Father Michael Penn brought to mind a line from one of the praise anthems sung earlier in the evening by the Spellman College Choir of Atlanta.
“We can change the world.”
“We most certainly can,” said Fr. Penn, who is the Jefferson City diocese’s liaison to Father Augustus Tolton’s cause for canonization. “If we follow the example of Fr. Tolton, who always walked in the footsteps of Christ, we can change the world through God’s grace and Fr. Tolton’s intercession.”
Fr. Penn, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Ozark, spoke during a prayer- and information-filled national webinar the evening of July 8, one night before the 125th anniversary or Fr. Tolton’s death in Chicago.
About 200 people nationwide participated in the webcast.
Fr. Tolton was born and baptized in 1854 in northeastern Missouri in what is now part of the Diocese of Jefferson City. He surmounted overwhelming obstacles, becoming the Roman Catholic Church’s first noticeably Black priest in 1886.
He died of heatstroke in 1897 at age 43, having given everything he could to God and the people entrusted to his care.
Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, opened in 2011, bears his name.
“His stay with us was short,” Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, postulator of Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause, observed. “But his life leaves us an example of Christian stature, with him having navigated the conundrums of rejection, becoming a pioneer of affirmative race relations, our first (recognizably Black) priest, a devoted pastor and reconciler of the races.”
Bishop Perry, who is Black, pointed out that Fr. Tolton, as a child in slavery, through his growing up and into and inclusive of his Priesthood, “traveled the gauntlet of 19th-century race discrimination in America.”
“And in the Christian perspective, despite everything, we find his faith, hope and his love to have remained intact,” the bishop stated. “That is the ultimate summons of the Christian life.”
Dr. C. Vanessa White PhD pointed out that Fr. Tolton was always open to the work of the Holy Spirit throughout his life, giving him the power to withstand many tribulations with great love and devotion.
“His encounter with that same Holy Spirit led him to say ‘yes’ to becoming a priest,” said Dr. White, professor of spirituality and ministry at Catholic Theological union in Chicago and associate director of the master’s degree program in theology at Xavier University of New Orleans’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies.
“It gave him the power to withstand racism within the Church and remain steadfast to go to Rome to study and be ordained,” she stated.
Fr. Tolton once recalled: “The day I was ordained a deacon, I felt so strong that I thought no hardship would ever be too great for me to accept. I was ready for everything.”
That Spirit-led determination made him an adept unifier and reconciler.
Dr. White noted how when Fr. Tolton was told as a young priest to refrain from allowing the white parishioners in his area to attend his church, he stated, “The doors of the Catholic Church are open for all.”
He did not shy away from inviting any and everyone to worship God.
“He showed by his example that the Catholic Church was and could be a spiritual home for all peoples,” said Dr. White. “As diverse communities of faith, we can learn from him what it means to open the doors to all peoples who wish to worship in spirit and truth.”
She said his witness is still compelling and relevant, a century and a quarter after his death.
“His dedication to daily prayer and the Eucharist during his formative years has shaped my own spiritual practices,” she stated. “His sense of hope in the midst of overwhelming challenges has guided me to ‘keep on keeping on’ when despair appears to be knocking at my door.”
Giving great thanks
Norbertine Father Claude Williams, who is missioned in Orange County, California, marveled at how adeptly Fr. Tolton could recognize the voice of God in his life, follow that voice and persevere in the face of many obstacles, “especially and notably racism, which he encountered repeatedly.”
Fr. Williams shed a light on the spirituality of Fr. Tolton’s parents, especially his mother’s insistence on recognizing God’s goodness and thanking Him in all circumstances.
“That’s really one of the most important things in the spirituality of Fr. Tolton,” said Fr. Williams. “He was able to give great thanks to God at every single moment, especially in the moments of challenge.”
Also notable was Fr. Tolton’s great love for the Church. He was always mindful of the goodness of the people, especially the Franciscan friars and School Sisters of Notre Dame who helped him while he was growing up in Quincy, Illinois, and who had stood beside him as concrete expressions of God’s unfailing fidelity.
“Thanks to God’s grace, Fr. Tolton was always able to recognize the hand of God, leading him forward,” said Fr. Williams. “The good witness and example given by these people always outweighed the negative things he witnessed and experienced.”
All of this, said Fr. Williams, allowed Fr. Tolton to see the Church as the real extension of Christ, “the real mystical presence in the world, so that when so many other things were going wrong, the Church at her best was there for him, just as Christ, the head of the Church, was there for him.”
“If one is uplifted”
Bishop Perry noted that Fr. Tolton is one of six African American Catholics for whom formal causes for canonization — declaration of being a Saint — have been opened.
Two of them — Fr. Tolton and Servant of God Julia Greeley — were born into enslaved families in Missouri.
Bishop Perry said that at this stage of Fr. Tolton’s cause, the faithful need to pray for God to reveal through an authenticatable miracle that Fr. Tolton is in heaven with God.
Such a miracle must be “an occurrence or restoration of health that medicine cannot explain or has no role in the turnaround in the health for that individual,” Bishop Perry stated.
People who have been seeking miracles attributable to God through Fr. Tolton’s intercession should contact Bishop Perry if they believe the favor has been granted, he said.
“Rome looks for the connection between the faithful who honor the saints, as well as the Kingdom of Heaven,” said Bishop Perry.
“That’s why we have the miracle phase,” he said. “It distinguishes the making of saints from the ‘Golden Globe Awards’ or the ‘Oscars,’” he said. “We’re talking about candidates for sainthood who lived heroically the Christian life. Most of them, if not all of them, suffered for it.”
“So prayer is the most important thing,” he said. “Also, spreading the story to children and young people and young adults.”
Bishop Perry wrote the official prayer for Fr. Tolton’s canonization. It can be found in English at tolton.archchicago.org/prayer. Prayer cards are available in English, German, Italian, Polish and Spanish.
Bishop Perry mentioned the Tolton Ambassadors, an organization that is active in many cities, including Atlanta; Chicago; Detroit; Los Angeles; New Orleans; Philadelphia; South Bend, Indiana; and Washington, D.C.
Much like the 72 disciples Jesus sent out ahead of Him in the Bible, the Tolton Ambassadors are an official association who spread the word about Fr. Tolton and what God is accomplishing through him.
The Ambassadors also help cover the expenses of the necessary investigations that are a part of Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause.
Dr. White noted that the whole Church is uplifted when one of its members is revealed to be with God in heaven, continuing to intercede in the God’s holy majesty on behalf of His people.
“The ‘I’ is defined in the ‘we,’ and that is part of how we pray,” she said. “If one of us suffers, we all suffer; if one of us is uplifted, we all share in the joy.”
Fr. Penn closed the celebration with a prayer:
“Almighty God, we give You thanks for the gift of Venerable Fr. Tolton. We ask You to send down Your Holy Spirit to guide us as it guided Fr. Tolton, and that always and everywhere, we will change the world by following Your word and the example of this great man. We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”