For many years I was ambivalent about abortion in the United States. As a teenager, and even through college, I didn’t give it much thought becuase a) I’m a guy, and would never have to directly make that decision, and b) I never planned on getting a woman into the situation where I would need to help someone else make that decision.
I knew the Church’s teachings on the matter and accepted them halfheartedly — like the vow of perpetual celibacy, I knew it wasn’t going to impact my life.
Then, while I was in graduate school, I saw a statistic that jolted me out of my complacency: My generation is 25% smaller than it should be because of abortion.
That seemed incredible to me. In fact, I didn’t think is was accurate. Surely abortion wasn’t that prevalent! So I ran the numbers:
That shocked me. I thought about the kids I should have known in school, the kids I should have swam with on the swim team, the kids that should have lived down the street from me.
And I thanked God that my mom chose life.
I still don’t consider myself a “crusader” for the pro-life cause. But I do consider myself proudly pro-life. Not just becuase “the Church says so,” but because I came to realize what abortion has done to my generation.
It’s a mistake to assume that everyone who works for the Church is a Spirit-inspired paragon of holiness. In fact, I often say that I work for the Church because my faith is so weak that working for the Church is the only way I stay in the Church!
When I started college I needed to find a work-study job as part of my scholarship. Unfortunately, being the lazy person I am, I waited too long to find something; by the time I looked at the job postings, most of the job were taken. By good fortune (or the work of the Spirit), the campus ministry department was looking for someone to run errands, clean the chapel, and set up before and clean up after Mass on Sunday nights.
I can say with all honesty that my work-study job probably kept me going to Mass in college. For two years I set up the lectionary, prepared the chalice and paton, and made sure all the liturgical ministers were checked in before Sunday night Mass at the university. While I wasn’t a particularly knowledgeable or active Catholic, I figured there wasn’t much sense hanging out to wait for Mass to get over so I could clean up — as long as I was there I might as well go to Mass!
Little did I know that taking that job would keep me attending Mass and (with the help of some excellent campus ministers, theology professors, and friends) propel me into a catechetical career. While I am keenly aware of the ways in which the Church fails to live up to her own ideals at times, I am nevertheless convinced that working for the Church has made my faith stronger. The Lord knows I need all the help I can get.
Part of my interest in Fr. Tolton’s story is personal: he spent his formative years in Quincy, Illinois, and attended St. Francis Solanus College, which later became Quincy University, my alma mater (a number of the photos in the book come from the school’s archives). I remember hearing allusions to the first black priest during my time at Quincy, but it wasn’t until my graduate studies that I became acquainted with the larger story of Fr. Tolton’s life.
Born a slave to a Catholic family near Hannibal, Missouri, his father escaped to join the Union Army at the start of the Civil War; he was killed in battle. When he was 8 Augustine’s mother escaped with the boy and his two siblings across the Mississippi River and wound up in nearby Quincy. There he worked in a tobacco factory by day and, in his spare time and during the winter months, he received instruction from the local priests and religious sisters. It was during this time that he first felt God’s call to the priesthood.
Unfortunately Augustine was turned down by every seminary and religious order he applied to. Undeterred, he traveled to Rome where he studied at the Urban College de Propaganda Fide, after which he expected to be sent as a missionary priest to Africa. Instead he returned to Quincy where he pastored St. Joseph’s, the city’s black parish.
In Quincy Fr. Tolton met with resistance and outright hostility from white Catholics (who resented the donations he received from sympathetic whites) and black Protestants (who resented his evangelization of their congregants). Discouraged and not receiving any support from his bishop, he accepted a transfer to Chicago where he was put in charge of the city’s black Catholics. Starting with a small congregation meeting in a church basement, within a few years he led a growing parish and had begun construction on a new church building. His work in Chicago was cut short in 1897 when, upon returning home from a retreat, he collapsed (most likely as a result of heat stroke) and died. He is buried in Quincy at St. Peter’s Seminary.
Although she did a fair amount of research and interviews for the book (as evidenced by the bibliography), Sr. Hemesath presents Fr. Tolton’s life in a series of fictionalized vignettes, a sort of œspeculative biography. The result is, if not 100% accurate, extremely readable and provides a good picture of what Fr. Tolton’s life was probably like. She is particularly adept at presenting the trials Fr. Tolton endured: the constant rejection by seminaries in his own country, the years spent building up money to pay for studies in Rome, the harassment at the hands of a fellow priest in Quincy. His was not a happy life, insofar as he never seems to have found a place to truly call home where he could be a simple pastor (which seems to have been his only real wish).
On the other hand, his trials never diminished his love of the Church, even in its human brokenness. Fr. Tolton’s example of bearing his cross ” a cross of racism, hate and bigotry ” in a humble manner, calling on God for strength and help, is a timely reminder of how we are called to live out this Lenten season through almsgiving, fasting and prayer in recognition of our sinful nature. Rather than bemoan his fortune Fr. Tolton sought one thing only: to serve God and his people. May we, too, live out such a simple yet beautiful goal.
A couple weeks ago I received a note from a friend from college, asking about my current pursuits and whether I had “changed” since college. It’s helps to know that, in college, I fell to the left of where I would currently plot myself on the proverbial spectrum. In fact, I’ve taken to calling myself a “recovering liberal,” in so far as I’ve stepped back from some of my unexamined assumptions but not quite gotten to where I would describe myself as conservative.
Back then I was still “fresh” to theology and, like a lot of people my age, found myself poorly catechized to the teachings of the Church. As I’ve deepened my studies I’ve been exposed to a wider variety of thought (both Catholic and otherwise) that I’ve had to wrestle with and account for. I’m unsatisfied with the stock answers of both the right and the left and, for myself, prefer to steer a middle path (which is making decisions of a political nature increasingly difficult).
In the last few years I have been (quite by surprise!) energized by Benedict XVI’s papacy. Maybe it’s my own academic inclinations, but I’m drawn to his clarity of thought and “back to basics” approach. Jesus of Nazareth was a sort of watershed read for me, because it skilfully navigates both rigorous study and fidelity to the Tradition. This was one of my main struggles in college — how to reconcile the head with the heart without losing the strengths of both. (In fact, it’s still one of the main sticking points in my spiritual journey.)
As I reflect on my own developing approach to theology I find that it is informed by the four characteristics that form the basis for this blog:
Openness to insights from a variety of sources;
A fierce loyalty to the faith of the Church;
Approaching the faith as an answer to Christ’s call in hope and love;
An “evangelical” faith that is technologically savvy.
To summarize this approach I’ve appropriated John Allen’s term “affirmative orthodoxy,” which he defines as “a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key.” I find this approach extremely attractive and vital to the Church at this particular moment in time, especially as someone working in the catechetical ministry.
In grad school I heard a story (most likely apocryphal), that when brought before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to defend some of his writings, Edward Schillebeeckx just shrugged his shoulders and said something to the effect of: “That’s what I wrote then, it’s not how I would write it now, and who knows what I’ll write tomorrow?” Schillebeeckx was never censored, and it’s that spirit of inquiry and humility that I’m trying to cultivate in myself.