29 October 2014

Tolton: A priest who might have been martyred and a story that needs to be told - But our help is needed

Right up until the eve of his ordination as a priest of Jesus Christ, the Servant of God Augustus Tolton thought the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith would send him as a missionary to Africa. That, after all, had been the plan all along and the reason he spent the previous six years studying the history and cultures of the African continent.

Shortly before his ordination to the priesthood, then-Deacon Gus wrote to Father Michael Richardt, O.F.M., through whose efforts Gus was first accepted at the Propaganda, to inform the friar that, "My seminary studies are about over now and I will go on to Africa right after my ordination in April."

In her biography of Father Tolton - From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Rev. Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), First Afro-American Priest of the United States, which was first published by Franciscan Herald Press in 1973 and has been republished by Ignatius Press (I'm happy to have an autographed copy of the first edition, though the dust jacket has seen better days) - Sister Caroline Hemesath, O.S.F., relates the experience of the night Tolton learned he would not be sent to Africa:
On Good Friday, April 23, 1886, the day before his ordination, Augustine Tolton's faith was put to a test. On that occasion Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, addressed the assembled deacons. "Each one of you," reminded the cardinal, "has already taken the "Propaganda Oath" which binds you to obedience and fealty; because you are students of the pontifical college you must go wherever you are sent by papal delegation.

Augustine nodded his head approvingly as the speaker continued: "Today you must take another oath, namely, to remain in the country and diocese for which you will be ordained. Permission to go elsewhere may be granted only by the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith."

It was certainly understood, and from the very beginning, that Augustine Tolton, the American Negro, was destined to go to Africa. He had gained admittance to the papal college through the efforts of Father Bernardin, superior general of the Franciscan Order, and on the ground that he was willing and eager to serve as a missionary in Africa.

Before the time set for the deacons to sign the final oath, Augustine spoke with Cardinal Parocchi. "I know I am going to Africa, Your Eminence," he said with a happy smile, "but can you tell me to which diocese or province I will be assigned?"

Cardinal Simeoni
"It was our intention all along, Gus," answered the cardinal. "Even in our last meeting most of the members thought that you would not go back to your diocese in America. It seems we have no contact with your American bishop. We are all agreed that since you are the only priest of your race in that country, that you would perhaps not succeed very well. Then just before the meeting closed Cardinal Simeoni had this idea: 'America needs Negro priests. America has been called the most enlightened nation. We will see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never seen a Black priest it must see one now.' Then we all felt that Cardinal Simeoni was right. Come now, Gus, and sign the oath that you will spend the rest of your life in the United States of America, in the Illinois diocese."
So it was that at the age of 31, Augustus Tolton was ordained a priest by Cardinal Lucido Parocchi in the Basilica of St. John on the Lateran hill, the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, on April 24, 1886. After celebrating his first Mass in the Basilica of St. Peter the following day at a temporary altar within the sanctuary normally reserved for cardinals he began his long journey home.

Father Gus left the Eternal City that Pentecost and made his way back to Quincy and celebrated his first Mass in the Gem City on July 18, 1886, which was attended by more than 1,500 of the faithful.

But all of this could have been very different indeed.

Writing yesterday in The Boston Pilot, John Garvey makes an excellent observation that, I'm ashamed to say, never quite occurred to me:
It was a courageous assignment to seek. One month after Father Tolton was ordained, Charles Lwanga and his companions would be massacred in Uganda for embracing the Catholic faith. Father Tolton, who clearly took after his mother, was willing to brave such an environment.

But God had other plans: to serve the church in a nation that openly disdained him because of the color of his skin.
Saint Charles Lwanga (numbered 13 here) and Companions
Yes, it could all have been so very different; Father Tolton might easily have been a martyr in Africa, yet the Lord chose to send him to us instead as a model of perseverance and long-suffering, of gentleness and charity, an example so greatly needed today. I, for one, am deeply grateful for the life and witness of Father Gus and think the story of his life needs to be made known more and more.

It was one month ago today that His Eminence Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., Archbishop of Chicago concluded the diocesan phase of the investigation into the life and virtues of Father Tolton and sent the acts of the Cause to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (video here). Now we wait for this Cause to progress through the Congregation to the Holy Father and pray it will do so swiftly.

In the weeks following that moving ceremony, the story of Father Gus has slowly continued to spread, thanks in part to articles published by Catholic News Service, Crux, Breibart, and even Al Jazeera, but his story needs to spread still farther.

With this in mind, I'm excited beyond words to learn that Leonardo Defilippis of St. Luke Productions is working on a live dramatic presentation of the life of Father Gus that he hopes to have ready for performance one year from now.

I've worked before with Leonardo and his production on the life of Saint John Marie Vianney. Leonardo is a man of exceptional talent whose faith and devotion shines through his theatrical work. If you have the opportunity to see one of his shows, do not hesitate to go; you will not be disappointed. Your heart will be touched, your faith will be strengthened, and you will be encouraged. Having seen Leonardo's work before, my anticipation of this drama is already brimming over!

Leonardo wants to help make Father Gus' life more well known, but to do so he needs our help; he needs the help of our prayers and the help of our financial gifts. Says Leonardo:
I need to raise $75,000 to pay for this production. Can you send something right away, so that I can get started? $100 would be terrific - but if you send more, we could sure use it. And, of course, if you can send less, I will be very, very grateful for whatever you can manage.
I made my contribution this morning and I ask you to consider making a contribution, as well. You can make a contribution with a credit card here or you can send a donation to the following address:
Saint Luke Productions
P.O. Box 886
Battle Ground, Washington 98604
Together we can help spread the inspirational story of the life and faith of Father Gus across the nation.

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