Chicago Priest's Canonization Cause Takes Major Step Forward
Will Fr Augustus Tolton, the first identified black priest in the US, also become the first Civil War-era US saint?
CHICAGO (CNS) — Bishops, priests, religious and laypeople gathered for midday prayer in a Chicago chapel to witness Cardinal Francis E. George and commission members take an oath to carry out their duties for Father Augustus Tolton’s sainthood cause.
“History is what God remembers. So this is a most important moment in the history of the archdiocese,” Cardinal George said during his homily at the prayer service in St. James Chapel at the Quigley Center in Chicago.
Father Tolton is the “first identified black priest in the United States,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago, who read a biography of the priest during the service.
The Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes requires “the formal introduction of a cause for sainthood to take place in a public session with a gathering of the Christian faithful,” according to the prayer service’s program book.
The chapel session launched the canonical inquiry into the life and virtues of Father Tolton and formally commissioned those who will serve the cause in official capacities.
The archdiocese still awaits the Vatican naming the priest a “servant of God,” the title given to those whose cause for canonization has been officially opened. The congregation allows a diocese to move forward while awaiting the title.
A diocese must appoint various people to lead the cause, such as an episcopal delegate and promoter of justice, as well as theological and historical commissions and a guild. At the head of all of this is the diocesan bishop and the postulator he appoints.
During the Feb. 24 session, Cardinal George, along with Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Perry, the diocesan postulator, and the historical and theological commissions took oaths of fidelity to the cause. Others who took oaths were Father Michael Hack, as episcopal delegate; Oblate Father William Woestman, as promoter of justice; and notaries Patricia Rimkus and Ellen Sochacki. The cardinal also signed decrees associated with examining evidence into Father Tolton’s life.
Several bishops were in attendance: Bishop John R. Gaydos of Jefferson City, Mo., where Father Tolton was born and baptized a Catholic; Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Raymond E. Goedert; Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., and Auxiliary Bishop Martin D. Holley of Washington.
The next stage of the cause involves taking testimony from witnesses about the reputation of Father Tolton’s sanctity. There also will be a trip to Rome to examine archives to document Father Tolton’s six-year stay, from 1880 to 1886, at what is now called the Pontifical Urbanian University.
At the service, after the prayers and before the oath-taking, Bishop Perry covered highlights of Father Tolton’s life.
Born the son of slaves in Missouri, he studied for the priesthood in Rome because no American seminary would accept him. Sent to what was then called the Diocese of Quincy (now Springfield) in southern Illinois, he later came to Chicago to start a parish for black Catholics. He was only 43 years old at the time of his death.
“He is described as one who worked himself to exhaustion,” said Bishop Perry, reading a biography on the priest. Father Tolton died during a heat wave walking home from a retreat. He was one of two priests in the city who died that week of heat exhaustion, the bishop said.
Throughout his life, Father Tolton endured racism on every level, even in the Church. But through it all, he remained faithful to the Lord, his Church and his people.
“He never dished back the prejudice thrown in his face,” Bishop Perry said.
At present, there are no recognized saints from the Civil War or Reconstruction periods or the civil rights era in the United States, so, if canonized, Father Tolton would be the first.
“He is a holy model for anyone who wants to serve God,” Bishop Perry said. “His story highlights how the United States of America is a work in progress.”
During his homily, Cardinal George explained that studying the life and works of Father Tolton is important because “there is a pattern of holiness in every generation and in every time. But then, along with what we do to examine the cause, there is what God will do to show that it is his cause, too.”
This is why we pray for miraculous intercessions by those up for sainthood. It invites God to show us how he worked in the life of this person, he said.
“History is what God remembers, and miracles are how God would like the world to be,” said Cardinal George, who also noted he recites the prayer of canonization to Father Tolton every evening during compline. (The prayer is available on cards and at www.toltoncanonization.org).