On August 1 – by the time you read this – I will become the first British-born black priest of Brentwood diocese. While that’s really exciting, the fact that I’ll be the first British-born black priest from the diocese tells a story itself.
The primary school I went to was in Hackney: St Dominic’s, a predominantly black Catholic primary school. I didn’t have a sense of being black – I was in the majority. That was a stark contrast with my experience in secondary school, Trinity High School in Woodford Green; there I was one of three black students in my form. There it was a very conscious experience of being black.
The US bishops, in their document Hearts Open Wide, describe racism as the conscious or subconscious feeling of superiority of one race over another race. Did I feel that I was made to feel inferior in any way? I was definitely different: there weren’t many black teachers, and to compound the situation the only other black staff members we saw were the cleaners who came at the end of the day. There was a sense of being different, and all at an age when I was working out what it was to be myself. There were stereotypes; I could have been better supported.
How does my faith speak to this situation? Two things. The first is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, so we all deserve equal respect and dignity by virtue of that. The second is what John Paul II said to native Americans back in 1987: he spoke about how differences and diversity enrich the human family. I believe that by design and God’s desire, I am a black man, and that is a particular manifestation of God’s goodness and God’s image and he wants me to share that reality wherever I go. It’s an integral part of my makeup.
What would I say to young black people in my care? I believe the Catholic Church leaks young black people either to other churches or to no church at all precisely because young black people may not have found a home in the Catholic Church. And it saddens me to say that but I believe it’s the real experience for a lot of young black Catholics. You look at the clergy or the leadership, and the black population isn’t represented there.
My own vocation story I attribute partly to seeing Fr Albert Ofere, a priest of Westminster diocese, and being inspired by him as a vibrant black priest through whom I could be open to the reality that God may be calling me. In the church we can see the symptoms of a lack of integration; it’s particularly sad given the nature of the Catholic Church.
I would like to see priests and deacons preach more on the evils of racism. We should know explicitly how contrary this is to our faith.
I would say to young black Catholics that despite the statistics, be assured that you have a particular gift, you manifest the beauty of God in a particular way which you ought to discover and then share to enrich the human family and enrich the Catholic Church.
I am the product of missionaries who went out to Nigeria, and shared the Gospel there. As a soon-to-be priest what is important to me is the salvation of souls. That comes from the preaching of the Gospel, the ministry of the sacraments. We shouldn’t be afraid to dig deep because Christ is our true reconciliation. Through Him we should settle for nothing less than real reconciliation and integration of the different races of the children of God.
This is an edited version of Deacon Paschal Uche’s remarks in Black and Catholic, a video series made by the Diocese of Westminster.