African-American priests hard to find in LA archdiocese

Nation’s most diverse Catholic diocese has ordained just one U.S.-born African-American priest in its 82-year history

Faithful attend the 8th Annual African American Catholic Ancestral Mass at St. Odilia Church in South Los Angeles November 10, 2018. (image: John McCoy)

William King knew he wanted to be a priest since he was 4 years old.

He traces the decision to one of his childhood priests, Father Greg Chisholm, a Jesuit who once served as pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Jefferson Park. Like King, Chisholm is African American, and seeing him in this role planted the idea that he, too, could become a priest someday.

When King was in high school, another African American priest, Father Allan Roberts, the late pastor of St. Bernadette Church, took him under his wing and nurtured this vocation.

King, 22, aspired to be like them — strong preachers, personable and good caretakers of their parishes — and their presence proved to him that priesthood was a viable path for African Americans. So after graduating high school in 2015, he entered Juan Diego House, a seminary for men aiming to become priests for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“It made a huge impact to know that black men like myself could be in a role that’s predominantly seen as white or Latino — and that I could do it well,” he said.

But his experience is not the norm. Many black men in Los Angeles have never known an African American priest, and vocation stories like King’s are becoming increasingly rare.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles — the nation’s most diverse Catholic diocese, where worship and ministry happen in more than 40 languages — has ordained only one U.S.-born African American priest in its 82-year history. 

Roberts, King’s mentor, became the first African American priest ordained by the archdiocese in 1980, but since his death in 2016, Los Angeles has had no African American diocesan priests. 

“It’s the reality of many of our dioceses,” said Father Stephen Thorne, a priest with the National Black Catholic Congress. “I believe that God has called black men to the priesthood in the Catholic Church, so it’s not about the call. It’s that we have not done our best to recruit them and to sustain that vocation.”

Today, of the 3 million African American Catholics living in the United States, only eight are active bishops, 250 are priests, and 75 are seminarians in formation for the priesthood, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Even if African Americans do enter seminary, it’s not always an easy path. Deacon Mark Race, of Transfiguration Church in Leimert Park, called it a form of culture shock.

When he applied to seminary, he was asked why he wanted to be a deacon.

“I remember saying that I wanted to be a deacon so that I could come back to my community, represent the archdiocese and show an African American face as clergy,” he said. “And I was told point-blank that you’re not being ordained for your community — you’re being ordained for the diocese. Initially that was hard to swallow.”

In addition, he said, the style of worship he had grown up with wasn’t taught at seminary.

“They’re not singing your songs, they’re not praying your prayers, they’re not preaching the way you preach, they’re not doing anything the way you learned it,” he said.

“What you’re bringing almost has to be strained out of you so that you can learn what’s called the ‘proper’ way of worshipping, the ‘proper’ way for liturgy, the ‘proper’ way for doing things,” he went on. “It’s a whole new type of learning. So it’s difficult, especially for a young man who’s been in the African American community his whole life.”

King, who entered seminary in 2015, agreed. Several of his fellow seminarians told him that they didn’t like the African American style of worship — singing, dancing, call, and response — or that it was liturgically incorrect.

“If we trace our Christian roots, we know that it started with different people in different villages in their homes, celebrating the Eucharist in different languages,” he said. “So why can’t African Americans worship and celebrate how they feel comfortable?”

Father Samuel Ward, vocations director for the archdiocese, said these types of incidents show “unfamiliarity and ignorance” with African American culture.

“When people say, ‘We don’t do Gospel here,’ it’s just because you haven’t done it here before,” he said. “And that’s different from a dogmatic law of ‘No, we can’t.’ ”

King’s mentor, Roberts, died during his first year at Juan Diego House, so he had to look beyond Los Angeles for guidance from other African American priests who understood what he was going through.

A year-and-a-half into his formation, King decided to leave. It was a combination of factors, he said — personal, spiritual, academic — as well as a realization that the seminary was no longer a good fit for his goals. So in 2016 he withdrew from Juan Diego House.

King was the archdiocese’s only African American seminarian, and today it has none.

After King left the seminary in 2016, he started working for a stained-glass artist who creates windows for churches and hospitals in Los Angeles. The experience broadened his horizons and brought him closer to God, he said.

But stepping away from seminary also made clear to him that he needed to return.

So last year he re-applied and was accepted into seminary — but not to a seminary with the archdiocese. Instead, he is now with St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart — commonly known as the Josephites — a nationwide religious order that specifically ministers to African Americans.

By joining the Josephites, he said, he’s guaranteed to serve African Americans and to help revive the black Catholic community — missions he said he feels called to do.

But it also means leaving Los Angeles. In January, King moved to Washington, D.C., to attend St. Joseph’s Seminary. After ordination, he could be sent anywhere in the country.

Full story at Angelus News.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Identity politics is ruining America. So why bring it into the Church too? Based on the article it seems blacks want to be Baptists as well as Catholics, want the prestige of the Catholic Church while worshipping like Baptists. Sorry, you’re either Catholic or you’re not. You either worship like Catholics or you don’t. I’ve been in parishes with imported African priests, and they are the most devout priests I have seen. So it’s not about skin color, it’s not about ethnic or racial identity over church identity, but some in Los Angeles want to make it that way. Just go to the Religious Ed Congress in a couple weeks to see what politically correct identity politics is doing to the Church and its worship.

  2. William Roberts says

    Anonymous: your comments reflect a common misunderstanding of liturgy in the Church. There is a great deal of variation in the liturgy in the Catholic Church. Based on your statement, our sisters and brothers in the Maronite, Melkite, Armenian, Syro-Malabar Catholic Churches along with the other Churches of the “Eastern lung” of the Catholic Church are worshipping in the wrong manner. The Catholic Church is not the American Catholic Church but the Universal Catholic Church. E pluribus unum!

    • Anonymous says

      If black Catholics want to worship according to an Eastern Catholic liturgical rite, sure. If they want to make the Roman Rite a Gospel music production of the American South, a-la Baptist churches, no. The ones who misunderstand liturgy are those who corrupt the Roman Rite with novelties and secularism.

      None of those Eastern Catholic rites employ secular music, certainly not Gospel music. Only the Roman Rite does, and only by certain “progressive” liturgical innovators. Hmm…

      The Roman Rite shouldn’t have Gospel or rap music, Mariachi music, bluegrass music, polka or jazz music, rock music, or pop praise and worship music. only sacred music. Read Archbishop Sample’s letter about Sacred Music, and you’ll understand why the…

      • Your Fellow Catholic says

        Why not use Gospel Music? The Catholic Church became universal because it was willing to adapt along cultural lines, for twenty decades. Why stop now, because some want to freeze the liturgy along 16th century euro-centric norms? Our very Church Fathers represent this: Peter for the Western Churches, Paul for the Eastern Churches. That is embedded in the prayers for the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, June 29!

    • Lou Varini says

      William,

      Agree totally, the Catholic Church comes in different flavors, yet, despite differences in liturgical traditions, the Sacraments are all valid within each of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

      Alomg with that, Sacraments and the graces attached carry the same sanctifying grace, regardless of the nationality or ethnicity of the minister.

  3. Lou Varini says

    The Church needs validly ordained priests period. There is no difference whether a Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Eskimo, Pacific Islander, etc. priest administers the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The sanctifying grace is the same!

    Catholic means “Universal”. This preference of a particular ethnic group over another for the priesthood is totally Un-Catholic.

    • Your Fellow Catholic says

      Why not use Gospel Music? The Catholic Church became universal because it was willing to adapt along cultural lines, for twenty decades. Why stop now, because some want to freeze the liturgy along 16th century euro-centric norms? Our very Church Fathers represent this: Peter for the Western Churches, Paul for the Eastern Churches. That is embedded in the prayers for the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, June 29!

      • Lou Varini says

        The Catholic Church did not “become” universal. It has always been universal ever since Jesus gave the command to His Apostles:

        “Go forth and teach all nations everything I have commanded you”

        See Matt Ch. 28, verses 18 to 20.

  4. “By joining the Josephites, he said, he’s guaranteed to serve African Americans”. The color of our clergy or laity should be irrelevant. I am Catholic and have no racial prejudices but I abhor the obvious double standard in our society. If a seminarian said he joined a specific order so he would “be guaranteed to serve Caucasian Americans” he would be labeled a racist and I would not be reading this on this website. Because of political correctness I doubt the editor has the guts to print my response.

    • Anonymous says

      The ghettoization of American Catholicism is being fostered and promoted by the powers that be. Los Angeles touts that Mass is celebrated in 40 languages in the archdiocese as if it’s a great thing, but that masks the fact that it results from ethnic balkanization in the diocese. It’s not so much the faith that’s celebrated as ethnic and racial identity, which is exactly the problem with what you pointed out in that the subject of the article wants to only serve his own race. As you said, if a white priest only wanted to serve whites, it would be immediately slammed as racist. But try sending a white priest to a Korean community and see what ensues. Because they don’t want a white Catholic priest, they want a Korean.

  5. helen wheels says

    Lou V:
    agreed !!!

  6. Los Angeles still has a most holy black priest named Father Robert Bishop. He is a Claretian and was responsible for keeping the Latin Mass in Los Angeles rotating through four parishes. He was then given a weekly very-Sunday Mass in St. Therese in Alhambra. I have attended many sung solemn masses (i.e., three priests) with him officiating. He is an unsung Los Angeles hero. With Summorum Pontificum others followed but Fr. Bishop kept the Faith when most needed. His reward will be in Heaven.

  7. The African Catholic Church Holy Mass Service (ACC) video shows how the Africans combine their culture with reverence for the Mass. The procession is reverent while including African culture, and does not include dancing during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is similar to how the Coptic Christians of Egypt and Ethiopia do their liturgy.

    It becomes offensive when puppets and secular types of dancing are included in the re in enactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, as Cardinal Arinze, an African, has warned.

    • The video to which I referred is the one where the procession is all male, priests and deacons I assume. Evidently, each African tribe say the Mass differently and some do include dancing.

  8. William Robert says

    Anonymous: Catholic Missionaires have respected certain aspects of the local culture wherever they have traveled to spread the Faith. Those familiar with the New Testament (read the writings of St Paul) and the history of the Catholic Church will understand this. Asserting that the Eurocentric version of the Catholic Church is the only valid form of Catholicism reflects a misunderstanding of the Church and the Faith. I enjoy singing Amazing Grace.

    • Sometimes I listen to Protestant music on the radio because it certainly is better than some secular music, but I do not care for its use at a Catholic Mass as much of it contains heretical teaching. The hymns used in the back of the newer Liturgy of the Hours and Catholics Missals have the original Catholic lyrics or have had the heretical parts taken out, but occasionally one will slip through if people do not follow the rubrics closely, thus thus the rightful complaints.

  9. E pluribus unum? An American motto?
    God can understand all languages and cultures. Another recent CCD article describes how LA Filipinos prefer a recently elevated Filipino Bishop. No big outcry here over that.

    • Well, there certainly was a lot of horror in the Filipino community when a young priest in the Philippines came skating in on a skateboard and around the sanctuary to serve Mass. He was promptly disciplined by his bishop as he should have been.

  10. Keith w Petersen says

    I think it’s pretty normal to want a priest whose culture and language you’d be familiar with… it’s a matter of comfort. Now, that preference should not supersede holiness. Heck, I dont care where the priest comes from. Mars would be fine if the liturgy was reverent and according to the GIRM.

  11. Gratias: remember… one can keep the Faith attending and promoting the OF of the Holy Mass as well!

  12. Anonymous says

    It is a tough sell to get someone to be interested in becoming a priest. A seminarian is expected to be a piece of meat in a same-sex sexual abuse power structure that is oriented towards protecting pathological sodomists. Not too many people want to be part of that.

  13. This article misses one glaring fact, the Los Angeles Diocese HAS been served by MANY black priests, mostly from orders, like the Josephites and the Divine Word (think VERBUM DEI H.S.) priests, and others. Also there are many Nigerian Priests here and other Africans. Black priest candidates don’t like the LA Diocesan formation, and based on my familiarity, Los Angeles is producing mostly poorly formed priests and deacons, very concerned with PC issues, and of course, too often uninspiring.

    I agree with those who say liturgy MUST be rooted and not some poor immitation of the Protestant/Baptist/Pentecostal black church. But the modernist Catholic Church does liturgy poorly across the board. At least Gospel music, especially…

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