Black History Month

February is Black History Month.  I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the Catholic saints from the African continent, for they are among the greatest saints in our hagiography.  You know some of their names but there are many you don’t.  Saint Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria in 373.  Saint Marcellinus was an African missionary priest who brought the gospel from Africa to France in the 4th century.  Saint Victor was the first African Pope in 189 AD.  Saint Cyril was the Patriarch of Alexandria in the 5th century.  Saint Charles Lwanga was martyred in Africa in 1886 for his Catholic faith.  Blessed Josephine Bakhita was a Sudanese slave girl who became a nun and lived a difficult, but holy life.  Blessed Josephine died in 1947.  In 483 AD over 5000 African natives were martyred for their Catholic faith by the Vandal King; today they are all saints.  Saint Matthew was the Apostle and Evangelist who brought the gospel he had written to what is toady Sudan.  Saint Moses lived in the 4th century and was a gang leader who had a great conversion to Christianity and died a martyr for the Catholic faith.  Saint Martin de Porres is one of my favorites.  He was born in Peru to a Spanish father and Africa slave mother in the 17th century.  He became a pharmacist and a Dominican so he could dispense medicine to the poor.  Martin would wait on the docks for the slave ships to arrive so he could board the ships to care for the slaves with medicine and with the hope of the Catholic faith.  You will always see Saint Martin with a broom in his hand, because he would help care for the needs of the slaves onboard their ships and then teach them the gospel.  He referred to himself as “the slave of the slaves.”

Pierre Toussaint came to New York as a slave in 1787 from Haiti.  When his owner Jean Berard died penniless, Toussaint cared for Berard’s wife both financially and emotionally.  She granted him his freedom in 1807.  During the yellow fever epidemic, which overtook New York City, Blessed Pierre Toussaint opened his home to the homeless and even paid for their schooling.  He died in 1853.  A few years ago, his remains were transferred from a simple non-descript graveyard and reinterred beneath the great high altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.  The former slave rests there right now and for all eternity—next to the great cardinal-princes of the Church awaiting the day of the Resurrection.

The most famous of all however were mother and son:  Saint Monica and Saint Augustine.  Saint Monica was a newcomer to the Catholic faith and she encouraged her husband and children to accept the faith, which they did.  There was great reluctance on the part of her last son, Augustine.  Determined to have her son accept Christianity, Monica would walk through town and village asking strangers to pray for her son Augustine, that he might become a Christian.  She even took to knocking on the houses of the priests in the middle of the night to ask them to pray for Augustine’s conversion.  St. Monica prayed for her son Augustine’s conversion for 30 years; she never gave up.  Well they say “persistence trumps talent,” and so Augustine was baptized. What Saint Monica did not realize was that all those prayers not only compelled Augustine to become a Christian, but he also became priest, bishop, doctor of the church, and saint.  Saint Augustine is today one of the greatest minds to form the Catholic Church in those early formative years of the faith.  His most famous writing is Confessions, the story of his early life as a great sinner and conversion to Christ.  He is known for wonderful quotes, such as “our hearts are created for Thee Oh Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in You alone.”  When he finally left behind his sinful life and accepted the disciplines of Christianity he would often lament how much time he had wasted in his sinful youth: “Too late have I come to love thee Oh Lord.”

– Fr. Gerard Gordon