“No person has ever been simply Catholic, and any attempt to discuss or frame Catholicism without acknowledging the great diversity of the Catholic faithful or the intersection of people’s identities is woefully inadequate and perhaps even intentionally insincere. Indeed, I immediately become suspicious when I hear someone dare to offer the “Catholic” perspective … being Catholic means to live, breathe, serve, and rejoice in the Holy Spirit like Martha Jane Chisley Tolton. It also means to be the pious, but once lapsed, black Catholic woman to whom Martha Jane’s son, Father Augustus Tolton, administered death rites on Sunday, May 10, 1891. Nine years earlier, this black woman, whose name has been lost in the historical record, had been “hurled out of a white church and even cursed at by the Irish members” for daring to worship with her fellow Catholics in Chicago as equals. Despite suffering such savage violence and hatred from white Catholics, this woman’s faith had endured, and she “thanked God” at her death for a priest who finally saw her as a human being and a child of God. That is what it means to keep the faith and serve God in the face of oppression. That is what it means to be truly Catholic.”
The Catholic Church is called such because it is supposed to be catholic (i.e. universal). I grew up in a stodgy, white church, where the only, right, sacred way to worship God is that of Northern European liturgical culture, language, and music handed down to the present unchanged. I have my own complaints about that myopic perspective, but it pales in comparison with the stories Dr. Williams shares about herself and other black Catholics throughout history.
At the end of the day, why do we stay? The only reason that makes sense is that although the Church is made of imperfect humans that do plenty of awful things, we are all centered around and reaching for God, Who makes us more than the sum of our imperfect parts.
Over the last month, I have had the privilege of interviewing, via email, Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Williams is currently working on the manuscript for her first book entitled, “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America,” which unearths the forgotten history of black Catholic sisters in the fight to eradicate racial and gender barriers in the U.S. Church and wider American society. When published, it will be the first historical monograph on black nuns in twentieth-century America.
JS: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of the conversation here at Daily Theology. If you don’t mind, let’s start with your background. Could you tell me a bit about your own journey, growing up in the Catholic Church?
Dr. Shannen Dee Williams
SW: Growing up, I could count the number of…
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