Pope Francis made headlines May 12 when he canonized more than 800 new holy men and women — the largest batch of saints in Church history to be canonized at once — in St. Peter’s Square. The majority of that group was composed of the Martyrs of Otranto, a group of 813 Italians who refused to convert to Islam when the Ottoman Empire invaded Southern Italy in 1480. The first Latin American pope also fittingly canonized two Spanish-speaking saints — Laura Montoya of Colombia and María Guadalupe García Zavala of Mexico.
Being declared a saint is the big enchilada — the final result of years, decades or sometimes centuries of hard work and commitment on the part of advocates of the cause.
I experienced this passion on the ground level last weekend in Chicago at a pilgrimage centered on the canonization cause of Father Augustus Tolton, the first identified priest of African descent in the United States.
Now designated as Servant of God, Father Tolton was born into slavery in Missouri in April 1854 before escaping at a young age with his mother and two siblings to Quincy, Ill. Though no longer in the South, young Gus faced discrimination at several schools before being welcomed at the local Catholic church. Later, Franciscan Friars arranged for him to attend nearby St. Francis Solano College (now Quincy University).
After multiple rejections of admittance to U.S. diocesan or religious seminaries, Augustus was accepted into the Pontificio Collegio Urbano de Propaganda Fide in Rome.
After being ordained April 24, 1886, the 32-year-old priest thought he would be sent as a missionary to Africa. His superiors, though, had other ideas. Said Cardinal prefect Giovanni Simeoni: “If America has never seen a black priest, it has to see one now.”
Back in Quincy, Father Tolton faced much discrimination. In 1889, with permission, he accepted an invitation by Archbishop Patrick Feehan of Chicago to lead a community of black Catholics on Chicago’s South Side. There, he tended to the needs of both blacks and whites while building community — and St. Monica Church.
After eight years of on-the-ground ministry, “Father Gus” died from heat stroke in Chicago on July 9, 1897. He was 43.
Led by Chicago auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Perry, our group of pilgrims visited many sites relevant to Father Tolton: the location of his first apartment, the site of St. Monica, the corner where he collapsed. We literally walked in his footsteps — the footsteps many believe to be saintly. And like any good pilgrimage, we learned and prayed simultaneously — focusing on Father Tolton’s life while lifting him up in prayer.
The event was a good reminder that saints (and those on the path) aren’t solely ethereal. They started out on this earth like the rest of us. And even if it’s not always literally, we should take the time to walk in their footsteps.