NEW ORLEANS — Pope John Paul II tapped his feet to gospel music, drew an occasional "Amen!" and "Praise the Lord!" from the audience and invoked the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist preacher, during a warm and lively meeting Saturday with black Catholic leaders.
The pontiff told the morning gathering of 1,800 that their cultural heritage "enriches the church and makes her witness of universality more complete." He also deplored the "disproportionate share of economic deprivation" suffered by American blacks and declared the "church can never remain silent in the face of injustice."
"Know that the Pope stands united with the black community as it rises to embrace its full dignity and lofty destiny," he said during an address that was interrupted 48 times by applause.
Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze of Biloxi, Miss., the only black leader of a U.S. Catholic diocese, welcomed the pontiff by saying that black Catholics want to retain "our unique identity and experiences. Yet, at the same time, we want our expression of faith to become ever more a part of the Christian Catholic tradition."
Howze also noted that the "stain of racism" was a "major hindrance" to the development of black leadership within the church.
The Pope, responding to Howze's prepared speech, a copy of which the pontiff had received weeks in advance, urged black Catholics "to keep alive and active your rich cultural gifts."
He also acknowledged that "even in this wealthy nation, committed by its founding fathers to the dignity and equality of all persons, the black community suffers a disproportionate share of economic deprivation. . . . The church must continue to join her efforts with the efforts of others who are working to correct all imbalances and disorders of a social nature. Indeed, the church can never remain silent in the face of injustice, wherever it is clearly present.
" . . . Today as we recall those who, with Christian vision, opted for nonviolence as the only truly effective approach for ensuring and safeguarding human dignity, we cannot but think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and of the providential role he played in contributing to the rightful human betterment of black Americans and therefore to the improvement of American society itself."
The Pope also drew on earlier American history by commending black Catholics for "proclaiming God's Kingdom to a world shackled by consumerism, mindless pleasure-seeking and irresponsible individualism, shackles of the spirit which are even more destructive than the chains of physical slavery."
Saturday's meeting underlined one of the themes of the Pope's 10-day, nine-city tour of the Sunbelt and Detroit: the ethnic diversity of the Catholic church in the U.S. There are 1.3 million black Catholics, 2.4% of the 53 million Catholics in the nation.