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Church works to recruit black clergy

A retreat explores ways to draw more African-Americans to become Catholic nuns and priests.

Sister Patricia Haley knows she is one of about 800 African-American nuns in the United States, a number representing 1 percent of all the Catholic nuns in the country. Haley and a group of African-American lay people attending a recent retreat in St. Louis believe that's not good enough.

"There needs to be some truth-telling so we can move on," Haley said.

The retreat focused on African-American clergy and religious vocations. Retreat organizers set high goals: to educate the community about the low numbers of African-Americans in the Catholic clergy and to create an action plan to increase those numbers.

Consider that of the 62-million Catholics in the United States, about 2-million are African-American, a small but not inconsiderable number comparable in size to the membership in the AME church, a largely African-American denomination.

However, as Bishop Edward K. Braxton of St. Louis points out, there are about 4,000 black clergy in the AME church, but only about 350 of the Catholic Church's roughly 47,500 U.S. priests are African-American. Braxton is one of only 13 active African-American Catholic bishops in the country.

There has not been an African-American archbishop since the Rev. James Lyke died in 1992.

Leodia Gooch, an African-American Catholic and program coordinator for the St. Louis Archdiocesan Office of Communications, coordinated the retreat. She believes African-American Catholics are disadvantaged by not having access to more African-American priests.

"It's important to have someone who understands who you are and where you came from, and someone who speaks the same language. The language that we use in our community is not well understood," Gooch said.

Braxton told the retreat audience when bishops asked Lyke why he thought there were so few African-American vocations, Lyke usually answered, "If you knew what we knew about the relationship of the Catholic Church and people of color, you would not be amazed that there are so few black vocations. You would be amazed that there are so many."

"The same could be said today, 35 years later," Braxton added.

Braxton admitted while racist practices may have kept African-Americans out in the past _ he noted most large white orders of nuns didn't accept African-American women until the 1960s _ it's not as if young black men and women are beating down the doors and fighting to get in today.

He outlined several factors that contribute to low numbers of vocations, both black and white, citing especially modern society's stress on secularization, materialism and individual success.

He also believes the church suffers from vague definitions of what clergy do. "I often hear comments like, "I'm not sure what difference it would make to be a brother, a priest or a sister. It seems to me I can do as much good for the church and for others by being a married lay person.' "

Furthermore, Braxton added, the priesthood just doesn't seem to have the status it once had. When immigrants flocked to this country at the turn of the last century, positions in the church were "a way up in society, as well as a spiritual reality," Braxton said.

Sexuality is another determinant. "For many, celibacy is perceived as unhealthy, unnatural and irrelevant. It's certainly contrary to personal fulfillment," Braxton said.

Those issues combined with the perception many have that the Catholic Church is still a white racist institution mean few talented young African-Americans consider church vocations.

Both Haley and Braxton noted most of the Catholic seminaries are in predominantly white, suburban locations. Haley believes it sends a signal. "You didn't intend for us to be here," she said.

Braxton also noted, "There's a perception that a kind of male conservatism has emerged in the Catholic Church and in seminaries that is not attractive to many African-American people."

It's a complex problem well recognized by the church. When Gooch decided to tackle the issue and organize the retreat, she had the full support of all her bosses, including Archbishop Justin Rigali.

Rigali welcomed the energized audience and told it the church was united in working toward more African-American vocations. "Are the challenges great? Of course. Have we made mistakes and sins in the past? Of course," he said. "But what are we doing today? We are expressing our confidence in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we're moving forward."

Haley says she's been preaching about the need for more black vocations for years. She says she's tired of saying the same things. But even she admitted she was impressed by the magnitude of the retreat. "Most places haven't done anything like this," she said, "especially bringing in the archbishop and the bishop and then working on an action plan."

After remarks by Rigali, Braxton, Haley and representatives from the National Black Sisters Conference, the National Black Clergy Caucus, the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association and the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons, participants broke off into discussion groups to generate action ideas. It's Gooch's job to put together the recommendations into a formal plan.

"It's past time," Gooch said. "It's something that should have been done a very long time ago, but maybe we weren't ready for it a long time ago."