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What black Catholics want to hear from Pope Francis

Pope Francis prays during the 68th General Assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference on May 18, 2015 at the Vatican.   AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO        (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis prays during the 68th General Assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference on May 18, 2015 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

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It was a big day for the pope, and for US Catholics.

The pontiff visited the White House, where he met privately with President Obama. He then made a speech, arguing for immigration rights, and urging recognition of the dangers of climate change. All this before celebrating his first Mass in Washington DC.

But as Pope Francis wraps up day two of his US tour, one group of parishoners continues to watch and listen closely for a mention: black Catholics.

A survey out of Georgetown University estimates that about three-percent of American Catholics are black. The history of black Catholics in this country is a complicated one dating back to the 17th century.

Though slavery was officially condemned by Pope Gregory in the 1830s, the church continued to struggle with segregation in its parishes and schools well into the 20th century. Since then, a shift in demographics has seen the closure of black parishes -- or conversion to Latino services.

Anthea Butler is a Catholic and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She says African Americans have a unique history in the church, frequently incorporating traditions from the community. 

“Prior to Vatican II, there wasn’t a lot of racial identity,” she tells Take Two. “Post Vatican II, black Catholics were able to explore different musical styles with gospel music.”

Butler says that many black Catholics can trace their religious roots back to slavery in America. Many freed slaves who were baptised as Catholics continued to observe religious traditions, even though the general population of white Catholics didn’t accept them. Though the Catholic faith is one of the most diverse in the world, Butler says African American Catholics have always been treated differently than other groups in the church.

“If you think about immigration and all the ethnic Catholics we have -- Polish Catholics, Irish, Germans, Italians, everybody always focuses on them for a culture within the church,” she explains. “But nobody looks at black Catholics, and I think our unique history has a lot of cultural implications, because we’ve had to straddle the line between being black Americans and black Catholics.”

She adds that some Catholic churches had segregated seating well into the 20th century. 

As demographics changed in the country, more black parishes and schools were either closed or converted to cater to America’s rapidly growing Latino population. Butler says, as a result, many African American Catholics feel as though they’ve been overlooked by the church.

“I’m thinking about a parish like St.Odilia’s, which was the oldest black congregation parish in Los Angeles -- they flipped. It was like three or four English services, and now there’s lots of Spanish services and only one English service.”

Butler says that cultural shift has left many black parishoners without a church. 

“It’s not that they don’t want to be welcoming, let me be clear. They feel like they’re losing because their needs are not being addressed where you have another bourgeoning congregation and population coming in,” she says.

She says that this, combined with recent scandals within the church, has caused many black Catholics to leave Christianity entirely, or turn to evangelical denominations where African American culture continues to play a role in the church.

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