Study, speaker series to focus on how liturgy, music and worship 'transcend race, ethnic and cultural boundaries'

DETROIT — This summer, pastoral and music ministers from across the Archdiocese of Detroit have the chance to take an in-depth look at the African-American Catholic worship experience.

In May, the Grand Rapids-based Calvin Institute of Christian Worship awarded an $18,000 grant to the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance to further study the gifts the African-American community has given to the Catholic Church, particularly in the areas of music and spirituality.

“The grant will be used to look at the liturgical settings of the Catholic Church in our inner-city parishes and what gifts the local African-American community has given to the Detroit and nationwide community as fruits of the Church as a whole,” said John Thorne, executive director of the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance.

Throne explained the grant will be a study of the music, rites and forms of worship seen in majority African-American parishes in the city. It will also be used to invite local and national speakers to come to Detroit to further analyze the black Catholic experience.

“There are things that take place in our liturgy that have a deep connection to African tradition,” Thorne said. “We are going to have a series of national speakers and priests coming in to do workshops for pastors — it's really open to anybody, but especially for pastors in the alliance — on the connections between African tradition and Catholic liturgy and what the African-American community has brought to the Church.”

The study will begin in July, and the speaker series will begin this fall and run through May 2020, before the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance presents a report to the Calvin Institute in June of next year.

“This is an opportunity to explore our worship experience more, giving us a deeper understanding of what it means to be authentically black and authentically Catholic in our worship experience,” said Keir Ward, music minister for Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit.

Ward was part of the group that submitted the grant application to the Calvin Institute.

“We’ve had certain workshops like this in the past, and this is an opportunity to build upon those previous workshops,” Ward said. “We’re hoping this experience can be shared with the Church at large. When Archbishop (Allen H.) Vigneron commissioned me to compose the Mass for Peace at the Cathedral last year, he used music as (an example of) a gift to the Church from the African-American community. This study is an opportunity to look at other gifts the African-American community has given to the wider Church.”

The study will also consider vocations, lay involvement, liturgical rites and community involvement, but a big factor of the study will be on music, Ward said.  

“We will have speakers coming in to talk about how music has great shaped the black Catholic experience,” Ward said, “music that is very soulful, because it comes from the soul and it reaches the soul — music that transcends race, ethnic and cultural boundaries.”

The last time the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance did a similar study was in 2008, Thorne said.

“There are countless people who say the Catholic Church is a white religion, but there are a lot of connections to African spirituality and the African-American experience,” Thorne said. “We have a story to tell. It’s why the Archdiocese of Detroit has an Office of Black Catholic Ministry; it’s why a lot of people from the suburbs come to inner-city parishes to experience the worship. This study is an opportunity to remind people how and why this works.”

Thorne added the yearlong project is designed to reinvigorate an appreciation of the liturgy and authentic ways to worship God that resonate with the African-American community.

“In the 1970s, there was a great movement of black Catholics in our country inspiring the worship in our parishes,” Thorne said. “This is a chance to look at these gifts we have brought forth and show the next generation these gifts, the songs, the spirituals and dances and how they work to the common good of praising the Lord.”

Ward added a key goal of the study is to show how African-American-inspired liturgy isn’t meant just for urban or primarily African-American parishes, but is a gift for the whole archdiocese, the whole Church, just as the Gospel-themed Mass for Peace at the cathedral in 2018 was a celebration for the entire community.

“I would like to see that as Catholics, we have a strong sense of a renewed African-American identity and Catholic identity, equally in our worship,” Ward said. “Our worship should be one non-African-Americans feel they can participate in and they should embrace, gaining a better understanding of what African-American worship is and how it is part of our larger Catholic, universal community.”