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What the Advancement of Venerable Augustus Tolton Represents for the Catholic Church in America

Venerable Augustus Tolton, the first black ordained priest, has a profound legacy and message that can benefit our lives today.

Venerable Augustus Tolton

Last summer, the cause for Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first ordained African-American priest, picked up a new development. Pope Francis declared that he had heroic virtue and deemed him “Venerable.”

This means he is one step closer to beatification and eventually Saint status!

Many people across the country are keeping a close eye on his canonization. Some in the Church sees it as a unifying event that can bridge century-old racial divides.

There are some that see Tolton’s canonization as a reflection of the Church in the Americas. The Americas have a plethora of Saints: South American (Rose of Lima), Mexico (Juan Diego), an American woman (Elizabeth Ann Seton), and Native-American (Kateri Tekakwitha).

As a result of this diverse body, many are eager to see an African-American in this group of holy men and women.

The canonization process will and should ultimately deem Tolton a Blessed or Saint after a thorough investigation on his merits and not to appease those seeking diversity for the sake of having an African-American face as the poster boy for racial progress.

When writing and reflecting on Father Tolton, many things come to mind.

Heeding the Call

His pathway to the priesthood is somewhat similar to St. John Neumann. John couldn’t get admitted into a seminary in Bohemia because they were full, so he traveled to America for the priesthood.

On the other hand, Father Tolton left America because he was rejected due to racism, but found acceptance in Europe.

Both respected priests in their own right, but their vocations have the same thread: when God calls, you can’t avoid it.

I speak to priests regularly in my archdiocese for my podcast, Priestly Passion, and they all have said that the internal call to serve God as a priest is one unshaken. Most of the advice they’ve echoed stressed the importance that if God has called you to a vocation, then you must nurture the seed planted.

When I examine Tolton, I understand that he persevered in a calling to serve God despite racism and discrimination. Despite deeply held racial biases in Catholic institutions, he was determined to follow God’s will for his life.

This is why we should pray for vocations. We need more men and women to follow God’s call to serve as a priest, deacon or enter religious life.

Debunked Stereotypes

To many African-Americans, the Catholic church is a “Eurocentric” or “white man’s church” and to a degree they’re right.

Keep in mind that the Church in America is mostly comprised of a non-Hispanic White population (59%) and the popes that they can easily point to have been European for the most part.

Unfortunately, African-Americans create a caricature that doesn’t actually represent the American or universal Church.

For starters, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are approximately three million Catholics that identify as African-American. Also, according to Pew Research, about 19.6 million Latinos identify as Catholic.

Moreover, emphasis on the Global South is important to note. Helping African-Americans realize tons of Africans are entering the Church daily in Sub-Saharan African countries is a powerful reminder.

In fact, according to CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Africa has seen a 238% increase in its Catholic population since 1980.

Similarly, CARA discovered Asia has seen a massive increase since 1980 from 62.7 million to nearly 135 million Catholics in 2012!

Therefore, Catholicism is not simply a “white church “ but a diverse body that truly embodies the mark of catholicity. This isn’t a new phenomenon to recognize, but one to be reiterated that the Church has always been universal within the Body of Christ.

Love Conquers Hate

Father Tolton saw his mission not ordained by men but from God. Just as he was physically different, his love for God was just the same as his opponents.

It is said while he was finishing his coursework in Rome that Father Tolton thought he would be placed in Africa to serve in the missions.

Surprisingly, the leaders decided to place him back in his racist town in Illinois where he would have to battle much hostility and hate.

Perhaps they placed him back there to allow his priestly service to demonstrate just how universal and wide encompassing the Church is towards being a place where partiality doesn’t exist.

Also, maybe the leaders in Rome wanted those in his native Illinois to see how God had chosen the “white man” and the “negro” for the same role of God and that coexistence in the eternal kingdom first requires coexistence in the natural world.

Truly, the life of Ven. Augustus Tolton has a profound influence on many Christians. Just as with all the Saints, their lives guide us closer to God, so maybe God is teaching us a lesson on the importance of hope in our adversity just like Tolton’s life.

It’s definitely something worth considering.

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