By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
During the month of November, we bask in the glow of the Feast of All Saints, and the Commemoration of All Souls. The great Cloud of Witnesses (Hebrews 12,1), some officially canonized, most not, remind us that our citizenship is in heaven with Jesus Christ, the way and truth, the resurrection and life. From the Feast of All Saints, the vision of Saint John in the book of Revelation affords us a glimpse of eternity in “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne and from the Lamb. (Revelations 7, 9-10)
On November 13, at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops annual meeting in Baltimore, I will formally introduce the Cause for Canonization for Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, Servant of God, an African-American, from the town of Canton, in the bosom of the Diocese of Jackson, whom we declare in faith to be a member of the Cloud of Witnesses. Much is already known about her life, but I would like to shine the light on her final six years. In 1984 Sister Thea, an only child, grieved the deaths of her beloved parents, Dr. Theon and Mary, and in the same year she was diagnosed with cancer. With the press of mortality, and understanding the severity of her disease, she courageously proclaimed that she would “live until she died.”
Indeed she did, traveling, evangelizing, teaching, singing and inspiring to the very end. In 1984 on the national scene, the Black Catholic Bishops of the United States issued a Pastoral Letter on Evangelization: “What We Have Seen and Heard.” This letter was released five years after the 1979 publication by the entire Conference of Bishops of “Brothers and Sisters to Us: Pastoral Letter Against Racism.”
In June, 1989, 10 years after the first letter against racism, and five years after the second, Sister Thea was invited to speak to the conference of bishops at Seton Hall University. Her witness, words and song on that occasion embodied so much of what was written in the earlier Pastoral Letters.
“What We Have Seen and Heard” gave thanks for the early missionaries who planted the seed of the Gospel in the African-American families and communities. In her address to the bishops Sister Thea offered her gratitude to the missionary disciples in her life. “Catholic Christians came into my community, and they helped us with education, they helped us with health care, they helped us to find our self-respect and to realize our capabilities when the world told us for so long that we were nothing and would amount to nothing. And I wanted to be a part of that effort. That’s radical Christianity, that’s radical Catholicism… I was drawn to examine and accept the Catholic faith because of the day-to-day lived witness of Catholic Christians who first loved me, then shared with me their story, their values, their beliefs, who first loved me, then invited me to share with them in community, prayer and mission. As a child I did not recognize evangelization at work in my life. I did recognize love, service, community, prayer and faith”
“What We Have Seen and Heard” reflected movingly on the gift of reconciliation, rooted in suffering, liberation and justice, that which the African-American experience can offer to the Church, to the nation and to the world. “Without justice any meaningful reconciliation is impossible. Justice safeguards the rights and delineates the responsibilities for all. A people must safeguard their own cultural identity and their own cultural values. Likewise, they must respect the cultural values of others. For this reason, sincere reconciliation builds upon mutual recognition and mutual respect. On this foundation can be erected an authentic Christian love. The Scripture testifies: ‘But now you who once were far off have become near by the Blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh.’ (Ephesians 2, 13-14)
We seek justice then, because we seek reconciliation, and we seek reconciliation because by the blood of Christ we are made one. The desire of reconciliation for us is a most precious gift, because reconciliation is the fruit of liberation. Our contribution to the building up of the Church is America and in the world is to be an agent of change for both.” Toward the end of her life Sister Thea echoed the words of her brother bishops. “We unite ourselves with Christ’s redemptive work, when we reconcile, when we make peace, when we share the good news that God is in our lives, when we reflect to our brothers and sisters God’s healing, God’s forgiveness, God’s unconditional love.”
Earlier this year, Pope Francis published the Apostolic Exhortation on holiness, “Guadete et Exultate,” translated, Rejoice and Be Glad, our Lord’s own words from the Beatitudes. It illuminates the Holy Father’s previous exhortations on the Joy of the Gospel, and the Joy of Love.
Sister Thea would have called for an “Amen” or two over these exhortations. “What We Have Seen and Heard” eloquently presented the gift of joy as essential for understanding African-American spirituality, and Sister Thea magnanimously lived it. “Joy is first of all celebration. Celebration is movement and song, rhythm and feeling, color and sensation, exultation and thanksgiving. We celebrate the presence and the proclamation of the Word made Flesh. Joy is a sign of our faith and especially our hope. It is never an escape from reality.” Forever a joyful missionary disciple Sister Thea exhorts us. “Children, Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, Brothers, go! There is a song that will never be sung unless you sing it. There is a story that will never be told unless you tell it. There is a joy that will never be shared unless you bear it. Go tell the world. Go preach the Gospel. Go teach the Good News. God is. God is love. God is with us. God is in our lives.”
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz