyros time (God time) occurs. This is a celebration of when heaven and earth kiss. When God comes down from heaven and is re-presented in the Paschal Mystery, the living of anamnesis and prolepses of the reign of God. Keeping the Sabbath holy is not just another obligation to check off during the week. It is a life giving and receiving celebration for the worshiping community.
Preaching and prayer are vital for connection. Words matter. Telling of the story matters. The delivery of the narrative matters. The preaching moment is for enlivening of the scriptures. The minister masterfully articulates the connection between Old Testament and how Christ fulfills it in the New testament. There is a dialogic quality that interplays with the preacher and the parishioner. The homily needs time and space.
The language of prayer is one deeply entrenched in hope. Hope in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Hope that the God who delivered the Israelites will deliver anyone. Hope that God will fight your battles. Hope that God will come not a minute too early or a minute too late: an on-time God. It is concerned with the wellbeing of neighbor and creation. Paragraph 96 of Plenty Good Room: The Spirit and Truth of African American Catholic Worship (1990) reminds us, “The language of African American liturgy can be proclamatory in ‘witnessing’ and attentive in listening; very personal without being exclusive; immanent while genuinely transcendent; exuberant and profoundly silent. It is a language that promotes the assembly’s full active participation.”
When the church gathers for worship, it is King Jesus that is listening to our heart, our song, our spirit, our preaching, and our praying. The Negro Spiritual “King Jesus Is a-Listening” (listen here) is a personal prayer that reflects the desires of the community that Jesus will listen to a sinner’s prayer and save their soul.
We in the African American community welcome the solidarity of our white brothers and sisters regarding worship. Perhaps, as we continue our journey together, you will embrace all our gifts, beyond our music.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! As a youth minister in a predominantly white parish, I’ve been trying to find ways to bring African American culture into our worship and discussions. It’s so easy just to leave it to music, but I’ve always been worried about that being a copout of sorts. So this is really helpful, thank you!!!
THAT’s what I’m talking about!
Do you hear it. Do you hear the voice in the cadence, in the repetition, in the vividness of imagery. Read it aloud, feel the way the word rolls around in the mouth building in savory and in character. Oh, and the timing! Such a sense of time and timing whether in the teaching or in the preaching, moving from verse to verse — or stanza to stanza — or paragraph to paragraph. Listen, then ask if Amanda Gorman brought church to the Super Bowl last night?
Were we made to slow down, to listen more closely, to listen with the ear of the heart so that experience may have more breathing room and church isn’t lost among the bulletins in the pew and church even makes it out of the parking lot — even to the Super Bowl.
Let church bear witness, let even those in the back back rows of life whisper, now aint that somethin. And the church prayed, Amen.