Bishop Fernand J. Cheri, a fifth-generation black Catholic, was a student when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in April 1968, but he still cites the civil rights icon and Baptist minister as an example to him of Christian discipleship.
Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Mass
4 p.m., Monday, Jan. 20, St. Mary’s Basilica, 231 N. Third St., Phoenix
Begins with musical prelude, followed by Mass and a reception at the Diocesan Pastoral Center.
Bishop Cheri, an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, will celebrate the annual Diocese of Phoenix Mass held in King’s honor on his national holiday at St. Mary’s Basilica. He also serves as postulator for the cause for canonization of Venerable Henriette DeLille — one of six African Americans up for sainthood, and he was recently made vice president for the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC).
In an interview with The Catholic Sun aired on “The Bishop’s Hour” Jan. 18, the bishop shared his perspectives on King’s legacy and the state of Black Catholic ministry in the U.S. today. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Catholic Sun: In your role with the NBCC, how would you describe the state of the Black Church in United States today?
Bishop Cheri: Well, I think that the black Catholic Church is really at a crossroads in the sense of where we are. One of the things that we suffer from in the Catholic Church is a respect of the diversity of cultures and how to promote those. I hope that my role on the congress will encourage people to look more seriously at the contributions and the gifts of African American spirituality that we bring to the Church and really promote those for the development, not only of the black Catholic community, but also the Church as a whole.
Sun: There’s a growing population of native Africans migrating to the United States, many of whom are Catholic, and that’s especially true here in Arizona. How does this migration of native Africans to the U.S. affect Black Catholic Ministry?
Bishop Cheri: The African diaspora is growing; I think it’s exciting. I want to see how we can continue to be relevant to various African diaspora whether they’re from Haiti, Ghana, Kenya or Nigeria, wherever they’re from. We need to go back to the biblical days, where the early Churches weren’t all one culture. The Church of Corinth was a mixture of many cultures, and yet Paul was able to work with them and called them to work out what it means to be the body of Christ. We have to do the same today.
The African diaspora is very rich, and if we could use the cultural gifts of everyone and allow those to embellish, enrich and enliven us, man, we could set the Church on fire!
Sun: You serve in the archdiocese that’s promoting Venerable Henriette’s cause. Could you share a little bit about your own personal devotion to her?
Bishop Cheri: She started a religious community ministering in the name of Christ. Here is a black woman in New Orleans, in the South, before and during the Civil War, witnessing Christ to others and calling others to Christ. To me that’s a miracle in itself, to really do this with such conviction and devotion and determination.
She and her co-founder started hospice care before hospice care was ever even dreamed about, taking care of the elderly and the poor. Her life was a testimony. She started taking care of people, whether they were slaves, free people of color, white or of any other culture. She worked in the care and education of young females of color.
The other thing that really strikes you is she did this in opposition to a lot of people who felt like they should not witness as people of faith and people of prayer. Look at the little trials and tribulations that I’m going through as a priest and now as a bishop, and that is nothing compared to what Henriette DeLille went through. So, it gives me a heart full of openness to carry the cross and endure the struggles and keep witnessing for the Lord in my life.
Sun: The U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” is a little more than a year old now. What have been the results in the Church in the United States since that letter was published?
Bishop Cheri: One of the things that I have pulled from our Committee on Racial Harmony in the Archdiocese of New Orleans is to try to promote racial equality as much as possible, and that means addressing the inequality that exists because of race. How do we speak to and promote laws and structures and systems that will treat us equally and bring that agreement about? I think the Church is a primary resource for that, because our whole social teachings center around the human dignity of every person, and certainly combating racism is primary in that regard.
Sun: What is Dr. King’s legacy, particularly for Catholics in the Church in the United States, and why should Catholics care about this Baptist minister?
Bishop Cheri: Martin Luther King may have used his Baptist church for his platform, but his teaching, everything he was about, was this Christian call to love. If we’re going to combat the injustices of racism in the country, we have got to do this as Christians, as believers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, whatever, each one of us as followers of Christ are called to do this — Christ’s call to love one another. [King] used that principle, and that transcends denomination. It called us to really be, if we say that we are Christian, then we must be about that.
Sun: Could you share a little bit about how Dr. King may have impacted your own vocation to the priesthood?
Bishop Cheri: I was in junior high when Martin Luther King died. I’ll never forget the day. I remember my teacher was so disheartened and shocked at the news. And it just impacted you, like, “Oh, my God. How could anybody take the life of such a devoted Christian?” We talked about that in my sixth grade class. I really believe it laid the foundation for me to really understand Christian discipleship. What does it really mean to be a disciple of Christ and to bear the cross and really die for what you give testimony to? It impacted me about what it meant to be a martyr for Christ, which means that you died because of what you live by.
On a related note, look how youngsters at this diocesan school are remembering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.