The Church in the United States is suffering. Over the past year, American Catholics have watched stories unfold on sex abuse, cover-ups, the McCarrick scandal, and now reports of Bishop Bransfield’s misconduct. The Church is in desperate need of hope during this time, and an American priest on his way to canonization could bring just that.
On June 12, the Vatican announced that Fr Augustus Tolton, the first African-American priest of the Catholic Church, had been granted the title “Venerable”, moving along his cause for canonization. Now that he is only two miracles away from being the first African American saint, I believe it is time to consider the case for one day naming him the patron saint of the United States.
Augustus Tolton was born a slave in 1854 in Brush Creek, Missouri. His family fled to Quincy, Illinois where he and his siblings were raised by their single mother. Tolton began working in a tobacco factory at the age of nine and later enrolled in an all-white Catholic school, but was forced to leave after outrage from the community.
At a young age, Tolton began serving at Mass and later felt a call to the priesthood. Every seminary in the United States refused to accept him due to his race, so he was sent to Rome to study and was ordained on April 24, 1886. Expecting to be assigned to serve in Africa, Tolton was surprised to be sent back to Quincy to minister to the black population.
Tolton thrived at the start of his ministry, drawing both white and black congregants to his Masses. One priest, perturbed by Tolton’s success, implored the bishop to put a stop to his ministry. The bishop ordered Tolton to minister only to black Catholics, or else leave. So Tolton transferred to the Archdiocese of Chicago to serve the African-American community there.
His work took a heavy toll on him: he was known as a priest who endlessly walked the streets and visited the poor and marginalized. In July 1897, after returning from a retreat, he collapsed in the street and later died of heat stroke. He was 43.
The life of Augustus Tolton was full of difficulties. By the time he was nine, both his father, who left to serve in the Union Army, and his older brother had died. The racism that he experienced throughout the entirety of his life, including racial slurs from a fellow priest, was no easy cross to bear. Yet he bore it all with “patient suffering”, as Bishop Joseph Perry, the vice postulator for Tolton’s Canonization Cause, has said.
Tolton is the model priest the US Church should look to today. In the wake of scandals involving clergy, he stands as an example of the kind of good and holy man all priests should strive to be. His simple life and focus on ministry attest to his character as a man of great piety and charity.
In recent years, the US has had to come to terms with racism not only in its past, but also in its present. Recognizing police brutality, systemic racism and discrimination are still prevalent today, America must find a way to uproot these deeply entrenched evils. Recent movements such as Black Lives Matter have fought against these sins, which remain a plague in our society.
The Church has not been without her faults in this area. Catholic institutions played a role in the perpetuation of slavery, the slave trade, and discrimination. As the US Bishops acknowledged in their 1979 statement on racism, “All too often the Church in our country has been for many a ‘white Church’, a racist institution.” And while these institutions have attempted to rectify the sins of the past, the Church must continue to address the issues, while heeding the call of Pope Francis to go out to the periphery of society and accompany the marginalized.
Augustus Tolton as the patron saint of America could do just that. He is a symbol of the struggle for minority communities’ recognition in American society and in the Church; to the lay faithful, he is an example of the holiness of the Church and of those who live their lives faithfully in ministry. To the ordained and religious, he is the embodiment of a pastor dedicated to tending to the flock.
Tolton’s story is emblematic of the American Dream, living out American values of hard work and perseverance in pursuit of his goal. As Bishop Perry has put it: “Tolton’s story is one of carving out one’s humanity as a man and as a priest in an atmosphere of racial volatility. His was a fundamental and pervasive struggle to be recognized, welcomed and accepted. He rises wonderfully as a Christ-figure, never uttering a harsh word about anyone or anything while being thrown one disappointment after another. He persevered among us when there was no logical reason to do so.”
Of course, Catholics in the US already have a patroness, the Blessed Virgin Mary. But if Augustus Tolton is one day canonized, he would be a worthy patron.
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