A few weeks ago I watched a stage play about the life of Augustus Tolton, the first Black American Catholic priest. Tolton was born in 1854 in Missouri to enslaved parents. His family escaped slavery and settled in Quincy, Illinois, where young Augustus received a Catholic education. His relationships with some of the priests at the school sparked his interest in the priesthood, and he eventually discerned a calling in the early 1870s.
No American seminaries would accept him, some outrightly stating it was because of his skin color, while others found other objections to mask their racism. Through the help of a persistent Irish priest, he applied and was accepted to the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fidei in Rome in 1880.
Mission to America
Tolton assumed that he would be sent on mission to Africa, as was customary for most black priests at the time. He was surprised to find out that the Propaganda was sending him back to Illinois to pastor to both black and white parishioners.
Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni met with then Deacon Tolton on Good Friday of 1886, the day before his priestly ordination. Before breaking the news, the Cardinal reminded him of his oath of obedience to the Propaganda.
At first, Tolton objected. There had been no known black priests in America at that point, why should he be the first? But the Cardinal decided that it was about time: "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."
Though he was received with warmth and jubilation at his first Mass in Illinois, it didn’t take long for his detractors to start antagonizing him and his parishioners. While Christ may have promised Tolton the vocation of being a priest, He never promised to eliminate the filth of America’s original sins: racism and slavery. Most of the criticism against Tolton came from Catholic bishops and black Protestant pastors; the former argued that he should only minister to blacks, whereas the latter complained that he was attracting black Protestants to Catholicism.
Why did he continue saying Mass for mixed congregations? Why not just stay with blacks, or leave for a denomination less fraught with racism?
As much as I was moved by Fr. Tolton’s story, I couldn’t help but leave the play with a sense of disgust. “How could the Church have been so racist...so evil?” While the Church’s hierarchy has done much to overcome its racist past, it remains mired with other vices and evils. Most recently, I’ve been trying to understand how a hierarchy which attempts to cover up the sexual abuse of minors can claim to be the guarantors of the Church’s call to be “the sacrament of salvation” to humankind.
As his life unfolded through the play, it became increasingly clear that Fr. Tolton had an unshaking trust in the Church’s claim to proclaim the universality of Christ’s truth authoritatively. In response to one of his most ardent antagonists, the German Fr. Michael Weiss, who implied that he should leave the parish he was missioned to and minister to an exclusively black community, Tolton replied, “"I am bound by my Propaganda oath; I have been appointed to this parish and I must remain.” Tolton recognized that the hierarchy, with its racism and other sins, was the vessel through which the promise of Christ’s call to him was made real and concrete.
All of the well-publicized questions about the Church’s integrity have forced me to reflect on my own journey across the Tiber.
What struck me most about my first encounters with Catholicism was the vibrancy and authenticity with which my new Catholic friends lived. I felt as if they had a sense of certainty that I hadn’t found elsewhere...a certainty of Christ’s Crucified and Resurrected presence in the details of their daily lives.
Christ Alive in History; Alive in the Church
The Church had become for me, as theologian Luigi Giussani described it, “the protraction of Christ” in the world today. The Church “has the same function as Jesus in history, which is to educate all men and women to the religious sense, precisely in order to be able to ‘save’ them.”
Giussani later goes on to describe the Church as the place that makes present “Christ’s promise that we will find gold within the mud.” In other words, God promises to show us Beauty within the “fleshiness”--the suffering, boredom, and ugliness--of daily life. This promise traces its roots in the calling of that impulsive, wayward apostle to be the “rock” of His community.
This metaphor helped me to begin to understand the Church’s claim to catholicity and authority. From Peter down to Francis, the role of being the linchpin of the Church is entrusted to flawed, broken human beings who are miraculously granted the grace of maintaining the community’s unity with the Truth.
Looking at the line of men who have been called to the position of pope, as well as other positions within the hierarchy, it should be clear by now that Christ never promised to eliminate the mud--that is, the filth, sin, and general imperfections--from these men, nor from the Body as a whole. The Church has been and will probably always be ridden with sin, evils, and injustices. But can the muddiness of the Body be extreme enough to oust Christ, the source of the “gold”, from Itself?
Some of my friends have been so scandalized by the clergy sex abuse scandal that they’ve decided to leave Catholicism for other ecclesial communities. While I understand and respect their decision, I can’t help but wonder how people like Fr. Tolton would face all of this.
He, along with other saints (living and dead) who have experienced abuse and injustice at the hands of the Church’s pastors, offer a witness that is so necessary for the world today. Are the sins of His shepherds enough to oust Christ from the institution He entrusted to Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee all those years ago? We need their witness in order to face this question with sincerity and sensitivity. We need them to walk with us as we seek the presence of the gold within the pile of mud that is the Church.