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Conference on black Catholicism concludes

Andrew Thagard | Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart moved to a different beat Saturday afternoon as members of a black Catholic conference titled “Uncommon Faithfulness: The Witness of African American Catholics” culminated the three-day event with a soulful Lenten Mass.The liturgy, complemented with “amens” of assent and clapping to the beat of music, featured Father Edward Branch of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Spelman College Glee Club. Branch dedicated his homily to describing the challenges facing black Catholics in the United States and redefined a reading describing Moses’ encounter with God through a burning bush in the Egyptian desert to serve as a challenge to conference participants.”We are in the desert, at the crossroads,” he said, in reference to the Lenten season. “We are all burning bushes. Do not ask about the [new] Moses, it quite possibly may be you. Do not get distracted as others have.”Branch lamented the hardships that blacks face, including increased poverty and unemployment compared to the average American. Twenty percent of the black population is between the ages of 10 and 19 and 30 percent live in poverty, he said, adding that the unemployment rate for blacks is twice the national average.”We must all push [this] agenda where we can, when we can,” he said.The Mass marked the conclusion of the conference, which featured presentations from 18 speakers focusing on the latest scholarship on black Catholics and celebrating the vitality of black Catholic life in the United States, according to Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for American Catholicism which sponsored the event. Matovina said that over 300 people attended the conference from across the country, including diocesan directors of African American pastoral ministry and academic scholars.”It was beyond anything we had imagined or planned,” he said. “It really was an engaging conference in an African American Catholic spirit and way … I took this job a year and a half ago and this was the first event I wanted to plan.”Popular conference speakers included Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., Shawn Copeland, professor of theology at Boston College, and Jamie Phelps, director of the Institute of Black Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, focused on black Catholic ministry while Copeland, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, described African American Catholic theology in the past and the possible changes it will undergo in the future.David Moss, assistant vice president of Student Affairs and conference attendee, complemented the event for its ability to focus on the past, present and future. He likewise praised the attitude of the participants, one that he characterized as a “let’s sit down and talk” approach.”It was real people talking about their personal experiences with American society and the Catholic Church,” Moss said. “I think it all gelled together very well.”Matovina said that he hopes to release a book through Notre Dame’s University Press in the coming year, outlining the proceedings of the conference. He also said that a future conference on campus is possible in light of the event’s success.