BY PAUL A. BARRA
CHARLESTON — There were some serious moments at the annual Catholic, Black and Proud Heritage celebration over the June 1-2 weekend, but Father George Franklin made sure they didn’t last long. In a Sunday homily the likes of which the staid old Cathedral of St. John the Baptist had never seen before, Father Franklin had the large congregation laughing and clapping and answering his call.
In a sermon that went on for more than 30 minutes, Father Franklin, of the Diocese of St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands with a doctorate in preaching, alternately sang, danced, interpreted the Word and enjoined the crowd to respond. His energy was infectious. Even when he told the people that Christianity was not a clean religion, they all agreed.
“Jesus takes the world’s nobodies and makes them somebody. Corpus Christi is a sharing; we are participating in the crucifixion, so if there’s not blood on your robe, you’re not getting into heaven. You’re going to have some tough times. As a Corpus Christi person, you’re going to be tested.”
After he spoke those words, the priest broke into a rendition of “I never promised you a rose garden.” His singing voice was as beautiful as his preaching voice was captivating.
He spoke of the beauty of a racially and culturally diverse church, where “…diversity should not be considered an anomaly.
“Vietnamese, Hispanics, African-Americans and Anglo-Americans — we all have an expression in the Catholic Church, to be Catholic is to be inclusive.”
Father Franklin said that liturgies in the Catholic church are often “Anglicized, to the detriment of other ethnic groups.” He called for culturally diverse celebrations of the Mass. He finished by saying, in a reference to the sex abuse scandals now in the news, that some Catholics are showing weaknesses in their faith by condemning the church in its hour of crisis.
“Some in this room are singing the song of the demons,” he shouted. “The media cannot and will not save you. Now is the time for us Catholics to be strong in our faith. Priests come and go, bishops come and go … the only one who sticks around is Jesus Christ. We need to become Corpus Christi people; to continuously reaffirm our Catholic faith.”
Afterward, Bishop Robert J. Baker, celebrant of the closing Mass, said of the homily: “That’s the way we should worship, with faith. It’s time to reconsider and appreciate this rich cultural heritage we share.” And he said to the hundreds of black people who came from across the state to join in the Catholic, Black and Proud Heritage events: “In the name of Jesus Christ, the Catholic church welcomes you and needs you.”
Father Franklin also spoke at the Heritage banquet on Saturday night at the Charleston Riverview Hotel and received the same sort of raves.
Mabel Moultrie of St. Patrick Church in Charleston said, “We came to celebrate, but he was very insightful as well.”
Franciscan Father Paul Williams, vicar for black Catholics in the diocese, said that the visiting preacher was “dynamite,” and Cherry Seabrook, who coordinated the heritage weekend, called him “fantastic.”
“We had old time church,” Seabrook said.
Sister Maryjane Golden, a Sister of St. Mary of Namur, of St. Patrick’s was amazed at the response.
“He was absolutely wonderful. The Spirit was alive, present and kicking,” she said.
Bishop Baker knew George Franklin from a seminary where he taught. While riding in a boat from the island of St. Thomas to St. John after visiting the Bishop of St. Thomas, he recognized his former student.
“He was reading his Bible and making notes. I knew it was Father George, doing his homework on a boat. He is dedicated to his preaching ministry,” he said.
Bishop Baker thanked the black Catholics of the state for accepting his earlier apology, on behalf of the Diocese of Charleston, for past and present sins of slavery and racism. Kathleen Merritt, director of the diocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries, and Father Paul Williams formally presented a letter to the bishop, saying that his apology was “an indication of God’s grace.” (Read the letter from Merritt and Father Williams.)
The Catholic, Black and Proud Heritage Mass was a sung liturgy. The Ladies and Knights of Peter Claver led the liturgical procession. Ushers were Wade McDaniel, Wilfred Steplight, Harry Noisette and Walter Grate. The Mass itself was concelebrated by Fathers Franklin and Williams and by the pastor of the Cathedral, Msgr. Joseph Roth. The children’s choir of St. Anthony of Padua sang before the two-hour liturgy.