24 October 2010

Homily - World Mission Sunday - On Father Augustine Tolton

The Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (C)
World Mission Sunday

On the Life of Father AugustineTolton

Dear brothers and sisters,

On this World Mission Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that, “Only on the basis of this encounter with the Love of God that changes life can we live in communion with him and with one another and offer our brothers and sisters a credible witness, accounting for the hope that is in us (cf. I Peter 3:15)” (Message for World Mission Sunday 2010).

This is, after all, what Christianity is about; “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 1).

The question, then, naturally rises within us: Have I had such an encounter with Christ Jesus, the love of God made visible? How can I share this love with others if I have not yet experienced it myself? Do I truly long for the appearance of the Lord (cf. II Timothy 4:8)?

There are some among us today who have indeed encountered this love that has truly changed their lives and given them meaning and purpose. The crown of righteousness awaits them, for they have competed well (cf. II Timothy 4:8).

There are also some among us who have encountered this love, but who have refused to allow it to change their lives. These go about saying, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity” (Luke 18:11). They seek to justify themselves; they tell the Lord how good they are and see no reason for repentance, no reason for conversion, no reason for a deepening of love. Having exalted themselves, these will be humbled by the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 18:14).

And there are others here who have not yet experienced the tremendous love of Jesus Christ personally for them. They have not yet realized that “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves” (Psalm 34:19).

These last two groups desperately need the witness of the first group, of those whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Christ.
In a multiethnic society that is experiencing increasingly disturbing forms of loneliness and indifference, Christians must learn to offer signs of hope and to become universal brethren, cultivating the great ideals that transform history and, without false illusions or useless fears, must strive to make the planet a home for all peoples (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Mission Sunday 2010).
Those whose lives have been transformed by Christ must strive to be missionaries in places both far away and in their own back yard, for by its very nature love must be shared.

By the very witness of their lives – both their words and deeds – Christians must point to the love of Jesus Christ. We must always remember that
the people of our time too, even perhaps unbeknown to them, ask believers not only to ‘speak’ of Jesus, but to ‘make Jesus seen’, to make the face of the Redeemer shine out in every corner of the earth… They must perceive that Christians bring Christ’s word because he is the truth, because they have found in him the meaning and the truth for their own lives (Ibid.).
As the Lord stood by Saint Paul, so will he stand by each of us when we seek to complete the proclamation of the Gospel (cf. II Timothy 4:17).

Not too far from here, a young man of the nineteenth century sought to be a missionary to the peoples of Africa; instead, he was sent back to these United States of America. Recently, his cause was formally introduced for canonization; his name is Father Augustine John Tolton.

His was a life seemingly marked by opposition wherever he turned, save for a few moments of calm. Even so, in Father Tolton we find a clear sign of hope and of universal brotherhood; indeed, we see in him one who poured himself out like a libation (cf. II Timothy 4:6).

This servant of God was born April 1, 1854 in Ralls County, Missouri to faithful Catholic parents, Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton. Peter Paul was a slave on the Hager farm and Martha Jane was a slave on the Elliot farm near Brush Creek, Missouri.

His father fled the farm to St. Louis, which at the time was a divided city, to join the Union Army. Just a short time later he died of dysentery; Martha Jane would not learn of his death until after the Civil War ended. His “life was sad, except that he and his wife passed a love of God and religion on to the next generation” (Roy R. Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus, Part Six). What greater gift can a parent leave behind?

In 1862, Martha Jane heard talk of slave traders in the area looking for children. Her own children all were young: Charley was eight; Augustus was seven; and Anne was twenty months. Having herself been separated from her parents when she was sixteen, she feared for her children and fled to Quincy, Illinois forty-one miles away.

When they finally arrived in Hannibal, Missouri, they encountered a group of Confederate soldiers who were about to take them into custody when they were saved by a group of Union soldiers; as Providence would have it, they were at that moment in a part of Hannibal under Union control.

The Union soldiers helped them into an old boat and sent them across the Mississippi River, while a Confederate soldier fired shots after them. When at last they reached the shore of Quincy, they found refuge with Mrs. Mary Ann Davis, who arranged for Martha, Charles and Augustine to work in the Harris tobacco factory.

In 1865, Augustine enrolled in St. Boniface school with the permission of the Pastor. His enrollment led many parents to threaten to remove their children from the school, to leave the parish, and even to call for the removal of their pastor.
Adults can sometimes understand ignorance, but a ten year old child cannot. Augustine’s school life was intolerable. The children tormented him, taunted him because he could not read, mimicked his accent, called him insulting names until he broke out in uncontrollable sobs (Ibid.).
Just one month after he enrolled, young Augustine withdrew from school.

Hearing of his troubles, Father Peter McGirr, Pastor of St. Lawrence Parish (it would come to be St. Peter Parish) insisted that Augustine study in a Catholic school. He would personally see that young Gus would have no trouble in his school. Years later, Augustine recalled, “As long as I was in that school, I was safe. Everyone was kind to me” (In Ibid., Part Eight).

Gus served Mass each morning before going to work and became close with two priests who both thought he might have a priestly vocation. They wrote letter after letter to seminaries and religious Orders throughout the country seeking one that would accept him; time and time again, they were told, “We are not ready for a Negro student.”

So great was his desire to serve the Lord and to bring to the Gospel to others, that in 1878 Augustine, with the help of a priest and a nun, opened St. Joseph School of Black Children in Quincy, the first of its kind in the city. Even here he was met with opposition, when non-Catholic blacks publicly refused to send their children to his school.

One day a long-awaited letter arrived for him: he had been accepted to the seminary for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome. Those who were ordained from this seminary knew they would be sent to mission territories throughout the world; they would have no choice as to where they would be sent. Nevertheless, he was filled with great joy that day. He arrived in the Eternal City on March 10, 1880, where he was nicknamed, “Gus from the U.S.”

He was ordained a deacon on November 8, 1885; he later said of his diaconal ordination: “The day I was ordained deacon, I felt so strong that I thought no hardship would ever be too great for me to accept. I was ready for anything; in fact, I was very sure I could move mountains – in Africa” (In Ibid., Part Fifteen).

When he learned of the date of his ordination – April 24, 1886 (Holy Saturday) in the Lateran Basilica - he wrote to a priest in Quincy, saying, “My seminary studies are about over now, and I will go on to Africa right my ordination in April” (In Ibid., Part Sixteen). Or so he thought.

The day before he was ordained a priest, Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni told Deacon Tolton that it was decided the night before that he would be sent Africa, as was the plan all along; however, Cardinal Simeoni had over-ruled the committee. He said to him, “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a Black priest, it must see one now” (In Ibid., Part Seventeen). But there was yet more: he was to be sent back to his home Diocese and to the city of Quincy.

It was shocking news to the ordinand, but he had already promised his obedience. The difficulties of his childhood and early adulthood in the United States must surely have come to him, but he trusted in the Lord, knowing with Saint Paul, that “the Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom” (II Timothy 4:18).

He arrived in Quincy in July of 1886 and was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish, which had been established as a parish for Blacks. He received an enthusiastic welcome in the Gem City and was admired by all. They found in him a “rich and full voice which falls pleasantly on the ears” and saw the “whole-hearted earnestness” with which he went about his ministry (The Quincy Journal, July 26, 1886 in Ibid., Part Twenty-two).

His ministry met with some success, but affairs turned for the worse when a new Pastor, Father Michael Weiss, was appointed Pastor of St. Boniface Parish, just one block from St. Joseph’s. St. Boniface Parish was in debt and have given much to the St. Joseph’s Parish. Many of Father Weiss’ parishioners attended Father Tolton’s Masses and contributed to his parish. Father Weiss, the local Dean, insisted Father Tolton no longer minister to whites and repeatedly made it clear that contributions from whites belonged to white parishes. This was the first time Father Tolton experienced prejudice from a priest, and it devastated him.

When he could take no more, Father Tolton wrote to the Congregation for the Propagation of the faith on July 12, 1889 with these words:

There is a certain German priest here who is jealous and contemptuous. He abuses me in many ways and he has told the bishop to send me out of this place. I will gladly leave here just to be away from this priest. I appealed to Bishop [James] Ryan and he also advises me to elsewhere (in Ibid., Part Twenty-Four).
Archbishop Patrick Feehan had told him he would be welcome in Chicago and so he wrote again to the Congregation on September 4, 1889: “I beg you to give me permission to go to the diocese of Chicago. It is not possible for me to remain here any longer with this German priest.” The reply came on December 7, 1889: “If the two bishops concur in giving their approval, go at once” (in Ibid.)!

He left for Chicago on December 19, 1889, with nineteen of his converts and took up the pastorate of St. Monica’s chapel, where he was entrusted with the pastoral care of all of Chicago’s black Catholics. After he left Quincy, St. Joseph Parish closed for good.

From the beginning, his “ardent charity and self-denying zeal” were evident to all. Within two years he began construction on a new church – that was never completed – and ministered to some six hundred black Catholics (Mary Elmore, in Ibid., Part Twenty-seven).

Having spent himself in the service of the Church, he died of heat stroke on July 9, 1897; he was forty-three years of age. St. Monica’s became a mission and it took another two years for a full-time pastor to be assigned to it. St. Monica’s closed for good in 1924.

His is a life of deep faith and of perseverance. In the midst of his troubles with Father Weiss, Father Tolton began speaking across the country to raise money for his parish. In one of his speeches, he spoke these words:
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… 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 … 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 (in Ibid., Part Twenty-three).
Despite the opposition he faced, he never lost his love of the Church or of the priesthood.

In this he is a model for each of us; never did he cease his proclamation of the Gospel. “Some people could easily judge that his life was not a success, but God calls His servants to be faithful, not successful” (Ibid., Part Twenty-nine)! The fidelity of Father Tolton cannot be doubted, and for this reason he is a model for us all.

He allowed the love of the Lord to motivate his life and to this love he dedicated himself. His fidelity to the Church is a clear proclamation of the Gospel, and an invitation for all people to enter in and know the love of the Lord. May our lives also be such an invitation. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Great homily, Father. Thanks for introducing me to Fr. Tolton in this (and previous) posts.