Reflection on Fr. Augustine Tolton and the Priesthood
As I mentioned in a previous post, I am now in the summer exam period. Unlike the United States, here exam period is not one week, but three. Our exams are all comprehensive and all 10 minute oral exams.
This semester we had a professor who threw my classmates at the Gregorian and I for a little bit of a twist. The course is on the Sacraments of: Ordination, Matrimony, Anointing and Reconciliation. We had to do a unique assignment that would turn into a great opportunity to share our cultures.
The assignment was to compose a short simple reflection on the life a person who has lived in our country in the last 150 years. The reflections were to be no more than one page and were to tie a quote from the figure to some of the theological themes we have discussed in class. We then had to get together in pre-determined groups of three to share and discuss our persons of interest. The groups were set up by the professor so that each of the three students came from different cultures. I was in a group with a young Italian lay woman and a Croatian seminarian. We had a great discussion.
I chose Fr. Augustine Tolton, the first African-American priest, who was baptized in my diocese.
I thought I’d share my reflection here too.
Servant of God, Fr. Augustine Tolton was born as a slave on April 1, 1854 in Brush Creek, Missouri. His slave owners were Catholic and allowed him to be baptized. In 1862, after the death of his father, Fr. Tolton escaped slavery along with his mother and siblings. They resettled on the other side of the Mississippi river in Quincy, Illinois. Young Augustine worked in factories, but loved Mass, eventually he got a job in the rectory so he could study under the priests. He himself wanted to be a priest, but was rejected by every U.S. seminary and many religious orders. Finally, he was accepted by the Propaganda Fidei, getting ordained in 1886. He believed that he would be sent to Africa to minister and evangelize. In a surprising move he was then sent back to Illinois to serve black Catholics until he died of heat exhaustion while visiting the sick in 1897. He was the first African-American priest.
“The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery – that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both. I was a poor slave boy but the priests of the Church did not disdain me. It was through the influence of one of them that I became what I am tonight. I must now give praise to that son of the Emerald Isle, Father Peter McGirr, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Quincy, who promised me that I would be educated and who kept his word. It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors… it was through the direction of a Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Herlinde, that I learned to interpret the Ten Commandments; and then I also beheld for the first time the glimmering light of truth and the majesty of the Church. In this Church we do not have to fight for our rights because we are black. She had colored saints – Augustine, Benedict the Moor, Monica. The Church is broad and liberal. She is the Church for our people.” 
The circumstances of the death of Fr. Tolton are a powerful expression of the sacrificial priesthood, a total giving of self for others. He died bringing the Eucharist, anointing and confession to the sick and dying. This makes it quote easy to see the intimate connection between the priesthood and the Eucharist, Christ gave up his life man, Fr. Tolton gave up his life for his parishioners. He also speaks of the importance of the Church. In the above quote one can find the vocational aspect of the priesthood, that is that God frees us from slavery of sin, but calls us to do his will. This is seen in the life of Fr. Tolton, a freed slave who makes a promise of obedience to the Church. A man who thought he would be sent to Africa, but was sent back home to a much more hostile environment, and by obedience, he went. This is the great paradox of this man’s life. In this way he unites himself with Christ who is God, who humbles himself not only to become man, but, “taking the form of a slave…becoming obedient to death, death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7-8). Fr. Tolton demonstrates how one can find true freedom by following the will of God, and obediently serving his Church. It is obvious in this text that the has a great respect for the Church, in which demonstrates the closeness of the priest with the Church, with the people of God, the mystical body of Christ. His reverence shows the priest is always united to the Church, through prayer and sacrament. The text also expresses the importance of the priest’s role of teaching. Fr. Tolton was grateful for the teaching of an academic subjects that he received from priests. However, this also another kind of teaching referenced, not an instruction of academics, but rather an instruction of the heart. He notes that it is from the priest that he learned to pray and forgive his persecutors, who were many in his time. Thus the priesthood is also an instructing the faithful in how to grow in their relationship with God through prayer and the forgiveness of their persecutors.
Here is the prayer we can all pray for Fr. Tolton’s Cause for Canonization.
O God, * we give you thanks for your servant and priest, Father Augustus Tolton, * who labored among us in times of contradiction,* times that were both beautiful and paradoxical. * His ministry helped lay the foundation for a truly Catholic gathering in faith in our time.* We stand in the shadow of his ministry.* May his life continue to inspire us * and imbue us with that confidence and hope * that will forge a new evangelization for the Church we love.
Father in Heaven, * Father Tolton’s suffering service sheds light upon our sorrows; * we see them through the prism of your Son’s passion and death.* If it be your Will, O God,* glorify your servant, Father Tolton, * by granting the favor I now request through his intercession * (mention your request) * so that all may know the goodness of this priest * whose memory looms large in the Church he loved.
Complete what you have begun in us * that we might work for the fulfillment of your kingdom.* Not to us the glory,* but glory to you O God, through Jesus Christ, your Son* and our Lord; * Father, Son and Holy Spirit,* you are our God, living and reigning forever and ever. Amen
Prayer found on http://www.toltoncanonization.org
1. The quote can be found on pg. 22 of the Biography found here.