Universal Church

June 23-July 6, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 23
Universal Church
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
There was a time when the Catholic Church thought it could tell the developing world a thing or two about how one should worship.

According to the Syracuse Diocese Director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry Ralph Jones the time has come for Africa to tell western Catholics a thing or two about how one should worship.

Jones and the Diocesan Director for Catholic Relief Services Dennis Manning recently visited Africa, specifically Nigeria and Ghana. “Africa showed me a sense of spirituality and resilience that you don’t often find in our country.

It showed me a sense of Christianity and Catholicism that I don’t often find in this country,” Jones said.

The church is growing at a rapid pace in Africa. There are currently 130 million Catholics practicing there now.

“It’s the fastest growing [religion] anywhere in the world,” Jones said. “It’s much more than in the United States.”

Jones and Manning both witnessed a Nigerian minor seminary that held some 600 students and a major one that held 500. Only 50 percent of those who apply for the priesthood are accepted.

“People are clamoring to get into the priesthood and the church is a servant for the people there so when they go into the priesthood, they’re going into a legitimate role of being a servant of the people,” Jones said.

While the liturgy remains the same as that of the Western Church, Jones believes that Americans would do well to learn from the manner in which Africans celebrate Mass. While the fervor of faith has waned among many American Catholics, it infuses those new to the faith in Africa.

“It’s an injection of spiritual verve that we used to have here,” Jones said. “They do now in Africa what we used to do at the turn of the century.”

Jones was inspired by the spirituality of the Africans, noting that American Catholics have veered toward material issues.

“Everybody wants more money, more assets, more material possessions. They’re still concerned about the soul there and the spirit,” he said. “That’s something that we Catholics can start learning again, we Christians can start learning again….They embrace the ideals of the religion.”

While many Americans approach Mass as a duty of sorts, Jones observed a different kind of spirit guiding the African Mass.

“They celebrate Mass. When they go to a Mass it’s not 45 minutes of obligatory time that you do. They celebrate for two hours and they sing,” he said.

While the church thrives in Africa among Africans, it has yet to catch on in the U.S. among African-Americans.

On the home front

St. Lucy’s on the west side is well known for its inclusiveness.

“It’s really very diverse. To appreciate that you’d have to see what happens on a Sunday morning,” said Father Jim Mathews. “We’ll have, for example, Native American people, black people, people from the neighborhood, people from the L’Arche community, we have the deaf community, we have people who come in from the suburbs because they want an inner city experience….So you bring them all together and it’s a great experience.”

The church also features a celebratory spirit similar to the one described by Jones.

“The diversity really is our richness. Our liturgies for me, for the people there are just filled with life, spirit and meaning,” Father Mathews said. “It’s a very wonderful experience. If you haven’t experienced it, you ought to come to a 9 a.m. Mass Sunday morning. You just see the life of our community. You can see the sense of inclusiveness, the sense of warmth, of hospitality, of people gathering. That would be the best way to experience what I’m talking about.”

Father Mathews believes that one of the fundamental aspects of the church is diversity, noting that the Latin word Catholic literally translates as universal.

“The very nature of the word Catholicism is that it’s universal – that it reaches out to all people,” Father Mathews said. “I think that our church really mirrors that. I really think that our church really follows the model that Jesus gave us, that is, we really include a lot of people, some of whom may be on the fringe, some of whom may be ready to leave the Catholic church, but they find a home at St. Lucy’s.”

Two times a year, St. Lucy’s Mass includes elements in native Mohawk and Latino songs. Father Mathews says it’s unfortunate, but his church could perhaps do more to include African-American elements.

The rituals of Mass are expressions of faith rather than empty gestures. Jones sees St. Lucy’s as a very different kind of church.

“When they do their moment of greeting, in most churches it’s four or five people around you and then that’s it. There [at St. Lucy’s] it might take five, six, seven minutes before everybody gets back into their places,” Jones said. “There are some churches where people have been sitting in the same pew for years. They see each other in church and don’t know each other’s name.”

Jones did note that the Vatican recently issued a statement noting that the Sign of Peace should only be conducted to those nearby.

St. Vincent de Paul in Syracuse recently hosted an African Eucharistic celebration. The main celebrant was Bishop Peter Kairo of Nakuru-Kenya. In his homily, Bishop Kairo made reference to the large number of African refugees who have been driven from their homes, but found refuge here in Syracuse. He also discussed the tragedy of war and famine across Africa and told the Africans in the congregation about how much they were missed back home on their native

continent. “He faced head-on the specters of war, famine and disease raging across almost all countries and repeated the familiar mantra that there can be no peace without disarmament, no end to famine without development and no end to disease without concern from all parts of the world,” said Friar Phil Kelly, OFM Conv., who attended the Mass.

The bishop stressed that all of these changes must begin with the individual, and he ended by reciting the prayer of Saint Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is war, let me work for peace.” The Sudanese choir sang at the Mass, and everyone joined in the closing hymn.

Father Robert Chryst is the pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church on Syracuse’s south side. He said roughly one third of the congregation there is black, and some of the parishioners began coming to the church when a Nigerian nun, Sister Delphine, IHM, was at the parish. The hope was that with Sister Delphine, black residents in the area would identify more strongly with the parish.

Nevertheless, fewer than one percent of all Catholics in the Syracuse Diocese are black. Of the 340,000 Catholics in diocese and only 3,000 of them are black and less than 1,200 are active According to Jones, if the Catholic Church were to take more of a role in leading the cause of equality in the U.S., the church could also increase its numbers. He notes that the success of the church in Africa can be attributed to its willingness to champion the cause of the people.

“Instead of being a leader and leading the social discussion on equality throughout the United States, the church has not taken that leadership role, and if she were to take that leadership role, for one I think our numbers would increase, I see it increasing in Africa, I see it increasing in places where there’s great oppression,” Jones said. “I ask myself, ‘Why is that? What is the church doing there that it’s not doing here?’ And she’s more attentive to the wants and the needs of the people. The governments in these countries are not supporting or providing for the wants and the needs of the people. The church is providing for the food and the shelter and the water and the needs of the people and helping the people learn how to get the things that they want in life. We probably need to get back to doing that same thing.”

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