Learning From Father Tolton’s Example: Cultivating Racial Reconciliation in the Body of Christ

BOOK PICK: Father Josh Johnson’s ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’

Father Josh Johnson’s ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’
Father Josh Johnson’s ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’ (photo: Ascension Press)

As Catholics, having a consistent life ethic means that we care about   the whole person throughout his / her entire life — from conception to natural death and the life lived in between. 

Father Josh Johnson’s recent book, On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Restoring God’s Vision of Race and Discipleship, explores a particular life issue: healing wounds caused by racism and segregation. His thesis offers food for thought: “Today, nearly sixty years removed from the era of legalized segregation and discrimination, we continue to see evidence of ongoing racial division, both in America and in our Church” — and calls us “to see each person, of every race, as a member of the body of Christ or a potential member of the body of Christ.”


A Heavenly Vision

Father Johnson, the vocation director of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, who also hosts his own podcast, opens his book with the vision of heaven from Revelation 7, where “a great multitude … from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues,” are shown “standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” This vision of unity sheds light on how the Church on earth can more profoundly   resemble that of heaven.

Each of the chapters mentions the Body of Christ. For this reader, the repetition was both a  reminder of our heavenly destiny and the physical reality that the Body of Christ includes all peoples. When one part of the body suffers, all suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26), and if any one of us is missing, it is a loss for us all. Yet some Catholics may look around their parish communities and see only or mostly people who look like them. Though this reality should not be used to shame anyone, Father Johnson offers ways to remedy this situation,   pointing out how we can better cultivate racial reconciliation in our   churches and communities.

Sharing his experiences as an African American priest, as well as a primer in Black Catholic history in America, he encourages readers to examine not only their personal consciences, but how well our parishes and dioceses are reaching out to all members of the Body of   Christ and those within our communities. He emphasizes, “We are called to serve not merely the baptized and registered Catholics in our parish but everyone who lives in our community.” 

This service should involve invitation into our parish communities:   “Over the years,”  he reflects, “I have met many who want to help the less fortunate with food for the body but not with the food for the   soul, the Eucharist, which is the very means through which Jesus unites us in his body, the Church.” 


Knowing the Body of Christ in Her Fullness

To make our churches a refuge for those “of every tribe and people and tongue,” it is important for us to incorporate into our religious education and even our church decoration the history and holy people from a variety of cultures. For example, there are six African American men and women whose causes for canonization are open. Do we know the stories of Pierre Toussaint, Julia Greeley, Father Augustus Tolton (who died July 9, 1897, at the age of 43), Sister Thea Bowman, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange and Mother Henriette DeLille? 

And what about Catholic imagery? When people walk into a church and see no images that resemble them, it can be tempting to feel that they do not belong there, Father Johnson explains. The fact that Mary has resembled those to whom she appeared — e.g., Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Kibeho — can be particularly healing. Displaying pictures and statues of diverse Catholics in our churches and Catholic  schools can help remind all who enter that everyone is called to sainthood. 


Relationship and Reparation

Further, Father Johnson calls readers to enter into relationship with people of different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds by listening to their stories and living life alongside them. This reorientation within the Body of Christ also calls us to (re)root ourselves in our relationship with Christ. As Father Johnson says, “knowing God’s voice in prayer helps us to hear his voice in others.” This also means asking the Lord: What are the charisms, talents and privileges you’ve given me, and how can I put them at the service of others? 

Father Johnson also makes clear that part of cultivating this unity also involves spiritual reparation for the sin of slavery. Just as a familial wound — like alcoholism or abuse — can ripple over generations, the effects of slavery are still present in our nation today.  Father Johnson suggests Masses of reparation, taking on personal penances, and prayer for racial unity as ways of applying balm to this wound in our society and hearts.

As we meditate on the role we are called to play in cultivating racial   unity, On Earth as It Is in Heaven can be a starting point. Lending itself well to both personal and parish-wide meditation, the book is packed with suggestions on how to grow in solidarity and true relationship with all God’s people. By engaging in the work of racial reconciliation both in the Body of Christ and in our communities, we can better reflect to the world a redemption of human relationships, an earth that more closely resembles the unity of heaven. 

Venerable Augustus Tolton, and all you holy men and women, pray for us!



Restoring God’s Vision of Race and Discipleship

By Father Josh Johnson

Ascension Press, 2022

176 pages, $16.95

To order: ascensionpress.com

Poet and writer Lindsey Weishar holds an MFA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She writes for a variety of outlets, including Verily magazine. Her column, “My Vocation is Love,” appears in The Catholic Post, the newspaper of her home Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.