Were he living today, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton would not stand for the violence that has broken out at some recent demonstrations, nor would he remain silent in the face of the systemic racial injustices that have persisted for generations.
As he did in his day, the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably black priest in the United States would testify compellingly but compassionately against the injustices and brutalities he witnessed and withstood.
“He lived his life in stark contrast to the realities of his time,” stated Father Peter Chineke, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois. “He lived in persecution. He endured some of the worst evils of his time. But he looked beyond the temporal realities of this world because he knew where his robe lies, in heaven.”
Fr. Chineke, who grew up in Nigeria, preached the homily during a walking pilgrimage to Fr. Tolton’s burial place in Quincy, Illinois, on July 9, the 123rd anniversary of Fr. Tolton’s death in Chicago.
About 100 people, led by priests and seminarians, processed for about a mile from the statue of Fr. Tolton outside St. Peter School to St. Peter Cemetery.
An additional 40 people joined in praying Evening Prayer at the cemetery.
It was 90 degrees in the sun — significantly cooler than it was in Chicago when Fr. Tolton died of heat stroke at age 43.
Fr. Tolton (1854-1897), born into a family of slaves in northeastern Missouri, discerned Priesthood and ministered faithfully in spite of the overtly racist obstacles he endured.
His cause for beatification and sainthood is under way in Chicago and Vatican City.
Father Daren Zehnle, pastor of St. Augustine parish in Ashland, Illinois, said a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place to encounter something holy that hopefully leaves the pilgrims changed for the better.
Noting that Fr. Tolton closed many letters with phrases such as “Your Sincere Friend” or “Your Friend in Jesus,” Fr. Zehnle suggested that such a spirit of friendship and fellowship is holy and might help to ease the civil unrest and coarse public discourse that have taken place in recent weeks.
“It would be good to look to the example of Fr. Tolton and say, ‘Father wants us not only to be a friend of Jesus, but a friend of everyone,’” said Fr. Zehnle.
Fr. Chineke, parochial vicar of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception parish in Springfield, Illinois, spoke at the cemetery.
Although Fr. Tolton lived at a time when it was “basically a crime to be black man in this country,” he understood that he was only here on a temporary mission.
“And after his mission,” said Fr. Chineke, “the Master looked at him and said, ‘You, the good servant, you have finished the race, you have fought very well. Welcome to My kingdom.’”
All Christians are called to live in the same manner — sacrificing any pleasures and expediencies that stand in the way of carrying-out Christ’s mission.
Fr. Chineke pleaded with the pilgrims to prepare for the day when they will stand before the Lord, alone and unadorned, and give an accounting of what they have done and not done in this life.
“Fr. Tolton was obedient to the truth,” the priest emphasized. “His loyalty to the Gospel teachings of Jesus Christ, just like the other saints in heaven today, is what Christ is calling you and me to emulate today.”
That obedience means listening to and acting upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ — “seeing others as Christ would see them, treating them as we would want to be treated, dealing with them as we would want others to deal with us.”
In other words, Fr. Chineke emphasized, it’s not enough just to profess Christianity.
“We must behave like Christians,” he stated. “We cannot profess love and then do otherwise. That love must characterize all that we do. The things we do in secret and the things we do in public — they must be rooted in a genuine love for Christ and one another.”
The priest noted that Christ did not promise an easy life.
“What He did promise was that He will remain with us until the end of time,” he said.
The service closed with the prayer for Fr. Tolton’s canonization, followed by the singing of all four verses of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” which was Fr. Tolton’s favorite hymn.
It was sung at his First Solemn Mass in Quincy in 1886 and at his Funeral Mass there 11 years later.
Fr. Zehnle proclaimed the pilgrimage a success and plans to hold another one on the same date next year.
“Unless Fr. Tolton gets beatified sooner,” he said, “in which case, we’ll be back here before then.”