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Text of Cardinal Gregory’s homily for the opening Mass of the National Black Catholic Congress

(The following is the text of the homily given by Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, on July 21, 2023 at the opening Mass for Congress XIII of the National Black Catholic Congress, held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.)

Visionaries are important people for every culture. They are the ones who are able to see and to discover unimagined possibilities. They are those who offer people hope. They are the lead agents for change. We all need visionaries and fortunately, we Black Catholics have many such visionaries in our heritage to follow and to honor.

One of the late Father Clarence Rivers’ frequent admonitions was “without a vision, the people perish.” It is the citation on his funeral commemorative card. Clarence, the first African-American Cincinnati diocesan priest, was a tremendously gifted man with an artistic vision and great musical talent. When I first returned from Rome, he called me at Mundelein Seminary. He said, “You have the degree, but I have the talent.” He is but one of those Black Catholics whose legacy and memory should remain a source of hope and courage for the current generation. In many respects, Clarence was the father of African-American liturgical inculturation.

There are now six Black candidates for sainthood who have offered us incredible visions and who led exemplary lives of holiness and hope. As these women and men continue down the passageway toward official sainthood, we rightfully ought to take special pride in the gifts and in the spiritual examples that they bestowed upon our entire Church.  Their progress in the sainthood trek must inspire us all to follow their courageous examples as we all learn more about their extraordinary routes to holiness under conditions that were as challenging as any that we now face – if not more so.

God chooses women and men to do astonishing things in every age.  He saves each of us in unusual ways like through a sacred meal that we continue to adhere to following specific instructions and patterns as He did for our Hebrew forebears who were then held as captives in Egypt. He fed them before He freed them. So dramatic was their escape from slavery, that even today, our Jewish sisters and brothers painstakingly rehearse the telling of that freedom episode annually so that every generation will participate in this liberation event throughout the ages. This commemorative meal of deliverance is a lesson that must never be forgotten.

We all glimpse more hopefully at tomorrow when we call to mind the great events of yesterday – the heroes and the heroines from the past who assure us that eventually we will overcome. It is our solemn responsibility to pass on that liberating vision to the generations to come as do our Hebrew brothers and sisters annually reminding their children – even today of their passage from pharoah’s bondage to freedom. Our own young people so desperately need a well-honed faith vision to pierce through the haze of hatred and violence that too often disrupts our world and may, in fact, dishearten them.

There is perhaps no more important contemporary visionary for people of color than that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He spoke so boldly of his vision – the dream – that he offered to all men and women in this very city. Dr. King has been referred to as our nation’s only modern-day founding father, so vital was his vision for this country and indeed for the entire world. His vision challenges everyone in the United States to dream of a better world, a more perfect union, and a society truly free from hatred and fear.  Like most visionaries, Dr. King eventually paid the ultimate price for his dream. Visionaries often must endure the ridicule, the skeptical glance, and the violent response of those who may be frightened by a dream or a vision that might urge people to change.

Jesus Himself was the revelation of freedom sent by the Father. He chose disciples – ordinary men and women – and entrusted that life-changing vision to them. We are the Church that has been entrusted with the redemptive vision of the Lord. We are, in so many ways, Jesus’ vision of a people called into holiness. Sometimes that vision can be frightening. Sometimes it can be daunting. But it is always the treasure that we must share with all men and women.

Pope Francis wrote an encyclical that focuses on Jesus’ vision of universal harmony and friendship – Fratelli Tutti. He beckons all people to see one another through the eyes of a deep familial unity. Like Dr. King, and those holy men and women of color making their way through the labyrinth process of canonization, we are invited into a genuine friendship with God and deeper unity among ourselves and all other people. 

The Holy Father has taken the prophetic admonition of Habakkuk to heart, and Pope Francis has written a vision of human unity and solidarity for our entire world to consider and to adopt. He serves as a visionary for human solidarity, and he invites all of humanity to share that vision that will bring true healing and lasting peace to our worldwide family.  May we all accept the challenge of following that vision into a more peaceful tomorrow.  And let it begin today. Amen.