‘My mission is to form saints,’ speaker at National Black Catholic Congress says

Father Josh Johnson Father Josh Johnson. | Credit: Photo courtesy of Father Josh Johnson

Father Josh Johnson, a speaker at this year’s National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC), told CNA that his mission as a priest, pastor, and vocations director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is “to form saints.” 

That ties directly to the purpose of the Congress, Johnson said, which is to celebrate Black Catholics, to better understand their spiritual needs, and to help the faithful, especially young African Americans, to hear and respond to the call to holiness.

“Everyone has the capacity to become saints,” Johnson said. “Jesus Christ sees them, he knows everything about them, he knows what they’ve done, what they haven’t done, and he loves them. He desires for them to love him.”

What is the National Black Catholic Congress? 

Held every five years, the NBCC is organized by a team of ecclesial and lay leaders, including Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr. The event brings in crowds of several thousand, including priests, bishops, religious, and lay faithful, representing African American communities from across the country.

According to its website, the event seeks to “enrich the Church” by creating an “ongoing agenda for evangelizing African Americans.” Attendees participate in talks, discussions, liturgies, and eucharistic adoration.  

This year, the NBCC is being held July 20–23 in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., and has several sessions sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archdiocese of Washington.

Photo taken at the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) by Fr. Josh Johnson, July 21, 2023. Photo courtesy of Father Josh Johnson
Photo taken at the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) by Fr. Josh Johnson, July 21, 2023. Photo courtesy of Father Josh Johnson

Johnson told CNA that this year’s conference has more than 3,000 participants, including Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory and the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Cardinal-elect Christophe Pierre. Gregory will celebrate Mass on Friday.

Johnson will be giving three presentations during the Congress on vocations, saints, and adoration. Other speakers include Sister Josephine Garrett of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth and a mix of clergy and lay leaders.

“I think this is a very important conference for all people, not just Black people,” Johnson said. “It’s for everyone to come learn ‘how can I better serve the people who live in this land?’”

“When we have events like this where people come together for intentional prayer, fellowship, and worship,” Johnson said, “what happened 2,000 years ago for the early Church can happen in the United States of America, and it will happen whenever we do things like this.”

“So, events like this are extremely important for our Church and for our nation, and our world,” he added.

Calling a generation to saintliness

As a pastor and diocesan vocations director, Johnson engages with young Catholics regularly. He is also the chaplain of a ministry for underprivileged, inner-city youth called “Vagabond Missions” and hosts a regular podcast called “Ask Father Josh.”

His message has particularly resonated with youth, especially young African Americans, who he says are not used to seeing Black clergy or religious.

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“Growing up I never saw a Black priest in my life,” he admitted. “I didn’t know there were Black priests.”

“Unfortunately, that is a common experience for Black Catholics, to never see a priest who looks like them,” he said. “So, whenever they come to this conference, they see bishops and priests and sisters and deacons and married couples, radical disciples of Jesus Christ who look like them.”

“That is a help to cultivating vocations,” he explained, “to see, ‘well I can do this, I can be a priest, I can be a nun. I see people who look like me doing this already.’”

His talk on the saints will highlight the lives of six African American Catholics whose causes for canonization are currently being considered by the Vatican.

“It’s encouraging our young people to become saints,” Johnson said. “To look at the example of those holy witnesses and to follow in their footsteps.” 

Hope for the Church

Despite all the turmoil facing the Church and the ongoing downward trend of priests and seminarians in the U.S. and across the West, Johnson said, “I’m very hopeful for the Church.”

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“Our numbers [of seminarians] are lower, but the quality of guys that are entering seminary formation is really good,” he said. “They’re really healthy, they desire to be holy, there’s a maturity in a lot of our young men who are answering God’s call.”

Citing the words of Pope Benedict XVI, Johnson said that focusing on programs, projects, and plans will fail to produce more vocations, while “helping our young people encounter the love of Jesus Christ in prayer” will bring more authentic and fruitful vocations.

As vocations director for Baton Rouge, Johnson said his focus has been on helping young people cultivate personal relationships with God by spending daily time with God before sacred Scripture and the Blessed Sacrament.

“Because of that,” Johnson said, “I’ve seen a lot more young men who are a lot more open to the call of the priesthood.”

“If we can teach our young people to pray, then we can trust them with their vocations,” he said confidently. “They will be able to hear the voice of God and to respond to the voice of God.”

“Yes, the numbers might be smaller across the nation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “In the Old Testament, you have the story of Gideon. The army had to shrink for people to realize it was God, it was God who did the work. So sometimes our numbers have to shrink, and we might have fewer men, but if we have healthy, holy, and mature men, then those men will be rooted in the Lord, and the Lord will work through them.”  

“So,” he concluded, “I’m very hopeful for this next generation of seminarians and priests, whom God is calling to serve the land here in the United States of America.”

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