Will quest for 1st African-American saint inspire black men to become priests?

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One night, as Jamey Moses was praying, a voice came to him saying, “Come closer, I have a plan for you.”

Moses followed that voice to Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, where he is the only African American seminarian, and five years from now hopes to join the priesthood.

When he does, he will be a rarity.  Of the 1.5 million Catholics in the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s five-county area, an estimated 20,000 are black, but only 14 African Americans are priests.

Hoping to inspire more black Catholic men to consider that path, the Archdiocese met at the seminary Sunday to celebrate the life of Father Augustus Tolton, who was born into slavery, became this country’s first African-American Catholic priest, and now is being considered for its first African-American saint.

Sunday’s spiritually driven meeting, which drew an audience of about 100, featured a new film by director Bill Rose about Tolton’s struggles and triumphs, and a discussion hosted by William “Deacon Bill” Bradley, director of the Archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics.

“We need African American priests in our community,” said Bradley. “We don’t have any African American saints. Why? Remember what a big thrill it was in Philadelphia when Katharine Drexel was canonized?”

Bradley said he hoped that seeing the film would motivate some in the audience to join the priesthood, or encourage others to do so. “Is God calling you to be a priest?” he said. “Listen to that call. This is not just Deacon Bill saying this.”

Moses said he had heeded the call, but also was motivated by the voices of his grandparents and an aunt, who were major spiritual influences on his life.

“My vocation began with my beginning,” he said. “I prayed the Rosary with my grandmother every night. I prayed the Litany of the Saints with my grandfather. My Aunt Pearl was a housekeeper who cooked and cleaned into her 70s.”

When Moses asked why she worked so hard, she said, “I hope to raise a priest.” 

Moses knows he is fulfilling her hope, but it’s not easy, because in addition to the Lord’s call, he said, “The Evil One whispers, ‘You’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough. You’re black.’”

He paused, looked meaningfully around the auditorium, and said, “The Devil is a loser. One of the things I’m learning on this journey every day is you’ve got to tell the Evil One to shut up.” That brought a resounding ovation.

Another seminarian, Manuel Flores, said that before 2007, “I was what you’d call a cultural Catholic. I prayed, but I didn’t go to Mass every Sunday.” Flores said he was startled when, “My mom told the bishop that I was considering the priesthood. I never said that.”

After the laughter died down, Flores said his secular life plan was derailed when 1) the girl he planned to marry (“White picket fence, the American dream”) broke up with him and 2) he was rejected from pursuing the welding career he had trained for at Mastbaum High School. “I was left with a hole in my heart,” he said. “I felt empty.”

Reading the Bible, he came across Matthew 9:37-38: “The harvest is large, but there are few workers to gather it in.”

Flores said the words filled him with peace. His eyes filled with tears. He said, “Lord, if the priestly life is what you have in mind for me, your will be done.”

With that, he smiled and said, “My mom’s dreams came true.”

Addressing the audience as “Church!” as if he was in one, Rev. Stephen Thorne, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish in North Philadelphia, encouraged everyone to “Ask God to give us more priests,” then led a rousing rendition of “Somebody Prayed for Me.”

“Let’s hear it for our singing pastor from the kingdom of North Philadelphia!” said Bradley, ending the spiritual afternoon on a jubilant note.  

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