CHICAGO (CNS) -- The
canonization cause of Father Augustus Tolton received important approval from
the Vatican's historical consultants earlier this year, moving the cause
Father Tolton, a former
slave, is the first recognized U.S. diocesan priest of African descent. Chicago
Cardinal Francis E. George opened his cause for canonization in 2011, giving the priest the title "servant of God."
The consultants in Rome
ruled in March that the "positio" -- a document equivalent to a doctoral
dissertation on a person's life -- was acceptable and the research on Father Tolton's
life was finished, said Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, postulator
for the cause.
"They have a story on a
life that they deem is credible, properly documented. It bodes well for the
remaining steps of scrutiny -- those remaining steps being the theological
commission that will make a final determination on his virtues," Bishop Perry
It now goes to the Congregation for Saints' Causes, he said. Once the congregation's
members "approve it, then the prefect of that congregation takes the case to
the pope," he added.
If the pope approves it, Father
Tolton would be declared venerable, the next step on the way to canonization. The
last two steps are beatification and canonization. In general, two approved
miracles through Father Tolton's intercession are needed for him to be
beatified and canonized.
consultants ruled unanimously on the Tolton "positio," compiled by a team in
Rome led by Andrea Ambrosi, based on hundreds of pages of research completed in
While working on the
document, Ambrosi's team asked Bishop Perry why it took so long to open a cause
for Tolton, who died in 1897.
"We told them that
African-Americans basically had no status in the church to be considered at
that time. Some people didn't think we had souls. They were hardly poised to
recommend someone to be a saint," Bishop Perry said. "And then in those days
there were hardly any saints from the United States proposed."
The fact that the
historical consultants approved the "positio" unanimously is a positive sign, he
said. The cause is scheduled to go before the theological commission in
Two miracles through Father
Tolton's intercession have been sent to Rome.
"We're hoping and our
fingers are crossed and we're praying that at least one of them might be
acceptable for his beatification," Bishop Perry said.
Born into slavery, young
Augustus fled to freedom with his mother and two siblings through the woods of
northern Missouri and across the Mississippi River while being pursued by
bounty hunters and soldiers. He was only 9 years old.
The small family made
their home in Quincy, Illinois, a sanctuary for runaway slaves.
Growing up in Quincy and
serving at Mass, Augustus felt a call to the priesthood, but because of rampant
racism, no seminary in the United States would accept him.
He headed to Rome,
convinced he would become a missionary priest serving in Africa. However, after
ordination he was sent back to his hometown to be a missionary to the community
He was such a good
preacher that many white people filled the pews for his Masses, along with
black people. This upset the white priests in the town, who made life very
difficult for him as a result. After three years, Father Tolton moved north to
Chicago to minister to the black community, at the request of Archbishop
Father Tolton worked
tirelessly for his congregation in Chicago, to the point of exhaustion. On July
9, 1897, he died of heat stroke while returning from a priests retreat. He was
Since the cause was opened,
Bishop Perry and his team have given more than 170 presentations on Father
Tolton around the country. They also have received inquiries about the priest
from Catholics in the Philippines, Germany, Australia, Italy, France and
countries in Africa.
People receive Father
Tolton's story well, Bishop Perry said.
"There's also the element
of surprise. … People always presume that we had black priests," he told
the Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper.
"There's an element of
surprise at how the church handled some of these more naughty issues of
reception and acceptance," said the prelate, who is African-American. "They thought that this was pretty usual,
but they were surprised to see that there were certain individuals who were not
so receptive to a person like (Father) Tolton and others."
Father Tolton did not speak out
publicly against the racist abuse he encountered from his fellow Catholics.
Rather, throughout his ministry, he preached that the Catholic Church was the
only true liberator of blacks in America.
"I think people generally are
touched by his story, especially regarding his stamina and perseverance given
what appears to be a different mood today. People don't accept stuff thrown in
their faces anymore," Bishop Perry said.