Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Ancestors in Faith, Pray for Us

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Ancestors in Faith, Pray for Us

Article excerpt

AS I WRITE THESE REFLECTIONS IT IS A BRIGHT, unusually crisp Feast of All Saints, a day of special solemnity here in New Orleans, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the United States. The remembrance of the dead, while a strong practice in traditional Catholic cultures, becomes (as would be expected) something quite different in the atmosphere of New Orleans. The descendants of the ancestors of this community are not Roman Catholic exclusively. This feast, naming those who have gone before as the saints of the locality, has as much to do with African American cultural appropriations as with Roman Catholic European devotional traditions.

One can study the various gathering rituals of Africans, both on the continent and in diaspora, and discover the unparalleled emphasis given to beginning every social ritual with homage dedicated to the ancestors. As that study would further reveal, for all traditional African cultures, the physically departed ancestors never really die as long as their names are known and recited in the community. This would imply to those possessed of a generous imagination that the theology of the communion of saints goes farther and wider than we might have suspected.

It is also a theology that seems to be receiving renewed attention today, especially in the black Catholic community, and that seems to be providing a way of centering many liturgical celebrations more concretely in the faith life of the local assemblies. Throughout the black Catholic Church in the United States, various liturgical celebrations gain their solemnity through the blending of gathering rites with celebrations of the ancestors. An even more widespread use of these rituals might restore a sense of solemnity to many parish and diocesan liturgies and at the same time respond positively to liturgical developments taking place across cultural divides.

Based on the example set by these black Catholic liturgies, I'd like to see the use of many forms and refrains and many adapted arrangements of old songs from the black spiritual and gospel tradition. Gathering rites and litanies of the ancestors should be developed for all of the sacramental rites of passage that are important to churches everywhere. Underpinning all of this should be a concerted effort to build a theology of ancestry in the faith that may be a corrective to so much of the fragmentation, divisiveness, and isolation experienced in our culture. …

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