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In keynote at National Black Catholic Congress, Cardinal Gregory says Eucharist inspires ‘our prophetic call to love’

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory gives his keynote address at Congress XIII of the National Black Catholic Congress, held at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at National Harbor, Maryland on July 21, 2023. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Addressing an estimated 3,000 African American Catholics from 80 dioceses across the United States gathered for Congress XIII of the National Black Catholic Congress in the Washington, D.C., area from July 20-23, Cardinal Wilton Gregory welcomed them to “a family reunion,” and encouraged them to center their lives on the Eucharist in order to bring Christ’s love and hope to the world.

“Our prophetic call to love is found in the Eucharist,” Cardinal Gregory said in his July 21 keynote address at the National Black Catholic Congress at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland.

Washington’s archbishop drew his remarks from the Congress XIII theme inspired by Habakkuk 2:2, “Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive.”

“The Eucharist unites us to live courageously and with unending hope that through prayer, planning and hard work, we will indeed thrive,” the cardinal said.

Before his talk, a choir of about 125 singers led participants in singing stirring spirituals and gospel hymns, as they stood, swayed and clapped during the time of morning prayer and praise.

Choir members sing on July 21 during morning prayer and praise at the National Black Catholic Congress, held at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at National Harbor, Maryland. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Welcoming people to this year’s congress gathering, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., the president of the National Black Catholic Congress, said, “God brings us to where we are, to do what He calls us to do.”

He noted that normally the congress meets every five years, but after Congress XII in Orlando in 2017, the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years delayed the next one until people could gather together again safely. 

Also welcoming the participants, Valerie Washington, the executive director of the National Black Catholic Congress, said the next few days would feature panels, presentations and keynote addresses, offering participants the chance to learn together, pray together and offer praise to God together, as they celebrated their faith and culture as Black Catholics and worked to renew the pastoral plan of the congress.

Cardinal-designate Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, received a standing ovation when he appeared on stage to greet the participants. The newly named cardinal read a message from Pope Francis, in which the pontiff praised the faith of the nation’s Black Catholics and offered an apostolic blessing to the congress participants. In the message, Pope Francis encouraged them to be witnesses to the joy of the Gospel in their days of shared prayer and dialogue and to build up the kingdom of God as missionary disciples of Jesus in today’s world.

Cardinal-designate Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to United States, addresses the National Black Catholic Congress gathering at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at National Harbor, Maryland on July 21, 2023. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

During a boisterous roll call session before the cardinal’s keynote, people sprang up in different parts of the massive assembly hall and cheered and shouted when the name of their diocese or group was announced. 

National Black Catholic Congress participants from the Archdiocese of Denver cheer as the name of their archdiocese was announced during a roll call at the gathering’s opening plenary session on July 21 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at National Harbor, Maryland. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Cardinal Gregory, who in 2020 was named a cardinal by Pope Francis, becoming the first African American cardinal in history, was also greeted with a standing ovation by participants when he stepped to the podium to give his keynote address.

The cardinal noted that the National Black Catholic Congress met at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1987. “We have come a great way, but we have so much farther to go. And so, here we are, Lord!” he said.

Behind him were large banners depicting the six African American men and women being considered for sainthood, including Mother Mary Virginia Lange, the foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first Catholic order of African American women religious, who was declared to be “venerable” by Pope Francis on June 22. The banners also depicted Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, the first U.S. Catholic priest publicly known to be Black who celebrated Mass at St. Augustine Church in Washington at the inaugural Black Catholic Congress in 1889; and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and dynamic singer and evangelist who was a speaker at the 1987 congress gathering.

Those “six holy souls” are a great source of inspiration to Black Catholics and all Catholics for their example of prayer, perseverance and devotion to the Eucharist, the cardinal said.

People hold their rosaries that were being blessed during the opening plenary session of the National Black Catholic Congress, held at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at National Harbor, Maryland on July 21, 2023 . (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Cardinal Gregory also praised the legacy of faith of the nation’s Black Catholics.

“We are living, breathing testaments of how much God loves us. We have overcome generations of anguish, suffering, and injustice. We have kept the faith even when many could not understand why or how we have kept the faith,” the cardinal said, as the participants applauded those remarks. “We stand tall on the shoulders of those who have gone before us – teaching us priceless lessons of perseverance and dedication.”

Then the cardinal added, “Our vision must include transmitting that same help and hope to those who will follow us,” and he praised the faith he had witnessed among young people participating in a Youth Town Hall at the congress the previous evening. “Don’t be fooled by the notion that our youth are the future, the Church of tomorrow; indeed, they are the energetic, thoughtful, passionate Church of the now. I daresay we have so much to learn from them, as they from us.”

Cardinal Gregory praised the vibrancy of Black Catholic liturgical celebrations that “draw all of us into an encounter with Jesus Christ.”

Emphasizing the importance of the Eucharist, Cardinal Gregory said, “As we search our hearts for understanding, we must do what every generation before us has done – we must anchor ourselves in the Eucharist. It is impossible to listen to Christ’s voice if we do not carefully and consciously pause the busyness of our daily lives.” 

He added, “We are a people of prayer encountering Christ in the Eucharist. We depend on the Bread of Life, Who has come to us in love so that we may encourage others and love them as Christ loves them… It is in the receiving of Christ in the Eucharist that we are transformed. The Eucharist gives us the energy and the impetus to continue to strive for justice.”

Returning to the theme of Congress XIII, the cardinal emphasized that “the Eucharist strengthens us, soothes us, and heals us so that we may build lives that radiate the love, the care, and the peace that we so desperately need and desire. This, my friends in Christ, is how we will thrive. It is why we will thrive. We know too well that no vision can be realized without God’s hand guiding our steps and without our constant reliance on the Eucharist.” 

He noted how Pope Francis has set the Catholic Church around the world “on a synodal path of listening, dialogue, participation and mission,” while the Church in the United States has undertaken a National Eucharistic Revival. 

“These are new and innovative ways to place us in renewed relationships – growing in holiness even as we grow deeper in our love for Christ Jesus,” he said. “We write our vision to thrive with each act of love. Every word of encouragement we offer and every demonstration of respect for the dignity of another person is a sign of holiness.”

Cardinal Gregory said the theme of the congress offers participants the opportunity to seek a vision for their homes, communities, parishes and the Church, and he said that by putting their trust in God, they can continue to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

Concluding his remarks, the cardinal said, “As we set about the important work of writing our vision and responding to the prophetic call to thrive in love and service, the Eucharist is our unifying reminder that we belong to one another and are truly, entirely interdependent. God created our human hearts to love, to care and to support our brothers and sisters, and that is how we will thrive. For we are members of one proud Catholic family of enduring, unshakeable faith, and that’s what families do! May God be praised, glorified and blessed always, and may you know His closeness and the prophetic call in your life today and every day of your tomorrow.”

In a brief question and answer session afterward, Cardinal Gregory said that on the morning when Pope Francis named him a cardinal, he felt in his heart that it was not so much an honor for him personally, but “a recognition of the faith of the people from which I came.”