In thinking about how the Eucharist has helped to inspire and direct my discernment, my vocation, my prayer life and my ministry, I start with those who have inspired me — particularly other Black Catholics whose faith lives hinged around Eucharistic devotion.
First and foremost, my mother, JoAnne Tardy, had an exceptional devotion to the Blessed Sacrament throughout her life. Small wonder, since she attended Xavier Prep High School and Xavier University of New Orleans. Both schools were founded by St. Katherine Drexel in order to make Catholic education more accessible to African Americans. Indeed, Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in order to share the Gospel with the poor, which in her day especially meant Black and Native American peoples.
My African American mother, benefitting from such opportunities, developed quite a devotion to Drexel. Later in life, my mother suffered from acute, dementia-like symptoms. Ironically, her final breath came on March 3, 2022, the feast day of St. Katharine Drexel. Eucharist means “thanksgiving,” but while serving on the altar for my mother’s Mass of Christian burial, I found myself giving thanks to Jesus with a grateful heart. Because of his willful suffering and sacrifice on the cross of Calvary, I now hope in joy for my mother’s resurrection in Christ. Such faith was inspired and nurtured by her own faith and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, of which I am now servant and ambassador as a permanent deacon for Christ.
A place at the altar
My 2011 class of permanent deacons in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, was the first in 25 years. I myself knew little about the permanent diaconate. I also was the only African American and person of color in formation (and, once ordained, I would become the only African American clergy ordained for our diocese). Up until then, I had rarely witnessed Blacks on the altar. I wondered: Will I belong? Am I “holy” enough to be behind the altar? I tried to resist the notion that “holy enough” meant “white enough.” In other words: Would I be accepted as a Black man on the altar? I took solace in the vocations of two U.S. Black Catholics: Venerable Father Augustus Tolton and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman.
Tolton’s enslaved Catholic parents wanted freedom and a Catholic education for their children. His widowed mother’s Catholic faith inspired her to lead her children on a daring escape across the Mississippi River into the free state of Illinois. In Illinois, the overt racism of students and parents regularly threatened little Gus; so the parish pastor, Father McGirr, had him serve at daily Mass so he could watch over and protect him. Yet, he noticed a devotion to the Eucharist, which convinced him that young Gus had a priestly vocation. At age 16, on the feast of Corpus Christi, Tolton received his first Communion with joy. Father McGirr finally asked: “Have you ever thought about becoming a priest?” The path from first Communion to becoming the first recognizably African American priest involved many disappointments and wondrous acts of God. No one of his day could fathom his trials and tribulations. Hence, in my early diaconate years, I often sought prayers from Father Tolton. I knew he understood the occasional loneliness, doubt and even racism I was experiencing.
When Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman was 9 years old, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration founded a school for Blacks in her hometown of Canton, Mississippi. She converted to Catholicism and, at age 15, joined their religious order. As such, Eucharistic adoration would certainly have characterized her prayer life. For her, however, embracing the Eucharist did not mean abandoning her heritage; it meant coming to the Church “fully functioning.” She could be at once Black and Catholic with no compulsion to choose. She could draw upon and share the gifts and wisdom of our Black heritage as well as those supernatural gifts of our faith, including the precious gift of grace in the Blessed Sacrament. Her example encourages me to likewise use and share all of my gifts and experiences, even in settings where I might be the only one with those particular gifts and experiences.
My own experiences
During formation, we occasionally had classes or retreats at the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration in Mishawaka, Indiana. In truth, I always looked forward to such days because I knew I would have occasion for silent prayer before the Eucharist. When I experienced doubt about the path ahead, such time in prayer helped me re-center and gave me the grace and peace to continue. I did not realize until later in formation that, as a deacon, I would be called upon to lead Eucharistic adoration! It is a wonderful blessing I did not anticipate, and I embrace such opportunities. Adoration is an opportunity to hit pause on our worldly routines to spend time in prayer with the Lord.
As deacons we are privileged to spend much time with the Eucharist. We bear the chalice, the blood of Christ. We cleanse the vessels after Mass. We bring the Eucharist to the sick. Even so, sometimes I seek extra time with the Lord, particularly when ministering to those facing difficult circumstances including relationship difficulties, addictions, racism, etc. Relying upon my own resources, I may run into an impasse. That is when I humbly acknowledge my own weakness and seek out the Eucharist for grace and wisdom. I have found that, in times when hearts seemed immovable and all seemed lost, intimacy with the Eucharist before setting out can make a difference. Sometimes, the difference is simply within me: the grace to remain hopeful and to keep on keeping on.
In recent years, I have come to know many African American clergy, religious and seminarians, primarily through my involvement with the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons, the National Black Sisters Conference and the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association. Serving with them at various liturgies and bearing witness to faith among such folk have affirmed for me our place at the altar.
When we think of the prayer life of holy Catholic men and women, we should not overlook the impact and connection between the Eucharist and the grace to live lives in service and witness to the Gospel in spite of potential impediments to the flourishing of faith, such as racism. In each example, the Eucharist played a central role in their call to faith, their call to bear witness to the Gospel, their call to serve (especially those most in need) and their call to communion with all peoples of God regardless of difference.
We, like our ancestors in faith, are a Eucharistic people; not only because we partake of the body of Christ, provided to us by our wonderful priests and bishops, but also because of our desire to become what we eat — one Body in Christ, one people living in communion and right relationship with God and all of God’s people.
Deacon Mel Tardy is a permanent deacon who serves in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. He is president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.
Images from Catholic diocese of Sioux Falls, and Episcopal News Service