CUA Examines Cases for African American Canonization, Discusses Need for Change

Image Courtesy of the CCE’s Instagram

By Mariah Solis and Anna Harvey

The Center for Cultural Engagement hosted a film screening and panel discussion for A Place at the Table: African-American Saints on the Path to Sainthood (2022) on November 29 in Heritage Hall. The event was planned during Black Catholic History Month with the intent for students to learn more about the lives of six African Americans that could be potentially canonized, while also discussing why there are currently no African American saints formally recognized by the Catholic Church. 

The panel consisted of Rev. Patrick Smith, pastor of St. Augustine Parish; Sr. Patricia Chappell, Sister of Notre Dame and member of USA Anti-Racism Team; Ms. Wendi Williams, executive Director for the Office of Cultural Diversity for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington; and Ms. Sandra Coles-Bell, Executive Director for the National Black Sisters’ Conference.  

After enjoying the provided dinner, students and faculty watched a portion of the film. The documentary details the background, story, and ongoing legacy of six African American individuals: Venerable Henriette Delille, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Julia Greely, and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, who is also Catholic University alum. From the segments of the film, attendees learned about the lives of Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, specifically on how they sought to serve others in cultures throughout American history that discriminated against or oppressed expression of both their racial and religious identities. 

The film presented an ongoing message that communities of color need to be reflected in the canonization of the saints and the hierarchies of the church, contemplating on the words “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

“It begs the question, ‘Now what?’” Williams stated. “It really pronounces the systemic problems, that here we are in 2022 reaching back to the 1700s and 1800s to identify people who are remarkable, but how many other stories are like that? That because of marginalization, Black people were never even part of the conversation to begin with.”

During the discussion, the guest panelists emphasized that the Catholic Church must undergo a transformation to respect Black people. They stated that while the potential canonization of six African Americans is a step in the right direction, more action must occur to produce change. 

“We have to dismantle the structures,” Sr. Chappell said. “We can’t just plug structures; they’ve got to be transformed.”

The panelists also talked about how their experiences of identifying racism within the Church or in any religious environment resulted in many of them getting ignored or even fired. 

“So many of us are afraid because of knowing what speaking the truth does,” Coles-Bells stated, which received a loud applause from the audience. “Speaking the truth gets you in trouble. Speaking the truth gets you fired. Speaking the truth makes you human, it makes you Catholic, it makes you Christian, it makes you everything that God did and Jesus walked this earth and died for.”

Rev. Smith added, “As believers, Christ did not give us an option not to do,” emphasizing his stance that social justice is not an option for Catholics, but a calling.

“The experience of racism that we experience today,” Williams summarized, “is just experiencing being ignored.”

The guest panelists also discussed how people of color should be accurately depicted in statues, paintings, photographs, and religious symbols, including images of Christ.

Near the end of the discussion, they shared specific people and organizations to follow and stay informed about the issues and conversations regarding racism and marginalized communities within the Church, as well as the work being done by people of color in the church. This included Network Lobby, National Black Sisters Conference, and the Gloria Purvis Podcast

To close off the event, CCE Director Javier Bustamante invited Rev. Smith to bless a painting of Sister Thea Bowman, which was painted by freshman biology majors Christen Harrell and Antoiette Pinkins. The artwork will remain on display in the CCE as a way to honor her legacy and work. 

Following the panelists’ discussion and the experiences documented by the clergy in the film, students were left to ponder the film’s enduring question: “Who has not been given a place at the table?”

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