Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton’s beatification cause has taken another important step forward and toward the desk of Pope Francis.
The theological commission for the Church’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints on Feb. 5 unanimously agreed that Fr. Tolton lived an extraordinary life given the troubling issues about race of his time.
“This is wonderful news for Fr. Tolton’s cause,” said Bishop Joseph N. Perry, an auxiliary bishop of Chicago, who is co-postulator for Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause. “The progress continues to validate his life of holiness, perseverance and stamina against great odds.”
The nine-member theological commission based its findings on a comprehensive historical dossier prepared by the Chicago archdiocese, where Fr. Tolton ministered in the years leading up to his death in 1897.
“I see this as an endorsement of everything we’ve done so far,” stated Bishop Perry.
The cause will now be presented to the next Ordinary Meeting of Cardinals and Archbishops, where a final vote will be taken before the Decree of Heroic Virtues is presented to Pope Francis for his approval.
The Pope would then decide whether Fr. Tolton should be given the title “venerable” — an important step toward being declared a saint.
The title indicates that a candidate for sainthood lived at a heroic level the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
Once Fr. Tolton is declared venerable, Church authorities would begin evaluating claims of miracles that are being attributed to God through the priest’s intercession in heaven.
Such a miracle would be required for the Church to beatify Fr. Tolton — to formally declare him blessed, meaning worthy of emulation in this life and suitable for further prayers for intercession before God’s throne.
“Basically, we need a sign from heaven to show God’s approval,” Bishop Perry noted.
The Church may require another separate miracle after beatification in order for Fr. Tolton to be declared a saint.
A life’s worth of lessons
Bishop Perry believes Fr. Tolton’s story is emblematic of the long and rich history of African American Catholics, who have lived through troubling chapters and setbacks throughout American history.
“Lessons from his early life as a slave and the prejudice he endured in becoming a priest still apply today with our current problems of racial and social injustices and inequities that divide neighborhoods, churches and communities by race, class and ethnicity,” said Bishop Perry.
The bishop noted that America was a project in the making throughout Fr. Tolton’s life ... “and it still is.”
“Fr. Tolton’s work isn’t done,” Bishop Perry stated. “We will continue to honor his life and legacy of goodness, inclusivity, empathy and resolve in how we treat one another.”
Born into slavery in northeastern Missouri and baptized into the Church in St. Peter Church in Brush Creek in what is now part of the Jefferson City diocese, Fr. Tolton escaped as a child to Illinois with his mother and siblings during the Civil War.
He grew in faith, discerned a priestly calling and spent six years studying in Rome for the Priesthood, because no U.S. seminary would accept him because of his race.
He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in 1886 in St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. Sent back to Quincy, Illinois, as a missionary, he became the first recognizable black priest of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
He ministered with unfailing generosity and devotion while navigating the choppy waters of racial acceptance in Quincy and then in Chicago.
He returned to Missouri at least once, offering Mass and preaching a mission in St. Joseph Church in Edina on March 19, 1889.
He died in of heatstroke in Chicago at age 43.
“He was a pioneer of his era for inclusiveness, attracting both blacks and whites to his parish in Quincy,” Bishop Perry noted. “However, due to his race, he suffered discrimination and condemnation.”
Currently, the Church has not beatified or canonized an African American.
The bishop believes Fr. Tolton’s eventual beatification and canonization will be a significant milestone in the history of black Catholicism in the United States.
Amidst the dust
The late Cardinal Francis E. George OMI of Chicago formally opened Fr. Tolton’s cause for sainthood in 2010.
Bishop Perry and those who are working with him on the cause spent about four years gathering every bit of information they could find out about Fr. Tolton’s life on this earth.
They compiled their hundreds of pages of filings into a dossier, which they sent to the Congregation for Sainthood Causes in Rome in 2014.
Bishop Perry said “digging in archives and dusty file drawers and libraries and newspaper archives, trying to put the story together” was a singular experience.
“And it gave us some pieces of information about his life that even earlier biographies about his life had no access to,” he said.
One thing researchers discovered was that the life of a slave in Missouri when Fr. Tolton was a child was even harder than originally presumed.
“So it’s by no means a romantic story in any sense,” said Bishop Perry. “The Civil War — we talk about it in terms of the Blue and the Gray, the North and the South and all those kinds of things — is not as romantic a period of our history as our books and movies tend to make it out to be.
“No, it’s a period that carries a lot of embarrassment for society and the Church,” he said.
Yet, there were also many redeeming aspects.
“We see that there was a lot of good going on even though there was a lot of bad going on,” said Bishop Perry. “We see Fr. Tolton as someone who lived heroically and tried to minister heroically in spite of the incongruities, contradictions and outward hatred that was part of American life at that time.”
Bishop Perry said he looks forward to leading a pilgrimage from Chicago to Quincy and to Brush Creek this September.
He believes that to the people of Missouri — heirs to a society from which Fr. Tolton and his family had to escape in order to survive — the slave-turned-priest offers a story of great hope.
“And hope is one of the strongest virtues of the Christian lifestyle,” he stated.
As the knowledge that good things are to come, hope is creative and very alive, he said.
“Our take as pastors is to help people be better Christians,” said Bishop Perry. “That’s the hope that fuels my ministry. And I would hope that others take to it.”
Himself a descendant of slaves, who has experienced prejudice and racial bias in the Church and the rest of society, Bishop Perry tries to approach these things as Fr. Tolton would.
“I’ve run into many wonderful, kind and gifted and Christian people in my ministry over the years,” he said. “I try to navigate between them and those who are not quite living like they’re redeemed.
“We hope that with God’s help, they will come around eventually,” he said.
Fr. Tolton offered a warm, welcoming heart even to people who were jealous of him and those who could not accept his vision of a Church in which people of all skin tones could live and worship as one.
“He was trying to create a situation in his ministry that society and people in the Church were not ready to accept at that time,” said Bishop Perry.
The bishop believes that if Fr. Tolton could speak to people living in the United States today, “he would try to encourage us to keep on keeping on.”
“I think he would see where we have made some progress in social and racial relations,” said Bishop Perry. “And I think in his own keen sense, he would see areas that really still need improvement.
“He wouldn’t want us to give up, and he would not want us to retaliate in any sort of way.”
Grateful for favors
People throughout the world are praying for and giving thanks for holy interventions that they attribute to the “inside influence” of God’s priestly servant from Brush Creek.
“We’re receiving a lot of information from all over the country about favors from God, granted through Fr. Tolton’s intercession,” said Bishop Perry.
He said there’s a big difference between favors and miracles, “but some of these favors do sound pretty extraordinary.”
“They certainly help to show that the connection between here and heaven has certainly been made,” he said. “But we need that one miracle that will take it to the next step. And that’s what we’re praying for now.”
Bishop Perry asked for continued prayers for Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause to continue with success.
To learn more about Fr. Tolton’s cause for sainthood, visit www.toltoncanonization.org.