40th Anniversary of What We Have Seen and Heard

Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Chicago, and chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee Committee on African American Affairs

Linda Duhon Lacour, Diocese of Beaumont (left). Bishop Joseph Perry and Bishop Terry Steib present the 40th anniversary of the Pastoral Letter of the African American Bishops on Evangelization in the Black Communities at the National Black Catholic Congress XIII. Photo credit: Used with permission of the National Black Catholic Congress ©2023

Following upon the great pastoral thrust of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council that met in Rome from 1962-1965, dioceses implemented the conclusions of that council vis-à-vis a number of pastoral initiatives. Coinciding with the Civil Rights struggle of that era, the bishops’ attention in this country was turned towards the Black community and its needs for evangelization and pastoral care. Offices, agencies, secretariats, and officers were assigned for this purpose to assist the diocesan bishops craft new ways and means for reaching the Black community. 

In 1984, there were ten African American bishops and over two hundred African American diocesan and religious priests serving in the United States. The African American bishops at that time acknowledged that the African American community was making its way in the Catholic Church and had a good deal to offer as one among many constituent groups in the broad ethnic and racial portrait of the Church in the United States. We who were served, ministered, and evangelized are now capable of serving, ministering, and evangelizing alongside others in the Church. The African American bishops wanted the Black Catholic community to recognize this confidently and see themselves assured in their own blackness and catholicity, proud to offer their time, talent, and treasure to the building up of the Church.

The summons emanating from this document was a call to sew the gifts of Catholicism more effectively in the Black community. Absent a corporate plan to integrate freed slaves into the American landscape following Emancipation or anything like social services, Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) first voiced that the Catholic Church was the chief means of spiritual and material advancement for peoples of African descent. Tolton’s wise insight remains with us still.

We are more than just one among many varieties of religious experiences of black people in this country. We Black Catholics recognize the unique gifts of Catholicism and first and foremost its benefits to us as individuals and as families. Our apostolic, scriptural, and sacramental rooted church tradition offers the fullness of Christian religious experience for anyone, Black, white, or brown, who desires to live the Christian life.

Forty years later, not surprisingly, the concerns enunciated in the pastoral letter of the Black bishops remain with us and, in instances, are now more acute. In our urban areas, for example, many of our churches exist as islands amid neighborhoods of unchurched or hardly church affiliated families and individuals. The church campuses we have inherited, in most respects, are aged and are of a size that matched much larger and earlier populations of European American Catholics who have, in many urban situations, shifted to outline communities and who seldom, if ever, return to worship in these churches where their families were anointed with the crucial sacraments of initiation and vocation. African American Catholics have expended huge sums by their stewardship in maintaining and preserving these artistic and valued structures.

It is with this purpose in mind that the pastoral of the bishops suggested launching an evangelization intensive in our parishes to reeducate ourselves through a catechesis of the principles of evangelization and with emphasis on outreach to our families and surrounding communities. Clearly, in these times, we must be preoccupied with the topic of growth in our churches. The traditional feeds of infant baptism and convert numbers are not as apparent today as they were several generations previous. Church participating families are the seeding ground of church life.


Our parishes tend to be among the smallest in the dioceses and struggle to pay their bills. Dioceses, where financially capable, have been generous with their assistance to our parishes, especially with major and emergency repairs and administrative costs. At the same time episodic economic downturns affect the Church’s coffers. Dioceses are as capable as its people’s generosity and stewardship are. We are witnessing massive change and restructuring of parishes and parochial schools happening these days across the country.

Given changes in society over which we have little to no control; given what certain commentators describe as a diminished religious tone to US society; given the aging process evident in our cities with their religious and civic structures, lessened resources and lack of investment, the Black Catholic community notices a diminishment of the Church in our communities. Added to these concerns is the matter of the smaller number of visible Black vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, obscuring an attraction to our Church by Black youth seeing our devoted lives as a credible possibility for themselves.

With rarely anything new put in the place of closures, the community is exhibiting a definite closure-weariness if not an anxiety about what the Church means and purports to do among a people who are not of a financial means to create much of this for themselves. Some renewed as well as new strategies are needed for an effective hold with Black Catholic youth and young adults for sake of the future. Combined assistance and stewardship will continue for the foreseeable future as support agents for Black Catholic church programs and initiatives. We are pleased to hear that focus on youth and young adults in various strategies is a priority of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, its Committee on Cultural Diversity and its Subcommittee on African American Affairs. All is not lost. And if we look at the present situation in its possibilities, we can perhaps come up with methods workable for the times.

What We Have Seen and Heard still rings loud and effective in its message for what the Black Catholic community can do to present itself ready-and-willing for service in the Catholic Church, and what leaders in the Church can do to assist in the evangelization of the African American community.

As national and local priorities have shifted since the establishment of pastoral liaison offices for varying ethnicities, we are reminded of the summons of the Black bishops’ pastoral: we Black Catholics need to rise to the moment of ownership of our faith tradition and take ourselves forward. Various assistance ministries across the nation are not as apparent as they were a generation ago. But we can pick up the slack to a degree, organize ourselves to pass the faith we love to our children and grandchildren, in tribute to the ancestral fathers and mothers who first set the stepping stones along the way, with little to work with, so we can step upon them in confident hope.

The Pastoral Letter What We Have Seen and Heard is available online, along with a study guide. Additionally, a video featuring highlights from the National Black Catholic Congress XIII is streamable for free on Vimeo.