By Jay Nies
Aware of the weight of history on the present, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight plans to make a personal pilgrimage this month to St. Peter Church in Brush Creek.
That simple, stone church surrounded by farmland near Monroe City stands where Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, an infant born into slavery, was baptized in 1854.
Ordained in Rome 32 years later, Fr. Tolton was missioned back to the United States to serve as the first black priest of the Roman Catholic Church in this country.
“I hope Fr. Tolton’s story of sanctity can bring us all together in our day,” said Bishop McKnight. “He both inspires and challenges everyone.”
The bishop made this statement as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. approached.
An effective pastor like Fr. Tolton, Rev. Dr. King was a key figure of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Bishop McKnight’s March prayer intention for the Jefferson City diocese — his first since becoming a bishop — was “for the healing of all racial divisions in our communities.”
At this year’s Chrism Mass on March 22 in the Cathedral of St. Joseph, he spoke out against the sin of racism and instructed the priests of the diocese to do the same in their preaching during Holy Week.
“My brothers,” he told the priests, “it is our spiritual duty to confront not only the racist sentiments that might be lurking in our hearts and the hearts of our people, but also the structures of racism that lie behind our institutional ways of thinking, deciding, and behaving in our civic communities.”
“What similarities do you see in the sin of racism and the story of the Passion of our Lord?” he suggested including. “What was the message of our Lord at the Last Supper, both in word and in deed, that the sin of racism directly contradicts? And what change of heart took place in the disciples huddled in fear, locked behind closed doors, when the resurrected Lord appeared and blessed them with His peace and the power to forgive?”
Bishop McKnight asserted that overcoming the sin of racism “requires a commitment to engage in a certain kind of spiritual battle: one in which we are not afraid to look into ourselves and in the hearts of the people of our parishes, about attitudes we hold (perhaps even without much thought) about people of a different culture or language other than or own.
“Sometimes, it can be very hard to step into their shoes, to understand how they experience and see the world in which we live,” he added.
Getting to know Fr. Tolton
Bishop McKnight said one of his long-term objectives is to lead the people of this diocese into a deeper affinity for the life of Fr. Tolton.
“It seems to me, the more one reads about his experience from slavery to Priesthood, the more one can identify with what is going on in the hearts and minds of African Americans, even in our day, especially if we do not share (Fr. Tolton’s) race,” said Bishop McKnight.
Rarely would people of lighter complexion consider themselves racist, he noted, “but sometimes we can harbor prejudices against people based on their racial and ethnic backgrounds.”
He said racism is a sin because it creates a division between people, sourced in original sin and fear about “the other.”
Those entrusted with preaching must bring that reality to light, he said.
“We as clergy bear responsibility in proclaiming the Gospel to help people become more aware of the reality of racism, and to help combat this radical evil by encouraging greater respect for the dignity of all human life,” he said.
Toward prophetic preaching
On the day of the Chrism Mass, Bishop McKnight and the priests of this diocese had their annual Priests’ Day of Recollection in the cathedral.
The speaker was Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, who is co-postulator for the cause of having Fr. Tolton declared a saint.
His topic was “Fr. Tolton and the Priesthood.”
Bishop Perry, who is African American, asserted that “we’re considering Fr. Tolton for sainthood in large part because of what we” — namely, the Church — “did to him.”
Bishop Perry asserted that the Catholic priests and laity of Fr. Tolton’s time did not speak with enough of a prophetic voice about slavery and deadly racism, especially during the Civil War, Reconstruction or the post-Reconstruction periods.
With that in mind, Bishop Perry challenged today’s priests to incorporate into their homilies proportionately prophetic teaching about uncomfortable subjects of the current day.
He called for priests to affirm the people whenever they see signs of genuine conversion, and to challenge people whenever their individual and societal actions run counter to the Gospel.
“He suffered for it”
Bishop McKnight also spoke about the sin of racism in his homily on Palm Sunday at Mass in the cathedral.
Echoing the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Racism, he proclaimed: “Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world.”
He recounted some of the stories Bishop Perry had told the priests about hardship and rejection Fr. Tolton had endured and how he had even risked his life in order to become the first African American priest in the United States.
The bishop noted that Fr. Tolton “admired his parish priests and wanted to become one himself, but because of racist attitudes prevalent at the time — both within the Church and without it — he had to travel to Rome in order to be ordained.”
Hoping to serve the Church in Africa, he was sent back to the United States as a missionary to those who had watched him grow up in Quincy.
“If they have not seen a black priest, they will have to now,” the cardinal prefect of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith told him.
“So Fr. Tolton was sent back to the community that had rejected him because of the color of his skin,” Bishop McKnight recounted.
Bishop Perry likened it to having a crown of thorns placed on Fr. Tolton’s head.
“And he suffered for it,” Bishop McKnight noted in his Palm Sunday homily. “He had his own passion. He served faithfully his entire life, never speaking ill of the Church, being only grateful for the good people who made his priestly ministry possible.”
When Fr. Tolton’s wisdom and pastoral zeal began to attract an integrated following of black and white Catholics, it proved to be too much for society and even some of his fellow clergy to handle.
He eventually sought and was granted permission to move to Chicago to serve a massive contingent of poor people there.
“He was faithful to Jesus to the very end,” Bishop McKnight noted.
Even if we have to suffer
Fr. Tolton died of heatstroke on July 9, 1897, at age 43, while serving the poor during a horrible heatwave.
“My dear people, Fr. Tolton is a model example for us!” Bishop McKnight proclaimed. “His life of priestly ministry, joyful even in the midst of suffering, is what a true Christian looks like.
“Fr. Tolton was able to make the passion of the Lord his own, and so can we,” he said. “We can and should do our part to root out racism in our hearts, minds and community, even if doing so might cause us suffering. Just think of what Fr. Tolton had to suffer.”