Note: This is the first of three parts on the Canonization of Fr. Augustus Tolton.
On March 17, Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology hosted its annual Dehon Lecture. This year’s theme was on the Canonization of Fr. Augustus Tolton: Significance for Race Relations and Interculturality. Bishop Joseph Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Chicago, was the keynote speaker. He shared the story of Fr. Augustus and his journey to have Fr. Augustus declared as a saint. Fr. Augustus has a powerful and yet sad story. He was born into slavery. His family escaped from Missouri to Illinois when he was a child. He had a profound love for the Catholic Church and yearned to be a priest. There was not a seminary that would accept him in the United States during the late 19th century because of his race. He was ordained in Rome and returned home to a very hostile environment among some of his fellow priests. He served in Quincy and Chicago, Illinois. He died at an early age, having borne extensive discrimination at the hands of many in the Catholic Church.
At the invitation of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, I provided a response to Bishop Perry’s address. Below is an excerpt of my remarks:
Bishop Perry was the pastor of my parish many years ago. I am mindful that he was the first black priest and pastor that I encountered. It was at All Saints Catholic Church in the mid-1990s. I am a cradle Catholic, having attended Catholic school in most of my formative years in New Jersey. When my family moved to Milwaukee in the late 60s, I went to the former St. Agnes Grade School and then on to Messmer High School. In all of that training, I never encountered a black priest. I say that to share that although almost 100 years had passed since Fr. Tolton was ordained in 1886, and a shortage of black priests remains. It is apparent that so many of the challenges facing the Church today, including a clergy that partially reflects its members, are reminiscent of those from the past.
Bishop Perry describes Fr. Tolton as a patron saint of inclusion. I agree, and yet I could easily describe him as the patron saint of perseverance for all of the exclusion and ridicule he endured; or maybe the patron saint of devotion, for his steadfast commitment to God and to the people he served, as well as his tireless witness to do God’s will, even at his own demise;
or maybe the patron saint of courage, for the Herculean strength it took to be the first unmistakable person of African descent in the priesthood in the United States; or even the patron saint of obedience, for he knowingly drank the cup of suffering throughout his journey to the priesthood and while he served in both Quincy and Chicago; or the patron saint of humility, since he was always willing to give with a full heart, pride and ego never being part of his demeanor. Yes, Fr. Tolton can easily be described as a patron saint of many virtues.
Unquestionably, there is an irony here. It seems incongruent for him to be described as a patron of inclusion in a Church and society that did not include him. It is disheartening to imagine the incredible hardships he sustained, simply because he wanted to serve God and minister to those in need of spiritual direction.
In his address, Bishop Perry states that the Church was unable or too timid to puncture the racial boundaries. The lawyer in me would describe it differently. I was trained in a system that is adversarial — one that is always challenging, one that is steeped in a land of right and wrong. It’s either one way or the other — a system that knocks people down in order to achieve a favorable result for a client, a system that always creates a winner or a loser. I have learned in time that there is a major cost in that point of view. I have learned the hard way to unlearn a confrontational and adversarial way of being, especially in the Church. I am not always successful in that effort. It is a lifelong challenge. I have come to the realization that in times of stress and duress, the argumentative side comes out before the pastoral side does. This has its pros and cons.
My legal training accompanies my experiences with inequities in the Catholic Church. This combination of training and life experience would have me describe the Church’s posture quite differently. When one looks at the Church during the time of Reconstruction and beyond, choices were made to exclude the people of African descent from ministry and to invest time and resources elsewhere. Blacks were shunned and considered outcasts. There were very minimal resources available to them through the Church, and for those white people that did attempt to educate and embrace the black community — they were, in turn, snubbed. Consequently, they chose to go along with the status quo. Some saw this choice as a lost opportunity for the evangelization of a large segment of the Black population, a residual that remains today. This is yet another example of how the seeds of disparity were sowed and nurtured centuries ago, leaving the remnants of a divided Church and community, even today. It is illustrated by how so many churched people of African descent in the United States today, while Christian, belong to Protestant denominations.
I guess I would describe the failure to stand up for these injustices as inconsistencies with our Catholic faith, inconsistent with the life of Jesus Christ and our Catholic Social Teaching. Jesus who befriended the leper, the beggar, the Samaritan woman and many others who had been outcast in society. How can the Church say that it follows the Christ-like way of being when it is not practicing what it preaches?