It was a joyful celebration with music, prayer and praise; it was a gathering of families, of people of faith. More than 1,400 attended the annual archdiocesan Black History Month Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Feb. 7.
Some participants in the ceremony wore traditional African clothing, dancing barefoot down the aisle to rhythmic drumbeats, enthusiastic and colorfully clad, singing and dancing with faith. Serving as principal celebrant was Auxiliary Bishop John O’Hara, episcopal vicar of Staten Island and South, East and West Manhattan.
Father Fred Agyeman, chaplain of the Ghanaian community for the archdiocese, was the homilist; he is based at St. Luke’s parish in the Bronx and is from the Archdiocese of Accra, Ghana, his homeland.
The Mass also commemorated the National Day of Prayer for the African-American and African Family. It was truly a multilanguage and multicultural gathering, with words expressed in English, Creole, Akan (Ghana), Swahili, Spanish and other languages.
“Keep your family safe, Lord,” Bishop O’Hara prayed at the start of Mass, as he expressed words of welcome and contentment for the special occasion.
Father Agyeman, in his homily, spoke of the significance of Black History Month, the importance of faith-based and cultural values, and the sacredness of the cathedral’s Holy Door in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. “This afternoon we are witnessing a family of unity in diversity,” he said.
The priest also spoke of some of God’s prophets, such as David and Isaiah—how despite their sinfulness, they were chosen “for the great evangelization.”
“Make use of this precious moment,” Father Agyeman told the congregation, urging them to avoid thoughts or feelings of prejudice, presumption, pride or fear—for the well-being of their families and communities.
“God is good,” he said, and the congregation responded, “All the time.” He spoke of how the Lord grants forgiveness and mercy, and he alluded to this being the Year of Mercy. “Entrust your future into the powerful arms of God,” he said. “Pope Francis is sending all of us out as credible ambassadors and missionaries of mercy…Give mercy a chance; it will transform you.”
Among the Mass attendees were Cecile Johnson and her grown daughter, Erica Johnson. They are members of St. Michael’s parish in the Bronx. “This is a great celebration for us—you see all the different cultures brought together,” Cecile said in a brief interview before Mass. She added that they were grateful to the archdiocese for having the Mass, and noted that they have attended several times previously.
Erica noted, “I think it’s wonderful that we have this beautiful Mass, with so many diverse cultures within the black community. We have a strong black Church, strong members of a universal Church.”
Welcoming remarks came from Dr. Kim Harris, who serves as liturgy coordinator for the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry, which organizes the annual Mass. “Today’s liturgy affords us the opportunity to come together as a people of many diverse cultures throughout the archdiocese to celebrate the faith and culture of people of African descent,” she said.
Closing words were delivered by Brother Tyrone Davis, C.F.C., executive director of the Office of Black Ministry, who said that the gathering was a celebration of faith and culture. “We celebrate our humanity,” he said.
Music during the Mass was led by the Charles Barbour/Dolores Jefferson Memorial Combined Choir, comprised of members of various parishes within the archdiocese.
After the closing remarks, the congregation sang “Happy Birthday” to Bishop O’Hara and to Deacon James Francis of SS. Peter and Paul parish in the Bronx who served at the Mass. Both received gifts, which for the bishop included an Ashanti stool made in Ghana.
The archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry was established 40 years ago, with special annual Masses a fixture from early on. The current Mass format and features, including the combined choir, began 20 years ago. Hymns during this year’s Mass included “Your Grace and Mercy” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”