Given the traditional European/American profile of the Church in the United States, there has always been urgings from the smaller ethnic groupings… Hispanic, African American, Italian, Polish, Asian, etc to have Episcopal representation. And each group has its own story to tell with getting bishops appointed.
We have had to this day, since the 19th century, twenty-four extraordinary and gifted men from the black community appointed bishops of the Catholic Church.
Following upon the Civil Rights struggle and the neo-black consciousness of the African-American community with the concomitant search for identity and reception in the larger Catholic Church there was the press for more black bishops in this country. Most of these bishops were appointed in the 1980s; two Archbishops in Eugene Marino and James Lyke who both shepherded the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Wilton Gregory follows given what appears to be now the Catholic significance of Atlanta in the southern base with his recent appointment as Archbishop of Atlanta December 9, 2004.
Bishops are successors of the Apostles according to doctrine. The office of bishop is highest of the holy orders. The ranks of Archbishop, Cardinal and Pope are honorary titles with even larger responsibilities. (In history the rank of Cardinal has been conferred upon select priests. If a pope is elected from among the deacons or priests, the elected must be consecrated a bishop immediately. However, recent tradition sees the pope elected exclusively from the college of Cardinals).
Bishops are responsible directly to the Holy Father in Rome for the affairs of their dioceses or non-diocesan assignments. They are consecrated by other bishops, at least three, who belong to the apostolic succession tracing to Peter the Fisherman who was given the keys of the Church by our Savior Jesus Christ. Bishops function in obedience to the reigning successor of Peter, -the pope. Once consecrated in the Catholic tradition a bishop is a bishop for life. He may retire from the administrative aspects of the office or governance of a Diocese, usually submitting his request to the pope not before the age of seventy-five unless infirmity intervenes.
The sacrament of holy orders confers on a bishop spiritual power in its fullness. A bishop administers confirmation and ordains priests and deacons and consecrates other bishops. Besides administration of the temporal and spiritual affairs of a diocese it is the bishop’s duty to teach, that is, to guard the purity of doctrine and morals and see that this is given to the faithful; to maintain discipline, to provide that the faithful receive the sacraments and ensure the correct ordering of divine worship; to reside in his jurisdiction; to visit the parishes of his diocese and to collaborate with his priests for the governance and sanctification of the faithful. The bishop’s authority never in any instance infringes upon the power over the whole Church which the Roman Pontiff the Pope has, by virtue of his supreme office.
Self promotion or campaigning or application for the sacred office is never permitted. Names of the best of men surface quietly by recognition of superiors in the hierarchy and the hierarchy hearing subtly the commendations of the laity and clergy and thereby proposing names of candidates to Rome, unbeknownst to the candidates themselves. And in the instances of each of the African American bishops each can testify to being quite surprised with the news of their nomination.
The appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church belongs exclusively to the Pope. The decree of appointment, signed by the Pope, is read to the congregation following proclamation of the Gospel at the liturgy of the ordination of a bishop. There is often a month or two space between the date of official appointment and the date of liturgical consecration.
Bishops are delineated as Ordinaries, Coadjutors and Auxiliaries. An Ordinary is a governing bishop of an Arch/Diocese-the chief shepherd of a Diocese (territorial jurisdiction of the Catholic Church). Given the size of the diocesan jurisdiction he may have an assisting bishop or two called an auxiliary bishop who would be titled to the commemorative name of a former diocese no longer existing but for which the Church chooses to hold in honored memory. Most of these former dioceses are ancient in origin and were vital local churches of their day found in Asia Minor, North Africa, Italy and parts of Europe and other regions. We have about six or seven such former Sees in the United States. For example, my titular See is Lead (pronounced leed) in South Dakota. After four Ordinaries the Diocese of Lead was transferred to Rapid City, South Dakota in 1930 due to demographic shifts in the region.
If an auxiliary bishop becomes an Ordinary his title transfers immediately to the Diocese to which he is newly assigned and so is no longer a titular bishop. Coadjutors are assisting bishops, many of whom have the right of succession upon the retirement, resignation or death of the reigning Ordinary. Certain titular bishops are neither auxiliary or coadjutors but head an office or department at the Vatican or are nuncios and other representatives of the Holy Father in countries that have concordat agreements or an exchange of ambassadors with the Holy See.
The first whom history would call a bishop of African descent in the United States is James Augustine Healy (1830-1900). The Healy children had an Irish Father (Michael Morris Healy) who was a slave owner and a slave woman (Mary Eliza) of fair complexion as their mother. Both Healy parents died in 1850 several months apart. Three of the daughters became nuns. The movements of the Father in majority society and the fair complexion of his sons eased their participation in broader society and entrance into the ranks of the clergy of four of the ten children. As the first priests of African descent in the United States: two entered the Jesuit Order, one of whom became rector and later president of Georgetown University in Washington DC and two were Diocesan priests of Boston. James Augustine was ordained priest at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, June 10, 1854, for service in the diocese of Boston and would be given tasks as Chancellor and Vicar General of the Diocese and later became 2nd bishop of Portland, Maine in 1875.
The 19th century was a different time as far as the politics of race relations went. There is no record of assertive or visionary articulations on Bishop Healy’s part for the plight of black Americans. It is said there were several hundred black Catholics in Boston during his tenure and an even larger number of Native Americans.
There would not be another African American bishop until Divine Word Father Harold R. Perry, SVD, appointed October 2, 1965 titular bishop of Mons in Mauretania and auxiliary bishop of New Orleans. So long was the break between the first and the second black bishops that Perry’s consecration was indeed a monumental achievement for the 1960s given the Civil Rights saga and The Black Power Movement and considering the overall tumultuous impact of that era on the black community as backdrop. In fact, at his consecration there was a group of white protestors with racist placards demonstrating outside St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Bishop Harold Perry died July 17, 1991 after a long illness.
The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus was created at a media reported meeting in Detroit in the turbulent spring of 1968. That meeting acknowledged racist practices in the Church and among other items called for greater numbers of black priests and bishops. Thereafter, we witnessed the appointment of thirteen black bishops for the decades of the 1970s and 1980s chiefly by Ordinaries complementing black Catholic populations in their dioceses:
November 8, 1972 Raleigh Diocesan priest James Lawson Howze was appointed titular bishop of Massita and auxiliary bishop of Natchez-Jackson, Mississippi. Bishop Howze was later appointed bishop of Biloxi March 1, 1977 and retired May 15, 2001.
Josephite Father Eugene A. Marino, SSJ was appointed titular bishop of Walla-Walla and auxiliary bishop of Washington on July 11, 1974. He was later appointed Archbishop of Atlanta March 10, 1988; he resigned the archbishopric July 10, 1990 and died November 12, 2000.
Divine Word Father Joseph Abel Francis, SVD was appointed titular bishop of Valliposita and auxiliary bishop of Newark on May 3, 1976 and served there until his death September 1, 1997.
Divine Word Father Raymond Rodly Caesar, SVD was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Goroka, Eastern Highlands- Papua New Guinea on August 5, 1978 and died June 18, 1987.
Franciscan Friar James Patterson Lyke, OFM was appointed titular bishop of Fornos Maior and auxiliary bishop of Cleveland on June 30, 1979. Following the death of Archbishop Marino he was appointed apostolic administrator of Atlanta July 10, 1990 and then became Archbishop of Atlanta April 30, 1991. Archbishop Lyke died December 27, 1992.
New York priest and monsignor Emerson J. Moore was appointed titular bishop of Carubi and auxiliary bishop of New York on July 3, 1982. Bishop Moore died September 14, 1995.
Edmundite Father Moses E. Anderson, SSE was appointed titular bishop of Viterba and auxiliary bishop of Detroit December 3, 1982. Bishop Anderson retired October 24, 2003.
Chicago priest Wilton D. Gregory was appointed titular bishop of Oliva and auxiliary bishop of Chicago October 31, 1983. Ten years later he was appointed bishop of Belleville in Illinois. He was elected the first African American president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States (USCCB), a post he held for the standard three year term 2001-2004. Bishop Gregory was appointed Archbishop of Atlanta on December 9, 2004.
Divine Word Father James Terry Steib, SVD was appointed titular bishop of Fallaba and auxiliary bishop of St. Louis on December 6, 1983 and was later appointed bishop of Memphis in Tennessee on March 23, 1993.
Josephite Father John H. Ricard, SSJ was appointed titular bishop of Rucuma and auxiliary bishop of Baltimore on May 28, 1984 and was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida on January 21, 1997.
Josephite Father Carl A. Fisher, SSJ was appointed titular bishop of Tlos and auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles on December 23, 1986. Bishop Fisher died September 2, 1993.
Divine Word Father Curtis J. Guillory, SVD was appointed titular bishop of Stagno and auxiliary bishop of Galveston-Houston on December 21, 1987. Bishop Guillory became the bishop of Beaumont in Texas on June 2, 2000.
Divine Word Father Leonard Olivier, SVD was appointed titular bishop of Legia and auxiliary bishop of Washington on November 10, 1988 and retired on May 18, 2004
Although African American Catholics are among the smaller constituencies of the Catholic Church in the United States we had over recent years some several hundred black priests from which these aforesaid bishops were chosen. Most of the ordinations of black priests in this country took place in the 1970s and 1980s; vocation numbers tapering off thereafter. Right now priestly numbers in the African American community across the country hover around two-hundred. We need more priestly vocations in the Church in America in general and more African American priests in particular. Twenty-four bishops of African descent appointed over the years for the United States is a milestone. Currently ten are active and six are retired. Of the active African American Bishops, six are Ordinaries or heads of dioceses, i.e., Gregory, Steib, Ricard, Guillory, Murry and Braxton.
Concern registers from different circles in the African American Catholic community about how long we can maintain this representation of bishops given the much shrinking numbers of ordinations of black Catholic priests in the United States.
Divine Word Father Dominic Carmon, SVD was appointed titular bishop of Rusicade and auxiliary bishop of New Orleans on December 16, 1992. Bishop Carmon retired December 13, 2006.
Diocese of St. Thomas U.S. Virgin Islands priest Elliott Thomas was appointed bishop of the same Diocese on October 30, 1993. Bishop Thomas retired June 30, 1999.
Jesuit Father George V. Murry, SJ was appointed titular bishop of Fuerteventura and auxiliary bishop of Chicago January 24, 1995. He became coadjutor bishop of St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands May 5, 1998. He became bishop of St. Thomas June 30, 1999. Bishop Murry was appointed the bishop of Youngstown March 28, 2007.
Chicago priest Edward Braxton was appointed titular bishop of Macomades-Rusticiana and auxiliary bishop of St. Louis on March 28, 1995. And was later appointed bishop of the Diocese of Lake Charles in Louisiana on December 12, 2000 and was transferred as bishop of Belleville, Illinois, March 15, 2004.
Jesuit Father Gordon B. Bennett, SJ was appointed titular bishop of Nesqually and auxiliary bishop of Baltimore on December 23, 1997. Bishop Bennett became bishop of the Diocese of Mandeville on the Island of Jamaica on July 6, 2004. A turn with his health saw Bishop Bennett resigned the bishopric August 8, 2006.
Milwaukee priest Joseph N. Perry was appointed titular bishop of Lead and auxiliary bishop of Chicago May 5, 1998.
Pensacola-Tallahassee priest Martin D. Holley was appointed titular bishop of Rusubisir and auxiliary bishop of Washington on May 18, 2004.
Brooklyn priest and Haitian American, Guy A. Sansaricq was appointed titular bishop of Glenndalocha and auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn on June 6, 2006.
Baton Rouge priest Shelton J. Fabre was appointed titular bishop of Pudenziana and auxiliary bishop of New Orleans December 13, 2006.
Of the 24 black bishops appointed, ten were taken from the Diocesan clergy and fourteen from religious orders and societies. The latter number represents the larger numbers of black priestly vocations found from the ranks of religious communities and chiefly, in this instance, communities that have historically ministered to the black community, such as, the Divine Word Fathers-SVD (7), the Josephite Fathers-SSJ (3). Then we have from the Jesuit Fathers-SJ (2) the Franciscan Fathers-OFM (1); the Edmundite Fathers-SSE (1).
Our black bishops are sources of pride in the African American Catholic community. We trust they are symbols of faith and achievement for our young people, models of inspiration for our black priests, received as authoritative shepherds and teachers by the faithful at large. •