AIKEN—Black Catholics in South Carolina have a rich history and heritage that can only be preserved by increased focus on stewardship and encouraging young people to be more involved in their faith.
That was the dual focus of the annual Black Catholic Day of Reflection held March 13 at St. Gerard Church in Aiken. The event was sponsored by the Diocese of Charleston’s Office of Ethnic Ministries.
About 90 people attended the event which included morning Mass, group discussions, and workshops for adults and youth.
Franciscan Father Paul M. Williams, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia and vicar for African-American Catholics, concelebrated the Mass with Father Anthony K. Batung, administrator of St. Gerard.
In his homily, Father Williams reflected on the reading from the Gospel of Luke (Lk 18:9-14), which is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
He said the story teaches an important lesson for society, which seems ready to look down on others and judge those who don’t confirm to certain rules or standards. Too often, he said, Catholics rush to judgment of their fellow believers.
“Righteous people will tell you how righteous they are, and will judge by what they see. They’ll say things like ‘When she knelt down, her knee didn’t touch the floor’ or ‘He made the sign of the cross too fast,’” he said.
“If we are going to be authentically holy individuals, we must leave the judgment up to God,” Father Williams continued. “God reads the heart, and he knows the intent of the individual. Let us be grateful for men and women who come into the house of the Lord, and let us be gentle and kind with our brothers and sisters who have been away from the church for a long time. Let’s never do anything that would hinder their coming back to the faith of Jesus Christ.”
Franciscan Sister Catherine Noecker, principal of St. Anthony of Padua School in Greenville, was honored during lunch. She is celebrating her 50th jubilee. Father Williams presented her with the St. Francis Medal, an honor given by the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province to Franciscan priests and religious for outstanding achievement.
The priest praised her years of work at the school, which is historically African-American, and said she had faith in the school’s mission even during lean times when enrollment had fallen off dramatically.
“This school still exists because of Sister Catherine who had a dream about what it could be,” Father Williams said.
She was surprised by the honor.
“It makes me happier than if somebody gave me a brand new car,” Sister Catherine said. “This award is who I am and what I’m all about. To be recognized for my work is a challenge to just go ahead and keep doing things even better in the future.”
An afternoon session for adults, “Altered Landscape of Generous Giving,” was led by Kathleen Merritt, director of Ethnic Ministries, and Waymon Johnson, a member of St. Gerard.
The discussion focused on how different generations approach charitable giving, and what needs to be done to increase stewardship in traditionally black Catholic parishes.
Merritt said data shows that young adults who fall into Generation X and the Millennial Generation are more likely to be strategic when it comes to giving.
While previous generations gave to the church because it was expected, she said, young people today want to donate to causes that help people in need. They are more likely to give to a church program that helps feed needy people than, for instance, to a building fund with goals far in the future, she said.
Franciscan Brother Henry L. Fulmer led a discussion on “Our Youth is Our Future,” which focused on concerns raised in a survey of black Catholic youth around the diocese. The young people said they wanted to feel welcome in their parishes, have a place and a voice in church decision making, and have groups that take part in a wide variety of activities. He said the youth also had important questions about the very foundations of their faith, and wanted to know: “Is there room for me in the church?”
Brother Henry said it was important to know young people as individuals and not just look at them as part of a homogenous group. He said parishes need to ask young black Catholics what type of activities they want, and find ways to actively engage them in faith-sharing.
“We’re losing our kids to other denominations,” he said.
Father Michael Okere, administrator of Holy Trinity Church in Orangeburg, said most of the young black Catholics he meets through campus ministry at S.C. State University are from Caribbean nations and other countries. He said one way to keep young people in the church is to emphasize the richness of Catholic tradition.
“Our culture is unique, and if you let them know what that culture is, they will come back,” he said. “Let us tell them about what we know and what we have that makes us special.”
Participants said the Day of Reflection gave them a chance to celebrate in their faith with other black Catholics, and learn what they need to do once they return to their parish.
“There was a lot of rejoicing here today,” said Jeanette Coleman, a member of St. Gerard. “Jesus teaches us to love, and I saw that love here today. We all learned that even though our parishes are all different, we have a similar faith and similar roots.”
Redemptorist priests from Orangeburg founded St. Gerard Church in 1942. Before that, Aiken’s black Catholics met in homes without a pastor. Masses were first celebrated in an abandoned theater in downtown Aiken. The current church was built in 1963.