Throughout his life, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton – who in 1886 became the first identified Black priest ordained for the United States — challenged the status quo to bring about change. Yet, Father Tolton lived with joy in helping others and humbly worked for justice and righteousness, according to a panel of clergy and Catholic scholars who spoke about his legacy through the lens of race, healing, and reconciliation.
The web panel presentation titled, “Tolton’s Legacy: A Road Map to Unity,” took place on Aug. 29 and was organized by the Tolton Ambassador Corps, a group of Catholics from across the country commissioned to spread awareness about the significance of Father Tolton’s cause for sainthood. Venerable Father Augustus Tolton served as a parish priest in Chicago, where he died in 1897 at the age of 43.
In his keynote remarks, Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory encouraged the faithful to work for justice and righteousness, particularly during the current times of racial tensions and intolerance.
“Despite the presence of hatred and pain in our society, we can boldly and wholeheartedly live our faith with courage,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Racism is a plague that continues to desecrate even the Church that Christ himself has established.”
The archbishop encouraged the viewers to live their faith and work for justice and reconciliation and said that prayer, diligence, and hope were the basis of Tolton’s ministry in the face of intense, systemic societal and ecclesial racism.
“His testimony is a needed example to a world that profoundly needs not to lose hope as we make every effort to bring about justice in our time as Catholics today,” he added.
The panel members spoke on the lessons that can resonate today from the life of the African American priest who struggled with slavery, racism, and injustice, but persevered through his faith.
“The Church really, truly formed him because they really saved him. They took him from the ravages of his background and made something out of him, and gave him a chance in life that otherwise he would not have received from others,” said Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry. He is also the diocesan postulator for the sainthood cause of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton. Bishop Perry also chairs the Subcommittee on African American Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The discussion was moderated and hosted by the Rev. Canon A. Gerard Jordan, O. Praem., a Norbertine priest who is serving as the special assistant to the postulator for the Tolton cause.
Augustine Tolton was born in Missouri in 1854. While he was still a child, his mother escaped slavery with her children opening the door to a primary Catholic education that later flourished into a vocation. As his repeated efforts to enter seminaries in the United States were unfruitful, Father Tolton pursued his priestly formation in Rome and was ordained a priest there in 1886.
After ordination, Father Tolton was sent back to the United States to serve in Illinois, becoming the first African American priest to do missionary work in his own country. During his ministry, Father Tolton encountered widespread racism; however, he stayed focused on breaking down barriers of prejudice and hatred while he continued his ministry, sharing the teachings of the Church.
Last year, the Vatican recognized that Father Tolton lived the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance at a heroic level, and declared him “venerable,” which is one of the initial steps on the road to canonization.
The group also addressed ways to improve the numbers of blacks in religious vocations and ways to support them as they experience rejection and discrimination.
Kathleen Bellow, director of the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, called for greater access to faith formation and active involvement of parishioners in the life of the Church.
“If we’re going to have a thriving clergy, if we’re going to have religious, then we as laypeople have to be partners with them. We have to be recruiting them, we have to be supporting them, we have to make sure we stand up for them when they run into hardships,” Bellow said.
Bishop Perry invited families and parish communities to nurture vocations like the religious people who encouraged Father Tolton to consider his vocation.
“I encourage members of parish councils to have an eye to see who’s out there,” the bishop said.
The panelists pointed out that in working for reconciliation, creating dialogues that foster a culture of encounter is essential.
“We need to have a conversation, but a conversation that doesn’t begin and end with the condemnation of people. It has to be a conversation that says this is the situation that we’re living with. We all have an investment, and there’s room for all of us to grow,” Archbishop Gregory said.
The prelate added that throughout history, many other racial and ethnic groups have also experienced racism and prejudice, and talking about those experiences can be helpful as communities seek healing.
“We should be able to speak honestly about how that has shaped us and what we can do to be more compassionately understanding towards one another,” Archbishop Gregory added.
Other panelists included Dr. Cecilia Moore, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton; and Father David Jones, the pastor of St. Benedict the African Parish in Chicago.
In closing, the panel encouraged black Catholics and others to follow the example set by Father Tolton and other saints who have shown love and grace amid adversity.
“Regardless of what is dished out to us, we have to return respect and love, and that in itself will save the world,” Bishop Perry said.