Black Catholics, sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? But it shouldn’t. Of the one billion Roman Catholics in the world today, at least 20% (200 million) are Black. Africa alone has 130 million Black Catholics. In fact, the largest Catholic Church building in the world is found in Africa, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamassoukra, the capital city of the West African country known as Cote d’Ivoire.
During the selection of the last pope, many scoffed at the idea that one of the 12 Black cardinals would be picked. However, it would not have been a first. There have been three African popes: Victor (183-203 A.D.), Gelasius (492-496 A.D.), and Mechiades or Militiades (311-314 A.D.). All of them have been declared saints, that is, the Catholic Church feels certain that all three went to heaven.
The individual most credited with establishing the intellectual and ideological basis of the Roman Catholic Church was an African, St. Augustine who lived around 400 AD. Also, the patron saint of much of Germany, Switzerland and France is St. Maurice. In 287 AD this African general, and his 4,000 African soldiers in service to Rome, refused to attack Christian converts in northern France. For this act of defiance they lost their lives, but their memory is honored even up until today.
It’s interesting to note there are hundreds of revered icons, that is statues, of Christ and his mother throughout Europe which picture them as Black figures. They are far older than the White depictions of Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists. The last pope, John Paul II, had a Black icon in his personal chapel that he prayed before every day.
Today in America’s inner cities where the public school systems are failing miserably, many Black youngsters are going to private schools to secure an education. Most of these schools are run by the Catholic Church. Also note that there has always been a strong Black Catholic presence in Louisiana. New Orleans’ Xavier University is a prominent, traditionally Black college.
Finally, when the sex scandals hit the Catholic Church full force a few years ago, it was Black Archbishop Wilton Gregory that the Catholic Church in America turned to to handle the controversy. So we see Blacks have been in the Roman Catholic Church from the very beginning. In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church, which is still in existence, predates the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church by more than a 100 years.
By; Dr. Arthur Lewin
Dr. Lewin was born in Harlem, New York. His parents hail from Jamaica and Cuba. His research has included topics in Jamaican political history, charismatic leadership in African America, Africa and the Caribbean and the class structure in Black America. He is the author of the popular book Africa is Not a Country its a Continent!