Fr Augustus Tolton: a prophetic response for our times

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We are living in a world where, although it claims that it has made great techonological advances, yet it does poorly when it comes to human dignity. History clearly shows the great and tragic contradiction. In fact, despite the often cited “progress” in the fields of culture, science and technology, racism, tribalism, nationalism, colonialism and the caste system have been mainly responsible for the death of, at least, over 62 million human beings in the last 100 years.

In front of such a horrendous statistic, not to mention of course the South Africa’s apartheid era (1948-1994), the unjust treatment and tragedies of African-Americans, and the recent plight of migrants and refugees, we are witnessing a catastrophic stance

In his July 15, 2014, in a message addressing a global conference in Mexico, Pope Francis said: “Many people forced to emigrate suffer, and often die tragically. Many of their rights are violated, they are obliged to separate from their families and, unfortunately, continue to be the subject of racist and xenophobic attitudes.” On October 23, 2014, the Holy Father addressed adelegation from the International Association of Penal Law. Speaking to the group, Francis discussed the widespread idea that public punishment is the solution to difficult social problems. He expressed his disagreement with this conception and contested the purposes of public punishment. “Scapegoats are not only sought to pay, with their freedom and with their life, for all social ills such as was typical in primitive societies, but over and beyond this, there is at times a tendency to deliberately fabricate enemies: stereotyped figures who represent all the characteristics that society perceives or interprets as threatening. The mechanisms that form these images are the same that allowed the spread of racist ideas in their time.”

The archdiocese of Chicago advocates for the beatification of the first African American priest in the United States. He spent his pastoral time in his home parish in Quincy, Illinois.

As a priest in Quincy he was known to be very pastoral. According to Vanessa White, director of the Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program, which prepares Black Catholic lay men and women for ministerial leadership in the Church and provides educational and spiritual programs about Black Catholics for the broader community of Catholic Theological Union and the Archdiocese of Chicago, Fr Augustus Tolton was known to preach about hope, forgiveness, and the Church being open to all.

He was born a slave and forbidden to enter seminary in the United States, thus experiencing the prejudice of the time. The Franciscans arranged for him to attend seminary in Rome, Italy and then sent him back to a segregated America, at age 32 to pastoral church in Illinois. At a time when African Americans were celebrating mass in a basement of a white church he was one of the first priests who joined both caucasians and African Americans in the same mass.

For Mgr. Joseph Perry, the postulator of the cause of beatification of Fr Augustus Tolton, the latter is an important part of African American community in the United States. “As far as African community is concerned he is one he is one of us. And he is a link with our ancestors who obviously bore the hardship of slavery and struggled in order to obtain freedom in our democracy”.

In 2010 Cardinal Francis George asked the Vatican to consider Fr Tolton for sainthood. And there began a four year research project of his life before sending his dossier to the Vatican in 2014. As if now the Vatican holds all the documents necessary to declare Tolton a saint. Chicago must be patient and wait for the final word from Pope Francis.

Todd Williamson, the Director of the Chicago Office for Divine Worship, said about Tolton’s beatification cause: “I think that the cause for canonisation of Fr Augustus is a wonderful opportunity for us, the people of the archdiocese of Chicago”. However it is not only the people of Chicago who would benefit from Fr Tolton’s story. He is an example of someone who persevered in advocating for unity in times of hatred and division, which, unfortunately, are still ever present in our world today.

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