As Fr. Andrew McNair was introduced as the Diocese of Phoenix’s new chaplain to the African American community, a sense of excitement rippled through St. Pius X Church.
Later, one of the speakers addressed the crowd gathered on April 18.
“Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah,” exclaimed Andrea Weeks Hardin, a member of the diocese’s Black Catholic Ministry since 1994 and part of its Racial Healing and Reconciliation Commission established last year by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted.
Turning to Fr. McNair, she expressed hope that this is only the beginning.
“I want you to know you have many witnesses here who saw you sign those papers,” she said to scattered laughter. “We have a lot of work for you to do. You have a whole congregation of people behind you. We know we will move forward finally in the right direction.
The parochial vicar at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral since May 2020, Fr. McNair was formally installed by Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares. The chaplain’s mission is to provide pastoral leadership to those entrusted to his care.
Bishop Navares announced that Fr. McNair will launch a new mission of evangelization to all African Americans within the Diocese of Phoenix.
“This is great. It shows the commitment and support of Bishop Olmsted and Bishop Nevares for the Black community,” said William Earl, a Knights of Columbus member who attended the Mass. “We will have an authentic Catholic leader. When the word gets out we have a priest installed specifically for the Black community, it will start to draw people back into the Church.”
Marie Ausberry, the first director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry, was equally excited. “It’s wonderful to have him here.”
A native of the small town of Swansboro, North Carolina (population 2,663), Fr. McNair brings more than a decade of service to the Church on behalf of African Americans at the local and diocesan levels. He has served in a similar capacity in both the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, and Raleigh, North Carolina.
He entered the seminary in 1985 and was ordained a priest in 1997 in Rome. He studied classical humanities in Salamanca, Spain, and philosophy and theology in Rome. Before ordination, he served three years as a missionary on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, working with the Mayan natives.
After finishing his graduate studies, he taught theology for eight years at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, Rhode Island. During that time, he was also a columnist for the National Catholic Register.
In 2008, Fr. McNair was assigned to parish ministry and appointed chaplain for the Office of Black Catholic Church Ministry in the Diocese of Providence. In 2016, he was installed as chaplain for African American Catholics for the Diocese of Raleigh, where he served 3 years.
Of its estimated 1.1 million Catholics, the Diocese of Phoenix is home to around 40,000 Black Catholics. No one parish has a proportionately higher number, said Ignacio Rodriguez, associate director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries.
The situation is not unique to Phoenix.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reports that of the nation’s 69 million Catholics, about 3 million – roughly 4 percent – are African American. There are just 250 Black priests, less than one percent of the total of 36,500.
In an interview following Mass, Fr. McNair said Catholic teaching will be a foundation of the outreach.
“I think the heart of the ministry of evangelization is helping people understand the gift of the Eucharist. That’s what sets Catholicism apart from everything else.”
The other key component will be the unique African American culture.
“We try to help people experience Christ within the context and framework of their own culture,” he explained.
Bishop Nevares sees the monthly Unity Mass celebrated by Fr. McNair at St. Pius as an important part of that.
“This is the first time in the history of this parish mission where Black Catholics gather that they have had a priest assigned to them as chaplain. There always has been a priest from a neighboring parish who has come once a month to celebrate the Unity Mass, honestly, the Catholic Church has not provided much service specifically to Black Catholics. They have assimilated into various parishes, but there really is no place that affirms their cultural roots and experience when it comes to the Liturgy,” he said.
For African Americans, the cultural emphasis is huge.
“To have an African-American priest who understands the way African Americans celebrate the Eucharist, and worship and connect with God is going to be an awesome addition,” said Dawn Crutchfield Board. “Having someone who looks like you, understands your roots and your background collectively as a culture is going to make a world of difference.”
Fr. McNair begins his new role at a time of continued public outcry over racism and police use of force, topics he addressed in his homily during this year’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Mass Jan. 18 at St. Mary’s Basilica.
Following his installation, Fr. McNair was asked in an interview with The Catholic Sun what he sees as the three biggest issues facing Black Catholics today.
No. 1, he said, is family: “The family needs to be renewed and evangelized because the faith is transmitted within the framework of the family. If the family breaks down that’s extremely detrimental to Black Catholic culture and our community.”
Next, he listed preserving marriages. “One of the moral ills today is that couples don’t stay together as husband and wife,” Fr. McNair said.
And third was giving youth a sense of vision and hope through the Church.
”For whatever reason, many have stayed away from the faith,” he said.
Fr. McNair plans to address all three areas, as well as myriad other concerns. Several initiatives are expected to be announced throughout the year.
He also urged supporters not to be shy about stepping up to work with him.
“Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Now that the Lord has blessed us with a chaplain, we can go home and relax,’” Fr. McNair joked, drawing laughter. “But I am here to serve with you. My brothers and sisters, I need you. I need your talents, I need your time, I need your energy, but above all I need your passion and love for Jesus Christ.”
“I want the community to above all know that I love them,” he said. “As a chaplain I will try to bring a message of compassion and ministry.”