18 July 2016

Homily for the Pilgrimage Procession Commemorating Father Tolton's Return to Quincy

Pilgrimage Procession and Evening Prayer
Commemorating the 130th Anniversary of the Return of the
Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton to Quincy

Dear brothers and sisters,

It was one hundred and thirty years ago this morning that the recently ordained Father Augustus Tolton returned to Quincy from Rome. Because I, too, recently returned to Quincy from studies in Rome, it is a day to which I feel a special affinity and a special closeness to Father Tolton.

In order to welcome him home, the priests then in Quincy chartered a special railroad car to bring Father Tolton from Springfield to Quincy. The train was named the “Q,” and when it pulled into the station at Front and Vermont streets, a brass band greeted Father Tolton by playing his favorite hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

As he disembarked, a large crowd cheered and waved in greeting to the first black priest in these United States of America. Father Tolton climbed into a carriage, drawn by four white horses and decorated with flowers, and a procession with the band and the people moved from the train station to St. Peter’s church, then at Eighth and Maine streets.  As the procession moved along, the people shouted, “Father Tolton, Father Augustus Tolton! Welcome home! Welcome home!”

When the procession arrived at St. Peter’s church, Father Tolton entered the sanctuary, blessed his mother for the first time as a priest, and began giving his blessing to the hundreds of people who came to welcome him. They received him well and welcomed him gladly as a priest, though there was earlier some confusion concerning his person. In a brief notice concerning his return published in The Quincy Journal the day before, we read:

Father Tolton explains the report of his death, which was current a couple of months ago, as having arisen from a mistake in reading the cards he sent out in memory of his first mass. As the notice contained the words ‘In memoriam,’ he supposed it was taken as a death announcement.”[1]

This is but one small example of how, in many ways, his life was fraught with misunderstanding, a circumstance even present at his return to Quincy.

Father Tolton offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the first time in Quincy the following day at St. Boniface church, a celebration The Quincy Daily Journal called “the grandest service ever held in Quincy.”[2] It was a day on which, as Father Tolton later recalled, “everyone received me kindly, especially the Negroes, but also the White people: Germans, Irish, and all others. I celebrated Mass on July 18, in the Church of Saint Boniface with more than 1,000 whites and 500 colored people present.”[3]

Father Anselm, the rector of St. Francis College - which would later become Quincy College and then Quincy University - preached a sermon on the priesthood. Taking a text from Saint Paul as his launching point, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” a text very dear to my own heart (and from which I have taken the title of my blog), he expounded on the duties and the necessity of the priesthood (I Corinthians 4:1). Afterwards, he said to those gathered, “Rejoice today because another priest has been given to us. Rejoice, and today when he holds in his hands that of which God has said, ‘This is my beloved son,’ pray for the church and that you may live and esteem and treat him as is due a priest.”[4]

Our celebration today may lack something of the pomp and grandeur of that one one hundred and thirty years ago today and our numbers may not be so high, but our devotion is no less than theirs. We, too, have come to honor the first black priest in our country and to give thanks to God for the gift of his heroic and faithful witness.

Father Tolton ministered in Quincy for nearly three and a half years before he left for Chicago to be away from an intolerable situation of prejudice. After he arrived in Chicago, Father Tolton wrote these words to a friend:

My gratitude to those people of the Gem City is threefold. Some of the white friends and benefactors of St. Joseph’s church did not forget their colored priest Father Tolton. They did not let him go away empty handed from the Gem City, but as a token of respect they have made him a suitable donation, asking him to remember them in his prayers, and promised to do three times more if he would only remain with them. Catholics will love and respect a priest regardless of nationality; at least that is the spirit of those people in the Gem City who knew me for twenty-nine years or more. Never will I forget the happy hours spent in the little St. Joseph church. I wish them all the blessings that can be bestowed upon them, for that charitable spirit that they have always shown toward me and the colored children.[5]

Three days after his departure from Quincy, Father Tolton was voted the second favorite priest in Quincy, despite the fact that he was no longer in the city. In fact, he missed being voted the favorite priest by just eleven and a half votes.[6]

All these years later, we have gathered to keep Father Anselm’s words; we have gathered to esteem Father Tolton and to treat him as is due a priest, to treat with respect and honor one who served so faithfully as a dispenser of the mysteries – of the sacraments – of God. We have come because, as the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us,

the true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by — people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way.[7]

In Father Tolton, we see the light of a good life that illuminates before us the path of Jesus Christ.

Throughout his life, Father Tolton remained “content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ” (II Corinthians 12:10). We have no record of him bemoaning the difficulties he encountered. We have no record of him drawing public attention to the harsh treatment he received from a fellow priest. In all things, he seems to have imitated Christ the Lord and remained a humble and long-suffering servant who united himself to Christ. This Servant of God allowed the love of the Lord to motivate his life and to this love he dedicated his life. His fidelity to the Church is a clear proclamation of the Gospel, and an invitation for all people to enter into and to know the merciful love of the Lord.

In this he is a model for each of us; never did he cease his proclamation of the Gospel, not even when he encountered discrimination and prejudice. As Father Roy Bauer has said, “Some people could easily judge that his life was not a success, but God calls His servants to be faithful, not successful!”[8] The fidelity of Father Tolton cannot be doubted, and for this reason he is a model and continual reminder for us that, as Saint Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10). This, I suspect, is why he remained so popular in Quincy even after he left for Chicago; this is why we remain attached to him today and have come to commemorate his return to the Gem City.

Father Tolton entrusted himself completely to the Lord and we now pray that he will soon be declared Blessed and raised to the dignity of the altars, a cause which continues to move slowly forward. Let us pray that, through his example and intercession, the Lord will raise up many more such servants of Christ in our Diocese, that each of the Lord’s altars may have a priest to administer the mysteries of God.  Amen!

[1] “Our Colored Priest,” The Quincy Journal, 17 July 1886.
[2] “Solemn High Mass,” The Quincy Daily Journal, 19 July 1886.
[3] Augustus Tolton, Letter to Cardinal Checchi, September 1886.
[4] “Solemn High Mass,” Quincy Daily Journal, 19 July 1886.
[5] Quoted in “Father Tolton,” The Quincy Daily Journal, November 13, 1889, page 4.
[6] “Lucky Ladies,” Quincy Daily Herald, November 17, 1899.
[7] Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 49.
[8] Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus, Part Twenty-nine.

16 July 2016

Homily - 17 July 2016 - Gotta catch 'em all!

The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Saint Paul presents to us today the goal and purpose of presenting to God the Father everyone perfect in Christ (cf. Colossians 1:28). If you have been watching the sidewalks these past few days, you have no doubt noticed a greater number of people walking about than usual. Have you taken notice of them? Have you wondered how you can help them attain perfection in Christ?

I have noticed them as I looked out my windows for a brief break in the tedious process of unpacking. What is perhaps most unusual about the increased pedestrian traffic in various stages of perfection in Christ is that most of these people are walking about in groups, looking intently together at their smart phones. Something of a group activity has surprisingly and suddenly taken these United States by storm. This activity, of course, is the recently released game, Pokémon Go.

I first became familiar – albeit only loosely – with Pokémon some twenty years ago when I worked in a toy store in my hometown. Children came into the store with some frequency to buy Pokémon cards, always looking for a new monster to collect and trade with their friends. These children are young adults today, and are now wandering about our parks and sidewalks collecting digital Pokémon because, as the motto of the game says, they’ve “gotta catch ‘em all!”

Not only has Pokémon Go gotten people of all ages walking around with their family and friends and talking with one another and with strangers, it has also gotten some people to go to places they have not visited in rather a long time. One young man in New York, Calvin, who seems to live a life rather contrary to the Gospel, wrote on his Twitter account, “Pokémon Go is the first thing that’s willingly got me to go into a church in about 10 years.”[1] Calvin is not alone in this because many churches are, for the purposes of the game, PokeStops, places where players can collect points and items for the game. Here at St. Agnes, we have two PokeStops, one at the bell tower and one at the sign along Amos Avenue; the Catholic Pastoral Center, just down the street, is a PokeGym where the monsters collected by players can be trained for combat. Why do I bring all of this up today? What does this have to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Though the answer may be a bit surprising to some, it is really quite simple. When Pope Saint Gregory I the Great sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the English people, he told him to “baptize” what was good in their pagan culture and use it in his attempt to convert the English to Christianity, that is, to bring them to perfection in Christ. Though many now criticize some of the foolish ways people are playing Pokémon Go and the consequences of a lack of due attention on the part of some, we should look instead to see what is good in it, to “baptize” it, and to use it in the service of the Gospel.

In one of his dreams, Saint John Bosco saw one of his first students appear to him. The student told Don Bosco that something was missing in the way his priests and bothers related to the boys under their charge. The former student told the saintly patron of youth ministry, “It is not enough that they boys should be loved: they themselves must know they are loved.” To this, Saint John asked, “But haven’t they eyes in their heads? Haven’t they intelligence? Do they not see that all that is done for them is done for love of them?” The student, in effect, told him no. When Don Bosco asked how the boys would know they were loved, the former student answered him with great simplicity and profundity: “Let them love what the boys like, and the boys will come to love what the Superiors like.”[2]

What is it, then, that the Church should love about Pokémon Go? What good is there in the game that can be “baptized”? The answer to both questions, I dare say, is found in the game’s motto: “Gotta catch ‘em all!” In this motto is found a purpose, a goal, an ambition: the players set out in search of Pokémon they have not yet caught. Pokémon players strive to catch all of the Pokémon,  the monsters. We, dear brothers and sisters, are also called to “catch ‘em all,” though we are not called to catch all of the Pokemon, but the Pokémon players; we must set out to catch them all and to help bring them to perfection in Christ.

Did our Lord not say, “I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; cf. Luke 5:10)? Did he not command us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew28:19-20)? Is it not our Lord’s will “that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4)? How will they come to the knowledge of the truth, how will they come to know Jesus, unless we talk with them about him? How, then, can we watch people catching Pokémon at our churches without striving to catch the catchers? To simply watch them walk by would be absurd and contrary to our mission as baptized members of the Body of Christ.

Echoing what Saint John Bosco learned in his dream, Blessed Pope Paul VI explained the mission of evangelization as

bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new… But there is no new humanity if there are not first of all new persons renewed by Baptism and by lives lived according to the Gospel. The purpose of evangelization is therefore precisely this interior change, and if it had to be expressed in one sentence the best way of stating it would be to say that the Church evangelizes when she seeks to convert, solely through the divine power of the message she proclaims, both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieu which are theirs.[3]

This task does not belong solely to clergy and religious; rather, it belongs to everyone who has been baptized into Christ because “all Christ’s faithful have the obligation and the right to strive so that the divine message of salvation may more and more reach all people of all times and all places” (c. 211). We must, then, be engaged in the lives of those around us, of our family, friends, and neighbors, so that we might lead them ever deeper into the mystery of him who is “the way and the truth and the life,” but how do we do this (John 14:6)?

First, we must love what they love, even a game on a smart phone. The Apostle Paul says, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (I Corinthians 9:22-23). We must make these words our own by befriending them with a friendship that can lead to perfection in Christ. We must be willing to say to them, as His Excellency the Most Reverend David Ricken, Bishop of Green Bay, tweeted, “You might never find a Pikachu, but I promise you this – Search for Jesus, and you’ll find Him every time.”[4]

Second, we must be bold. When was the last time you asked someone, “Why aren’t you Catholic?” Of course, before asking this question we must each have an answer ourselves. When did you last invite someone to join you at Mass? When was the last time you offered to pray for someone? This is what disciples of the Lord Jesus do.

We are often afraid to talk about Jesus with others because we fear what they will think of us, but how many times does Jesus tell us not to be afraid? Those who, like Mary, sit at the feet of the Master and choose the better part will understand this (cf. Luke 10:42) Those who follow Mary’s example will be filled with peace, a peace the world cannot give (cf. John 14:27). Those who sit at the feet of Jesus will receive a generous heart filled with the love of God and of neighbor; they will keep Jesus’ word and share it with others, bringing about a great harvest through their perseverance in proclaiming the Gospel of love and mercy (cf. Luke 8:15). They will rejoice in whatever sufferings they endure because of their speaking about Jesus’ love (cf. Colossians 1:24).

Our heavenly patron, Saint Agnes, did not fear what others thought of her faith and of her fidelity to Christ. Rather, she spoke courageously and confidently of her love for Jesus and refused to renounce him even on pain of death. Because we “gotta catch ‘em all,” let us implore her intercession so that by the assistance of her prayers we might imitate her faith and so present to God the Father everyone perfect in Christ. Amen.

[1] Calvin (@aurosan), 10 July 2016. Quoted by Mary Reznac in “Pokemon Go app draws people everywhere, including into church,” Crux.com, 12 July 2016. Accessed 15 July 2016. Available at https://cruxnow.com/cna/2016/07/12/pokemon-go-app-draws-people-everywhere-including-church/
[2] Saint John Bosco, Biographical Memoirs, Vol. XVII, Ch. III. In Forty Dreams of St. John Bosco: From Saint John Bosco’s Biographical Memoirs (Charlotte, North Carolina: TAN Books, 1996).
[3] Blessed Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 18.
[4] Bishop David Ricken, Tweet at 7:59 p.m. on 11 July 2016. Accessed 15 July 2016. Available at https://twitter.com/BpDavidRicken/status/752668702743621632