For just about any American Catholic bishop, the Rev. Stephen D. Thorne would be considered a gift from God.
The pastor of a small parish in Philadelphia is young, bright and energetic. And perhaps just as important, he's black.
"God was tugging at my heart strings, saying, 'I want you to be a priest,' " said Thorne, who was ordained in 1998.
Bishops across the Midwest and Northeast, including Buffalo, have been struggling for years with how to win souls and keep parishes alive in urban cores that were once bulwarks of Catholicism.
Thorne, 38, represents some hope in that effort -- a person with whom African-Americans now living in those neighborhoods can identify.
He is among the estimated 2,500 visitors from as far as Alaska and Hawaii gathering in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center today through Sunday for the 10th National Black Catholic Congress.
With Buffalo hosting the event for the first time, Western New York's tiny population of black Catholics will grow by as much as a third -- at least for a few days.
Attendees will home in on such topics as aid to Africa, confronting the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa and among blacks in the United States, stepping up evangelization efforts and improving worship and celebration of the sacraments.
They will hear from several black bishops, including the country's only African-American archbishop, the Rev. Wilton Gregory, who heads the Archdiocese of Atlanta and will preside at the closing liturgy Sunday morning.
Archbishop John Onaiyekan of the Archdiocese of Abuja, Nigeria, will deliver the keynote address Friday.
But the agenda includes church closings and mergers.
Earlier this month, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec announced that 41 parishes would merge into 19 -- closing 15 church buildings in Buffalo and one in Cheektowaga, many of them in neighborhoods with large African-American populations.
Some members of the closing churches are African-Americans whose previous churches had closed during the diocese's last major restructuring.
Many of the attendees will be able to sympathize, said Brenda Easley Webb, director of the Buffalo diocese's office of black ministry.
"We delve into the topic of how our stuff always gets changed and moved and downsized," she said. "It's happening across the country, and it's not a new notion."
In most American dioceses, black Catholics are a double minority -- vastly underrepresented in Catholic churches and just a tiny portion of an African-American community that gravitates in much larger numbers to Baptist, Church of God in Christ and other Protestant denominations.
The Baptist faith has long played a role in sustaining black culture, and, unsurprisingly, many African-Americans maintain deep roots within the religion. But some Catholics also point out that Catholicism has a checkered past with race relations in this country.
As dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest thrived by focusing on European immigrants, they also largely ignored African-Americans, who arrived later into cities in the great migration from the South.
"In the Northeast, where your Catholic tradition is probably the strongest, it was pretty much a deliberate exclusion," said Terry Robinson, who heads a small nonprofit housing corporation in Buffalo and is a member of St. James Church on Bailey Avenue.
Robinson, a Catholic since birth, said he is uncomfortable with what he calls sexism in the church hierarchy and a continuing subtle racism.
But largely, he said, he has been able to put history aside and concentrate on other aspects of the faith, such as the church's social teachings and pronouncements that he says are "much stronger than they perhaps have been in practice."
But he acknowledges "conflict" within his personal life about being apart, at least spiritually, from the predominant African-American culture.
Ellen Haywood of Brooklyn has felt some of that, as well.
Haywood converted from the Baptist faith more than 35 years ago and often received quizzical looks from fellow African-Americans.
"They say, 'Oh, you belong to that church.' It was almost like you have no religion," she said.
As in any parish community, convention attendees are a mix of cradle Catholics and converts.
Many are deeply committed to the church and serve in a variety of lay leadership roles in their parishes or dioceses.
"The most powerful thing that comes out of a gathering of thousands of black Catholics is solidarity," Easley Webb said.
But Thorne, who also serves as director of the Philadelphia archdiocese's office of black Catholics, said much more work remains to be done once attendees return home.
Thorne is one of only 225 black priests in the country, including just one in the Buffalo diocese.
"We are losing ground," he said, noting that population estimates of 2.5 million black Catholics have remained steady only because of immigration from Africa and the Caribbean.
"I think many people still think they're not welcome in the Catholic Church," he said. "People have seen the church as a racist institution."
Thorne has heard from many non-Catholic African-Americans that they admire the church for its schools and social programs but Catholicism "can't feed our souls."
"One of the biggest things is preaching, connecting to people, giving someone something to help with their challenges today," he said.