Whether segregated, held in bondage or otherwise marginalized by people of their own Church, a historical slate of African American candidates for sainthood poses a daunting question: Why did they stay Catholic?
The answer offers inspiration to Catholics of all skin tones, living in all times and places.
“They saw the value of what they had received: the gift of a relationship with God in His Church — something stronger than any persecution and more precious than anything on earth,” asserted Dr. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana.
These otherwise ordinary individuals’ persistent adherence to the faith made them powerful witnesses on earth and potentially even greater intercessors in heaven.
“They recognized that this is where God dwells,” said Dr. Verret. “I hear them, just like St. Peter, asking, ‘To whom else shall we go?’”
Dr. Verret recently met with the postulators of the causes of five African American candidates for sainthood to announce a joint effort for the Causes of Sainthood.
Sponsored by Xavier University in New Orleans, and its Institute for Black Catholic Studies, it is an effort to unite the causes and respective guilds working toward the canonization of five black Catholic candidates for sainthood in the United States.
They are: Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Venerable Sister Henriette Delille of the Sisters of the Holy Family, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange of the Oblate Sisters of Providence; Father Augustus Tolton and Julia Greeley.
Fr. Tolton, the Catholic Church’s first recognized black priest in the United States; and Julia Greeley, a convert to Catholic Christianity and relentless disciple of charity in the Denver archdiocese, were born into slavery in what is now the Jefferson City diocese.
The resource center will be a repository for relevant and educational scholarly work focusing the lives of them and the other three candidates, as well as that of Xavier University of Louisiana foundress Sister Katharine Drexel and St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks.
Plans call for adding another ground-breaking black Catholic, Sister Thea Bowman, who taught at Xavier’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies.
Dr. Verret, who is African American, pointed out that of the more than 250 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States and the 102 officially designated Historically Black Colleges and Universities, only Xavier of Louisiana is both.
It’s also the only university in the United States that was founded by a canonized saint: St. Katherine Drexel.
Xavier and its Institute for Black Catholic Studies will serve as hosts and administrators, and Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry will be moderator and chair of the center.
Bishop Perry is postulator of Fr. Tolton’s cause.
Dr. Verret said this joint initiative began several years ago with a conversation with Bishop Perry and members of his staff.
For the whole Church
The Church has not yet declared any African American saints.
Nonetheless, Dr. Verret emphasized that this joint effort is a gift for the whole Church, not only black Catholics.
He noted that all five of the men and women served people in need, regardless of their skin color.
Like Jesus, they remained faithful in the face of people who would not receive them. And like Him, they ministered among the poor and the broken.
“The Church that Jesus blesses by His presence has always been a Church of the broken,” said Dr. Verret. “And we see that Fr. Tolton and Julia Greeley both came out of that poverty brokenness.”
Their lives also reflected uninhibited simplicity.
“You would not have walked the streets in Missouri and recognized right off that one or the other might one day be a saint,” said Dr. Verret. “But God calls all of us to holiness, to lead holy and sanctified lives in our everyday circumstances.”
Brothers and sisters
He added that although each of these five candidates of sainthood has been dead for more than 100 years, their stories are transcendent and crucially relevant today.
“Understand that in America, there remains among some the very same illusion of what it means to be American — that belongs to some but not others,” he noted. “Fr. Tolton and Julia Greeley and the others were among the descendants the people who helped found America.”
Yet, many saw them as the “other,” rather than a brother or sister in Christ.
“When we ‘other’ people, we’re ‘othering’ God, we’re ‘othering’ Christ,” said Dr. Verret. “We’re giving ourselves license to crucify Him.”
The saints, especially those who served in this life among the lowly, are constant reminder that everyone is a sister or brother in Christ, Dr. Verret noted.
“Looking like me is not a characteristic of being a brother in Christ,” he said. “Christ calls them all. Look more deeply at who is your brother.”
Contributing to this article was Christine Bordelon, associate editor of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.