TELLING THE STORY: TOWARD AN AFRICAN – AMERICAN CATHOLIC THEOLOGY OF PREACHING
by Father Maurice J. Nutt, C.Ss.R.
When the black preacher is moving the hearts and souls of his or her black congregation through his or her powerful preaching, a loud shout of “tell the story preacher” may be heard from some satisfied soul sitting in the pew. One of the most interesting and faith-filled stories within the Catholic Church in America is that told by African American Catholics. It is a story that tells of a people who were both faith-filled and faithful to a God who never fails. It is a story of persistence and perseverance under discouraging circumstances. It is a story of a people who held tight to God’s unchanging hands when the dark clouds of racism clouded their way. With great self-determination and steadfast activism, African Americans carved a place for themselves within the Roman Catholic Church in America. Once known as a mission church and a mission people, the African American Catholics of today are a people committed to the work of spreading the good news of the Gospel among themselves and others.
African American Catholics experience a double invisibility. In the black world, they are marginalized because of their religious identity as Catholics; in the Catholic world, they are marginalized because of their racial and cultural identity. Yet, African American Catholics have not allowed their perceived double invisibility to deter their mission of evangelization.
In their pastoral letter, What We Have Seen and Heard, addressed to the Catholics of the United States, ten African American bishops made the bold statement that African American Catholics have “come of age.” African American Catholics had matured to adulthood and were no longer the helpless missionary children of the predominantly white Catholic Church of America. While the tone of the pastoral letter was respectful and appreciative of the many gifts that had been shared with African American Catholics, the African American Catholic bishops nonetheless affirmed that they, too, as African Americans, had gifts to share with the universal Catholic Church. The African American Catholic bishops wrote: Evangelization means not only preaching but witnessing; not only conversion but renewal; not only community but the building up of the community; not only hearing the Word but sharing it” (What We Have Seen and Heard, 2).
There remains today a great vitality among African American Catholics to spread the Word of God among themselves and others. African Americans are a biblical people. The Word of God has been a tremendous source of support and consolation through the anguish and afflictions that they have had to endure. Many times it has been “a word from the Lord” that has sustained them throughout their struggle with the evils of racism. However, in most cases the Word of God is not effectively preached to many African American Catholics. Every Sunday, many African American Catholics endure homilies that are not Holy Spirit filled, not relevant to their situation or life circumstances. The homilies are not based on the scripture readings and do not inspire the people to be a witness to the goodness of Jesus. It is truly a mystery how African American Catholics continue to return to the liturgies that give them neither life nor the hope of eternal life. Some African Americans contend that Mass has always been fairly boring. Others maintain that their love for the Eucharist calls them back to the Catholic Church every Sunday. Some also acknowledge that their faith is so strong that even if the priest doesn’t have the Word, the Word of God is still deep within them.
For the most part preaching in our Catholic churches is notoriously uninspired. African Americans throughout this country almost unanimously will attest to this fact. Those who feel called to minister to African American congregations must see it as their duty to develop the art of effective, spirit-filled preaching. Black preaching is a black folk art, but this does not mean that whites cannot be trained in certain techniques of this black liturgical art. Some white pastors have acquired the ability to preach in the black genre without doing a disservice to the integrity of their white identities. Conversely, many white preachers use their identity as an unacceptable excuse for mediocrity. Preaching in the black genre implies preaching with an eloquence that exegetes both the scriptural text and the congregation. The “Good News” must be addressed to this particular people, and the hermeneutical application of it must be made to their own situation.
The Catholic Church in urban neighborhoods throughout the United States is faced with a serious challenge. Many urban neighborhoods are plagued by deterioration and decay. Where once stood thriving communities with stable neighborhood residences, corner grocery stores, and other economic endeavors, now remain abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and the ruins of former successful businesses. In some neighborhoods the large beautiful Catholic church buildings remain, signs of a once-flourishing immigrant Catholic community. The once strong immigrant neighborhoods (German, Irish, Polish, and Italian) are now inhabited, in many cases, by a struggling and depressed African American community. In some instances the ornate edifices dedicated to God and once populated by the Roman Catholic faithful have been sold to growing Protestant and non-denominational congregations in desperate need of extra space. Familiar Catholic names, such as “St. Mark’s,” “Most Holy Name of Jesus,” and “St. Ann Shrine,” have been replaced by new names reflective of new congregations, names such as “Emmaus Way Missionary Baptist Church,” “New Jerusalem Cathedral Church of God in Christ,” and “Transformation Christian Church.” These once densely populated former Roman Catholic churches are now standing-room-only-churches. The Word of God is powerfully preached, the music ministry moves the congregation to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, the doors of the church are opened, and a call to discipleship is extended; the congregants have the Good News about Jesus Christ to take with them to share all week long; and the Word of God leads them to service within and outside their church.
In most cases the Catholic churches in African American neighborhoods throughout this nation have remained. However, there are significantly fewer parishioners. Dioceses and archdioceses have closed or merged many of their parishes in urban communities. Lack of parishioners and lack of funds have topped the list of reasons for the increased mergers. Pastors have somberly noted that all of the Catholics have moved to the suburbs. Yet, there remain in our urban communities a vast number of African Americans who are un-churched or lapsed Catholics or inactive baptized believers. For too long there has been the perception that any semblance of blackness must be left on the front steps of Catholic churches and that admittance means assimilating to the dominant Euro-centric expressions of Roman Catholic liturgy and worship. There have been few methods and/or models of inculturated evangelization of African Americans to the Catholic Church. In short, there is a great harvest of souls among African Americans for which the Catholic Church must find ways of effectively evangelizing.
Preaching plays an important role in the evangelization of African Americans:
We blacks are people of the Word. We are by culture, by history, preaching orientated. We come from a preaching tradition. Preaching sustained and nurtured us during the days of slavery. Preaching gave us hope “in days when hope unborn had died.” Preaching enables us to keep in keeping on. Preaching enables us to be truly opened to receive Eucharist, the bread of life. So one of the greatest gifts, we, as black people, can give to the Church today is preaching. For in authentic black preaching the spirit is renewed (Jeanmarie, 85).
The Holy Spirit calls us all to the work of evangelization. It is important that those who have received the Gospel of Jesus Christ spread the Good News. Like Paul, Christians must be compelled to confess, “Preaching the gospel is not the subject of a boast; I am under compulsion and have no choice. I am ruined if I do not preach it!” (1 Cor. 9:16).
Evangelization is both a call and response. It is the call of Jesus reverberating down the centuries: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). The response is, “Conduct yourselves, then, in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). Evangelization means not only preaching but witnessing, not only conversion but renewal, not only entry into the community but the building up of the community, not only hearing the Word but sharing it.
The Good News of the gospel not only transforms those who hear it, but it must also transform those who preach it. “The person who has been evangelized,” Pope Paul VI wrote, “goes on to evangelize others” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #24). However, evangelization is not done in a vacuum; it is performed within in a particular context. Pope Paul VI in writing on the subject of evangelization in the modern world states:
The obvious importance of the content of evangelization must not overshadow the importance of the ways and means. This question of “how to evangelize” is permanently relevant, because the methods of evangelizing vary according to the different circumstances of time, place and culture, and because they thereby present a certain challenge to our capacity for discovery and adaptation. On us particularly, the pastors of the Church, rests the responsibility for reshaping with boldness and wisdom, but in complete fidelity to the content of evangelization, the means that are most suitable and effective for communicating the Gospel message to the men and women of our times. (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #40).
The National Black Catholic Pastoral Plan promulgated by the National Black Catholic Congress in 1987, while stating that its primary purpose was to discuss issues relating to the evangelization of African Americans on the local level (within dioceses and parishes), never adequately addressed the need of a model of inculturated evangelization of African Americans to Catholicism. The National Black Catholic Pastoral Plan merely encourages the development of evangelization programs that are rooted in the black spiritual experience. I submit that the preaching of the Word of God in a style that speaks to the heart and soul of the African American community is vital and must precede any programs of evangelization. In the great commission, Jesus did not instruct us to “go ye therefore” and set up programs, policies, and procedures. He instructed us to go preach!
Essential Elements of Black Catholic Preaching: The Holy Spirit, Celebration, and Liberation
Before exploring an African American Catholic theology or understanding of preaching, one must first ask if there is an “official” Catholic theology of preaching. Dominican theologian Mary Catherine Hilkert maintains that with the liturgical renewal of the 1950s and l960s and the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church officially reclaimed a theology of revelation centered on the word of God. Hilkert asserts, “The Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation, Dei Verbum, urged a return to the word of God as the source of renewal for the entire church. While the Catholic Church has consistently moved toward a stronger emphasis on preaching and its importance, we still have no fully developed theology of preaching” (Hilkert, 440).
Therefore, Catholics look to their theology of revelation prescribed by Dei Verbum to glean insights into a possible Catholic theology of proclamation. Dei Verbum describes an understanding of grace and a sacramental theology of revelation as “the mystery of God’s self-communication in love which occurs in and through creation and human history: a mystery recognized and named in salvation history and culminating in Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum, #6).
Any Christian theology of preaching must center on Jesus Christ as Word of God. According to Hilkert, an appropriate starting point of any Catholic theology of preaching is the incarnation – the mystery of God’s fullest word has been spoken in history, in a human being, in human experience. Rather than beginning with the power of God’s word as something totally other and beyond our experience, Hilkert proposes we begin with the revelation of God, which is to be discovered in the midst of – and depths of – what is human. She asks the question: “Can we reflect on the mystery of preaching as the naming of grace in human experience” (Hilkert, 448)? Implicit to this quotation is the additional question as to whether we can announce God’s path of liberation from the midst of the disgrace of our experience. As we move toward articulating characteristics of an African American Catholic theology of preaching, African Americans answer these questions with a resounding, “Yes, we must!”
The Holy Spirit and Preaching
Holy Spirit-filled preaching is a requisite for many African American Catholics. In fact the person who preaches the gospel makes a statement about the Holy Spirit just by entering the pulpit. Even before the first word is uttered, presuppositions and definitions from across the centuries speak volumes about the Spirit-led event to be experienced by the preacher and the congregation. According to Rev. Dr. James Forbes, “The preaching event itself—without reference to specific texts and themes—is a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood expression of the theology of the Holy Spirit” (Forbes, 19). In formulating an operative theology of proclamation, Forbes maintains:
The preaching event is an aspect of the broader work of the Spirit to nurture, empower, and guide the church in order that it may serve the kingdom of God in the power of the Spirit. It is a process in which the divine-human communication is activated and focused on the word of God and is led by a member of the community of faith [the preacher] who has been called, anointed, and appointed by the Holy Spirit to be agent of divine communication. That person’s authority is grounded in the self-revealing will of God as articulated and elaborated in the biblical witness. In addition, the preacher’s authority is confirmed or ordained by the community of faith in response to the continuing counsel of the Holy Spirit (Forbes, 20).
If preachers intend to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who calls them to serve the kingdom in our time, they need all the power available to them. We live in a culture that has lost contact with the living spirit of Jesus. We need preaching that is more than delightful rhetoric. At the other end of the spectrum, mere ranting, raving, and excitement from some spirited preacher will also not suffice. The people of God need and want some sense of the Spirit accompanied by power sufficient to comfort and sustain them in the struggle of their Christian journeys.
Pope Paul VI, in his exhortation On Evangelization in the Modern World, emphasizes the important role of the Holy Spirit in Catholic preaching by maintaining that the Holy Spirit impels each individual, as evangelizer, to fervently proclaim the gospel. The Pontiff in his teaching was thoroughly convinced that without the Holy Spirit powerfully present in our preaching and Christian witness, Catholic evangelization would be ineffective. “Without the Holy Spirit the most convincing dialectic has no power over the heart of man” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #75).
Additionally, the Fulfilled in Your Hearing encourages Catholic preachers under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to preach so as to lead the faithful to praise God. This document contends that preachers must first recognize the active presence of God in their own lives, as broken and shattered as they may be, and out of that brokenness affirm and witness to the congregation that it is still good to praise him and even give him thanks. There is a clear mandate from the Roman Catholic Church that urges Catholic preachers to be Spirit-filled preachers. Unfortunately, in many cases, the urgency of this message has not been received by many Catholic preachers. Therefore, it is a fallacy that the Catholic Church does not promote Holy Spirit-filled preaching. It suffices to say that many preachers refuse to receive the Church’s message and thus the anointing.
Within the context of black preaching the preacher is expected to be anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit before there is any attempt to preach the word. The preacher cannot preach without the Holy Spirit. Regardless of one’s ability, strength, or study habits, the sermon or homily is ultimately a product of the power of the Holy Spirit, which enables the preacher to utter “what thus says the Lord.” James Cone indicates that there can be no preaching unless the preacher is called by the Holy Spirit.
In order to separate the preached Word from ordinary human discourse and thereby connect it with prophecy, the black church emphasizes the role of the Spirit in preaching. No one is an authentic preacher in the black church tradition until he or she is called by the Spirit (Cone, 23).
Cone is on target. Preaching in the black preaching tradition is indeed dependent upon the Holy Spirit. The challenge for preachers in the African American Catholic community is to free themselves to be used by the Holy Spirit and to cease trying to quench the Spirit. An African American Catholic theology of preaching requires Spirit-filled proclamation — a requirement that is certainly non-negotiable.
Preaching as Celebration
In African American preaching, the preacher always presents a revelation. This revelation is always communicated with inspiration and celebration. It is a matter of g1orifying God and involving the hearers.
The preacher is not just an impartial reporter of what happens between God and God’s people in human history as recorded in Scripture. The preacher is one who has also experienced what those in the stories experienced, and therefore the preacher is both recorder and witness of the story being related. The biblical story is the preacher’s story, and it becomes the congregation’s story as well. When deliverance, healing, hope or miracles come to the biblical story, the same goodness is experienced by the preacher and congregation alike, The chorus of the old hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” serves as a good example of this: “This is my story. This is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long….”
In gratefulness for these manifold blessings, African Americans tend to shout; they celebrate with the abiding conviction, “If I don’t praise him, the rock’s gonna cry out” (This is the chorus from the song, “If I don’t praise the Lord). Celebration is an integral, authentic, and wholesome aspect of worship in African American preaching and worship. The point of celebration comes when the biblical story becomes the preacher’s and the people’s story. The preacher and the people are in a celebrative mode because the testimonies of the participants in the story also become their testimonies. In other words, there is a “blessed assurance” that what God did for the biblical characters of old, God is doing for them right now.
Celebration is a word commonly used by Roman Catholics in reference to the celebration of the Eucharist. Roman Catholics refer to the priest presiding at the Eucharistic celebration as the celebrant. In many instances, however, the experience of Mass in many Catholic parishes has been anything but a celebration. Lifeless preaching has contributed to this valid criticism. Yet, the aim of celebrating Eucharist is to remember and celebrate the salvation that Jesus offers through his paschal mystery. Fulfilled In Your Hearing contends that the “challenge to preachers is to reflect on human life with the aid of the Word of God and to show by their preaching, as by their lives, that in every place and at every time it is indeed right to praise and thank the Lord” (Fulfilled In Your Hearing, 28).
African American sermons or homilies do not only end in celebration, but the whole preaching event itself is a celebration. So the meaning of celebration as climax must be re-examined. This meaning is often too limited. According to Mitchell, “We in the African American tradition have cultural roots which demand that the sermon end in celebration” (Mitchell, 12). It is true that climax might be that concluding portion of the sermon in which phrases and sentences are presented in ascending order of rhetorical forcefulness. However, this might or might not be the point of highest celebration of the preacher and audience.
I posit that the conclusion is not the only point of celebration in “good” traditional black preaching. If celebration means ecstatic talking and hearing and involvement in the story, then in most black sermons the celebration is interspersed throughout, with greater intensity toward the end. Olin P. Moyd states, “When the preacher engages in narration and storytelling with imagination and with celebration at several places throughout the proclamation, the preacher and the audience are drawn into an identification with the biblical characters in the story, and the historical event becomes an existential event. Thus, celebration is the natural response” (Moyd, 109).
If the sermon or homily is celebration, there is a substance in the proclamation that elicits celebration, and that substance is the kerygma, the Good News. An African American Catholic theology of preaching affirms celebration within the preaching event. African American sermons reflect black people’s lived experience of the Word. Through both black sermons and black preaching, the faithful are theologically informed; they are inspired; and they are empowered to “run on just a little while longer,” knowing that by God’s grace everything will be alright: this is something to celebrate.
Preaching for Liberation
For liberation theologians, God intends to liberate the world from oppression. African American homiletics professor, Carolyn Ann Knight, defines oppression as “a form of sin in which a person or community exploits other persons or communities. Oppression is frequently systemic, that it results from patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that are transpersonal” (Knight, 223). The oppressive tendency is so deeply embedded in some social structures that oppressors do not even know that they are oppressors! Among the most common and deeply entrenched systems of oppression are racism, sexism, poverty, classicism, ageism, handicappism, homophobia and ecological abuse. Religion, too, can be used to oppress. African Americans are victims not only of racism; they are victims of all of the aforementioned oppressions.
Liberation preachers, including those who preach in African American Catholic parishes, believe that God operates through the processes of history to free humankind and nature from oppression. Knight posits that “God aims for all people and all elements of the natural world to have their own integrity, secure living conditions, freedom, opportunities to relate with all created entities in love and justice. The best liberation preachers are aware that oppressors are oppressed by their oppressive ideas, feelings and actions” (Knight, 223). Those preaching for liberation alert both oppressed and oppressor to God’s present activity in using individuals and groups to move toward a world in which all live together in love, justice, dignity, and shared material resources.
Pope Paul VI expressed similar sentiments in regard to preaching and living the truth that truly liberates. He states, “The Gospel entrusted to us is also the word of truth. A truth that liberates and which alone gives peace of heart is what people are looking for when we proclaim the Good News to them” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #78). In the same vein as Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II urges us to “defend with force the dignity and the rights of every [person] against the oppressions and vexations of the powerful. Set oneself to true reconciliation among [humanity] and Christians” (John Paul, II, 73).
The U.S. bishops assert in Fulfilled In Your Hearing that faith leads to an active response and a transformation of one’s life.
A response can take on many forms. Sometimes it will be appropriate to call people to repentance for the way they have helped to spread the destructive powers of sin in the world. At other times the preacher will invite the congregation to devote themselves to some specific action as a way of sharing in the redemptive and creative word of God (Fulfilled In Your Hearing, 19).
Unfortunately, in most American Catholic parishes, preaching on social issues, especially racism, is either weak or non-existent. Even the statement in Fulfilled In Your Hearing concerning the need for Catholic preachers to address societal ills seems patronizing at best. In the context of liberation preaching as it is best promoted by our Protestant brothers and sisters, there is never a directive such as, “Sometimes it will be appropriate to call people to repentance for the way they helped to spread the destructive powers of sin in the world.” I strongly believe that injustices in the world must always and at all times be condemned by the Christian preacher whether Catholic or Protestant.
In addition to the emotion so important to African American preaching style, preachers in African American settings have a moral and theological responsibility to develop a sound hermeneutical approach to the gospel. This demand, while not exclusive to the African American community, is an expectation from the people because of their constant struggle with racial, economic, and political oppression. The preacher is compelled to say something that addresses the needs of the people—directing the message to their head and heart. This holistic message will teach blacks how to live as Christians and how to relate their religion to freedom practices.
Those who sit in the pews need to hear a word of power and spirit—a word of liberation. With the help of the preacher, blacks are able to celebrate in spite of the reality of oppression and injustice because they believe that God is faithful and just. Preaching without celebration is de facto a denial of the good news in any culture. The preacher celebrates and encourages others to celebrate; however, the preaching ministry must also include liberation. Without liberation, there can be no authentic celebration.
Any attempt to formulate an African American Catholic theology of preaching must take into consideration at least three salient directives. First, an African American Catholic theology of preaching is null and void without the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Only under the influence of the Holy Spirit can a preacher boldly speak a prophetic message of consolation and challenge to God’s people. Secondly, an African American Catholic theology of preaching is one of celebration. The preacher in African American Catholic settings must identify—become one with God’s Word and God’s people—and announce and experience the good news of God’s on-going deliverance. Finally, an African American Catholic theology of preaching is de facto liberation preaching. Preachers in African American Catholic settings are charged with helping the community envision the practical implications of liberation and encourage the people to join God’s liberating initiatives. Homilies must encourage oppressors to repent, to turn away from complicity in oppression, and to turn toward God’s liberating work in history. Preachers must uplift the oppressed with God’s message of hope and the assurance that “trouble don’t last always.”
Maurice J. Nutt, C.Ss.R., D.Min. is a Redemptorist Pastor
Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Fulfilled In Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1982.
Cone, James H. Speaking the Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.
Forbes, James. The Holy Spirit and Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.
Hilkert, Mary Catherine, O.P. “Naming Grace: A Theology of Proclamation, “ Worship 60 (1986): 434-48.
Jeanmarie, Glen. “Black Catholic Worship: Celebrating Roots and Wings,” Portrait in Black: Black Catholic Theological Symposium, ed. Thaddeus J. Posey (Washington, DC: National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, 1978), 85.
John Paul II. Fear Not: Thoughts on Living in Today’s World, ed. Alexandria Hatcher (Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1999), 73.
Knight, Carolyn Ann. “Preaching from the Perspective of Liberation Theology,” in Patterns of Preaching, ed. Ronald J. Allen (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998), 223.
Mitchell, Henry H. Celebration and Experience in Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.
Moyd, Olin P. The Sacred Art: Preaching and Theology in the African American Tradition. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1995.
Paul VI. On Evangelization in the Modern World. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1975.
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1992), no. 6.
What We Have Seen and Heard: A Pastoral Letter on Evangelization From the Black Bishops of the United States. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1984.