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Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, places ashes on the forehead of a parishioner during the Ash Wednesday Mass at Saint Matthew the Apostle Cathedral in Washington, Wednesday, March, 2, 2022.Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, places ashes on the forehead of a parishioner during the Ash Wednesday Mass at Saint Matthew the Apostle Cathedral in Washington, Wednesday, March, 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) — The congregation at Holy Cross Catholic Church is an anomaly in one sense: a historically Black congregation led by the Rev. Pius Wekesa, one of just 250 or so Black priests in the United States.

Many Black Catholics, a minority within a minority, rarely see a Black priest celebrate Mass at their church. Founded by the Jesuit order in 1939, Holy Cross has about 400 families, 70 percent of whom are Black. But it never had a Black priest before Father Wekesa became pastor last July.

Father Wekesa, and some in his congregation, are typical of Black Catholics in one way: They are immigrants.

Black Catholics, at about 3 million total, comprise only 6 percent of U.S. Blacks, most of whom are Protestant. And they’re an even smaller share of U.S. Catholics—4 percent, according to a new analysis of Black Catholics published Tuesday (March 15) by Pew Research.

The study, which included 562 Black Catholics among 8,660 Black adults, found that most Black Catholics worship in predominantly white churches. Only about 25 percent of Black Catholics attend churches where the majority of congregants are also Black.

The Catholic Church has 798 predominantly African American congregations across the country, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Most of those are on the East Coast and in the South.

While Catholics generally are prone to religious switching, Black Catholics have the highest rates. Only 54 percent of U.S. Black Catholics who were raised in the faith remain so as adults.

The study, originally fielded in 2019 and 2020, found that 68 percent of Black Catholics are U.S.-born. A growing number—about 12 percent—are, like Wekesa, from Africa. The rest were born in the Caribbean (11 percent) or in other parts of the Americas (5 percent).

Wekesa, 59, was ordained a priest in his native Kenya and came to the Diocese of Raleigh in 2005 to work with the growing numbers of Swahili-speaking Catholics.

The Diocese of Raleigh, which spans the 54 easternmost counties of the state, has 12 Black priests.

The bigger reason why Black Catholics are such a small population is that they are the least likely of all Catholics to remain in the fold. While Catholics generally are prone to religious switching, Black Catholics have the highest rates. Only 54 percent of U.S. Black Catholics who were raised in the faith remain so as adults (compared with 61 percent of white Catholics and 68 percent of Hispanic Catholics.)

Some Black Catholics explain this number by pointing out that they tend to be more liberal than their mostly white Catholic counterparts when it comes to immigration and race (possibly because there are more immigrants among Black Catholics than among white Catholics).

While Catholics generally are prone to religious switching, Black Catholics have the highest rates. Only 54 percent of U.S. Black Catholics who were raised in the faith remain so as adults.

Most Black Catholics say that opposing racism is important to how they think about being Christian. About three-quarters of Black Catholics (77 percent) say opposition to racism is essential to what it means to be a Christian.

Black Catholics are also more liberal on abortion and homosexuality: 71 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 78 percent said homosexuality should be accepted in society.

LaRyssa Herrington, a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame who is active in several Black Catholic groups, said racial discrimination may be a big reason why nearly half of Black Catholics leave as adults.

“We see the issue of racism as a crucial conversation point that has to be addressed if we’re going to see a bettering of these numbers,” said Ms. Herrington.

She mentioned the larger issues of racism in the U.S., as well as what she sees as systemic injustices in the Catholic Church, as part of the problem.

The U.S. Catholic Church has five Black bishops and one Black cardinal—Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, who is the first African American to be elevated to the College of Cardinals.

The flow of Black people out of the church means that their number may be sustained (Pew did not have figures for growth or decline), but only because of immigration.

For six months before Father Wekesa arrived in Durham, there was no full-time priest serving Holy Cross at all.

Now Father Wekesa has a goal: “I want to encourage vocations among young African American men,” he said. “It will take time, but I’m trying to promote that.”

Father Wekesa acknowledged it’s a difficult task.

“My hope is that before I finish my term at Holy Cross I will get just one,” he said. “I’ll pass on the torch to this one and this one will try to plant the seeds. That is my goal.”

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