African Saints, African Stories

It's a bit late---but not too late!---to start a new book as part of one's Lenten observance.  If that's what you're looking for, Camille Lewis Brown's splendid little book, African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men And Women would make an excellent choice.

The format of the book is simple and straightforward.  First Brown provides a short (1-6 pp.) biography of the saint's life.  Then she adds a brief passage from scripture, a prayer and questions for further reflection.  It's a wonderful format for Lenten prayer, but serves equally well at any time of year.  The book is divided into two sections:  "Saints, Blesseds and Venerables" and "Saints in Waiting".

African Saints, African Stories is a powerful reminder of the depth and breadth of the formative African influence on Christianity.  As Bishop Joseph Perry notes in his excellent foreword, "There is evidence of African contribution throughout Sacred Scripture. beginning with Genesis 2, where the sources of the Nile River are located, to the deacon Philip's baptism of the Ethiopian official in service to the Nubian queen, Candace, in Acts 8."  That influence continues with the witness and ministries of the early African saints:

  • Christian monasticism began in Africa with St. Anthony of Egypt.  St. Moses the Black and St. Mary of Egypt are among those who followed in his footsteps generations before St. Benedict wrote his Rule.
  • Catholic theology is African theology---indelibly shaped by the works of St. Augustine of Hippo.
  • The blood of early African martyrs---beginning with St. Speratus and his companions (July 17, 180)---helped water the fields in which Christianity first took root.  In the next few decades and centuries, African Christians from bishops (St. Cyprian of Carthage) to nobles (St. Perpetua) to slaves (St. Felicity) to soldiers (St. Maurice and the Theban Legion) to married couples (St. Timothy and St. Maura) died rather than renounce their faith.
  • Africans such as Pope St. Victor I (who settled the dispute over when to celebrate Jesus' resurrection by ruling against the Quartodecimans) played important leadership roles in the early centuries of the Church's life.

As influential as African saints were for the Church in the first five centuries after Jesus' birth, the post-Colombian era has seen the powerful witness of African saints spread south of the Sahara and across the Atlantic:

  • Contemplatives like Venerable Theresa Chikaba and Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi have reinvigorated the African monastic tradition.
  • African martyrs in the colonial (Blessed Isidore Bakanja, St. Charles Lwanga) and post-colonial (Blessed Marie Clementine Anuarite Nengabeta) eras are modern models of faith in countries where martyrdom is a fact of contemporary life.
  • In the Americas laymen like St. Martin de Porres and Venerable Pierre Toussaint incarnated lives of Christian service, while laywomen like Emma Lewis and Dr. Lena Edwards "made a way out of no way" in ministering to---and beyond---their own communities.
  • Mother Mathilde Beasley, Henriette DeLille and Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange are among the 19th century African-Americans who founded religious orders, while Fr. Augustus Tolton---at a time when no American seminary would accept him---became the first Negro priest in the United States to minister to a Black Catholic community.

Near the end of Dr. Brown's introduction to African Saints, African Stories, she reminds us why these (and all) saints remain important for us today:

As Christians committed to the universal church, the heroes of this text show us how to remain faithful despite struggles, disappointments and setbacks.  They continue to show us how to embrace the gospel in our ordinary day-to-day-lives.  This is a remarkable opportunity for all of us to see examples of Christianity in action.  Here, at the heart of the book, is a chance for each of us to be spiritually charged and enriched by our heroes.


Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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