On May 4th 1976 Paul VI named as auxiliary bishop of Newark (New Jersey - US) Joseph A. Francis. He was the fourth black Catholic bishop of the US -the first had been James Augustine Healy. Actually most of the ordinations of black priests in this country took place in the 1970s and 1980s.
Color had made a difference in every area of Joseph's youth. Living in a segregated neighborhood, he attended a church just for Blacks, he went to a school intended only for black children, and when he attended the theater, he sat in the place assigned to Blacks. At secondary school of The Divine Word seminary in Illinois, he experienced a great delightful experience of been equal among equals in the midst of students of various nationalities. But in his 900 mile journey back to the South, to his native Louisiana land, he was pushed aside by a white conductor and directed towards the Jim Crow car, a coach reserved for colored people . Along the road he saw the "White only" sign at the various railroad stations. His peace of mind was shattered and his anger subsided only after he resolved to fight racism in all its forms. And he did. Named bishop he chose as his motto Justice, peace and liberty and in Newark he was able to work with many diverse ethnic groups. At national level, he was the principal author of "Brothers and Sisters to Us" the U.S. Bishops' 1979 pastoral letter on the sin of racism and he lectured nationally and internationally on justice and peace.
His inspiring commitment was routed in the Catholic Church's step forward to make social justice a core of evangelization and pastoral work. On the 6th January 1967 Pope Paul VI had established the Pontifical Commission “Justitia et Pax” (Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam Motu Proprio). It was an answer to the Second Vatican Council request to create a Church body whose role would be “to stimulate the Catholic Community to foster progress in needy regions and social justice on the international scene” (GS, No. 90). Two months later, in Populorum Progressio, Paul VI stated that the new body name Justice and Peace should be also its program. On November 24th 1971 Pope Paul VI authorized the publication of the Catholic Bishop Synod's document Justice in the World and after a ten-year experimental period, on December 10th 1976 gave the Commission its definitive status with the Motu Proprio Justitiam et Pacem.[i]
While introducing his speech on "Brothers and Sisters to Us" letter, in Detroit Bishop Francis said: The first insight comes from seeing the reality: seeing people in their anguish and joy, in their poverty and needs, in their fundamental dignity of children of God. "I consider myself and others consider me, a social activist. I'm trying to bring one clear message, a message that is contained in the Bible and in all social teachings - that every individual is entitled to basic rights", was Bishop Francis' self-portrait. But far from being a doom and gloom prophet bishop Francis was a big master jokes and colorist of the God's Word and incarnated what once Desmond Tutu stated: Colonialists did make a big mistake in their dominating adventure: they brought to the people the Word of God!
The struggle of black people for liberation inspired Bishop Francis' coat of arms. The cross, a sign of our ultimate liberation through Christ's death, stands in the center of broken chains and symbolizes the unity of all peoples in Christ. The towers are the Watts Towers[ii], constructed by an unlettered Italian man, stand as a symbol of the poor's desire for recognition and immortality: the spires of the towers are symbols of hope, reaching upwards, free from the bonds of the earth. One is white, the other is black, to show the beauty of blackness enhancing whiteness, and vice versa. The stalks in the lower left are sugar cane, the symbol of both the oppression and survival of Bishop Francis' ancestors who were workers in the cane fields of his native Louisiana.
Thanks to God, more often than rarely, strong advocacy come from the lives of real people.
[i] On 28th June 1988 John Paul II upgraded the Commission to Pontifical Council.
[ii] A collection of 17 interconnected sculptural structures within the Simon Rodia Park in the Watts - Los Angeles.