The 124th Anniversary of the Death of the
Venerable Servant of God Augustine Tolton
Fathers and Deacons,
brothers and sisters,
While this form of prayer in which we are now engaged may not be too familiar to most of us, it is a manner of praying with which Father Gus would have prayed each day, albeit in a different form than we have now. It is a manner of praying that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council hoped would be celebrated regularly in parish churches throughout the world.
have gathered for the celebration of Evening Prayer, which is also called
Vespers, a part of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called the
Divine Office. It is the praying of the Psalms in common, much as Jesus would
have done. It is a prayer “which is distinguished from other liturgical actions
by the fact that it consecrates to God the whole cycle of day and night, as [the
Church] has done from early Christian times.”  The Liturgy of the
Hours has as its purpose not only “the sanctification of the day,” but also
“of the whole range of human activity.”
It is a prayer that invites us to contemplation because what might seem to us to be simply the recitation of Psalms actually involves something much deeper, something much more profound. This form of prayer “is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom; it is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.” We know that
Christ Jesus, high priest of the
new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly
exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He
joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own
singing of this canticle of divine praise. For he continues His priestly
work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising
the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world.
But what, I am sure you are by now asking yourselves, does any of this have to do with Father Tolton?
|Photo: Wayne Wienke
Inasmuch as he was a baptized member of the Body of Christ, Father Tolton was called to conform his life to that of the Lord, to join himself to the Lord’s Jesus life of praise to the Father, just as you and I are called to do. After examining his life, the Church has found that he lived the Christian life to a heroic degree and so calls him Venerable, holding him up as worthy of our imitation. How, then, do we hear the hymn of Christ sung in the life of Father Gus?
Turning our attention to the Psalms we have just prayed, the very same Psalms that Christ Jesus not only sang but also lived, we can see how they took form also in the life of Father Gus, particularly in these words from the first Psalm we prayed: “My enemies whisper together against me”; “they all weigh up the evil which is on me” (Psalm 41:7)
There were those who whispered against Father Gus when he was in slavery. There were those who whispered against him when he was a schoolboy. There were those who whispered against him when he was teaching his fellow blacks about the Christian faith. There were those who whispered against him when he wanted to enter the seminary. And there were those who whispered against him when at last he was ordained a priest, forcing his removal from this Gem City. Yet, despite those many whisperings, and even some shoutings, Father Gus neither whispered nor shouted back. Why? Because he knew that the Lord God was his friend and trusted that he would “be unharmed and set in [God’s] presence for evermore” (Psalm 41:11, 12).
Is this not what Christ Jesus did when he “opened not his mouth” during his Passion (Isaiah 53:7)? Father Gus so joined himself to the Passion of the Lord that he could imitate him even in the extraordinarily painful moments of his life; whereas we so often became angry and bitter during our distresses, Father Gus never did. As Archbishop Nelson Perez recently said, “Rather than shrink his heart,” the many distresses Father Gus encountered “made it bigger.” This, it seems to me, is the great lesson Father Gus wants to teach us: not to allow our hearts to become bitter or shriveled, but to be enlarged with love of Jesus Christ to whom this holy priest shows us how to be united.
Turning our attention to the second Psalm we prayed this evening, we prayed, “God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand, in time of distress” (Psalm 46:1). We know that
there are many kinds of [distress], and in all of them we must find refuge in God, whether the trouble concerns our income, our bodily health, some danger threatening those we love or something we need to support our life. Whatever it is, there should be no refuge for a Christian other than our Savior.
Father Gus experienced each of these distresses throughout his life, but he always sought his shelter and his strength in Christ Jesus. And because the refuge of Christ proved true (how could he prove otherwise?), we can well imagine Father Gus asking, “Who would dare refuse you honor, or the glory due your name, O Lord” (Revelation 15:3)?
This same question is one our lips this evening and in our hearts as continue anticipating that day that, may it please God, Father Gus will be proclaimed among the Blessed and among the Saints for his worthy imitation of the Lord Jesus. Commenting on the first Psalm we prayed this evening, Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “God has disposed all things and ordered all things for our salvation. He foretold it before we existed, he has fulfilled it in our time, and what he has not fulfilled yet, he will.” Let us therefore beg the Lord to fulfill what he began in Father Gus and allow the Church to bestow upon him the honor we so greatly desire.
|Photo: Gretchen Mason
In the meantime, may Father Gus teach us to join our lives to that hymn of praise which Christ sings to the Father. May he teach us to experience the whispers and shouts of others with patience and gentleness, to find our strength in the shelter of the wounds of the Savior, not to please ourselves but to please Jesus, and to allow our hearts to grow until they are conformed to the Sacred Heart of the Lord (cf. Romans 15:3).
Gus, pray for us. Amen.
Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 100.
General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 10.
Sacrosanctum Concilium, 84.
Archbishop Nelson Pérez, Homily,
26 June 2021. In Gina Christian, “Pioneering Black priest a model for healing
racism, says Archbishop,” Catholic Philly,301 June 2021. Accessed 4 July
2021. Available at https://catholicphilly.com/2021/06/news/local-news/pioneering-black-priest-a-model-for-healing-racism-says-archbishop/
Saint Augustine of Hippo, Expositions on the Psalms, 46.3.