READ: Mary C. Curtis Writes About Being Black and Catholic in the Time of Pope Francis

By Kenrya Rankin Sep 23, 2015

In an essay for NPR’s Code Switch, writer Mary C. Curtis shares her evolving view of the Catholic Church as the Argentine-born Pope Francis tours the United States. Curtis deftly examines her personal struggles in marrying her black and Catholic selves, while exploring black people’s complicated history with the church, dating back to the times when Jesuits owned slaves and Africans who were imported through New Orleans were legally required to be baptized in the faith.

She writes of the pope:

Every time Pope Francis washes the feet of prisoners, embraces an orphan, speaks of social justice and “the least of these,” it reflects the Catholic Church as I would like it to be, the church of the Scriptures. Pope Francis has not altered doctrine or dogma; yet words and deeds have their own kind of power. His U.S. itinerary includes stops at a Harlem school and a Philadelphia correctional facility. It’s a visit that may bring me closer to a faith that has not always been so welcoming to black Catholics like me. …

When you are baptized with the name your late grandmother carried, Mary Cecelia, Catholic is with you before you learn the rosary or make your first Communion. But being black and Catholic—something I never thought much about in my early years—means inheriting a complicated legacy.

Curtis also discusses how segregation and racism in the church impacted her family:

I also remember how segregation marred Catholic schools, and what that meant to my family in the 1950s and 1960s. My oldest brother passed rigorous entrance exams for Catholic high schools in Baltimore with flying colors. But he never got to attend; priests and school administrators explained that had my brother been white and non-Catholic, he would’ve been accepted. …

Just a few years later, things had changed…somewhat. When I graduated from an all-black grade school, taught by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a black order of nuns founded in Baltimore in 1829 to teach children who looked like me, I passed those tests, just as my brother had, and was allowed to enter an all-girls Catholic high school where I was in a definite minority. …

The day I registered for classes, the nun in charge looked at my face, and pulled my mom and me aside halfway through the process. It never occurred to her that the Mary Cecelia whose test scores put her in honors courses could look like me. She explained that while I qualified for gifted classes, I might want to start in a lower group until I could handle more advanced work. After exchanging looks, my mother and I assured her I would be fine. That nun, who later would become my honors algebra teacher, remained bewildered by my success. “Are other people in your family smart?” she’d ask me.

Read the full essay here.