Why promoting sainthood causes of black Americans would be a healing balm for the Church and the world

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Venerables Pierre Toussaint, Henriette Delille, Father Augustus Tolton, and Servant of God Mother Mary Lange. OSV file and Public domain photos

Our nation is in crisis. What began as horrific images from Minneapolis, where an African American man was killed before our very eyes by a white police officer, has now spread past peaceful protests and into violence and destruction across the country. It begs the question: What can the Church do to bring light to this moment of profound darkness and beyond? What can help transform the systemic problems of racism and privilege we experience over and over?

Both the racism that predicated the murder and the resulting hatred and violence are rooted in a deep distortion of the human person. And while there is no denying the racism that is present in our country and lurking even in the Church, it is precisely our Christian faith that offers the remedy to the sin’s ugly fruits. Our faith proclaims the truth that all of God’s children are made in his image and likeness, no matter the pigment of their skin. It follows that every man and woman is our neighbor in Christ, truly “brothers and sisters to us,” as the U.S. bishops stated in their 1977 pastoral letter on racism. (A new letter penned in 2018 is titled “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”) More to the point, Christ’s invitation to come and follow him is open to all men and women. Any distortion of these truths is simply sinful.

Christians recognize that there is only one antidote to sin: holiness. We must be conformed to Christ in all things. Lives of virtue, marked by our own cooperation with God’s plan for salvation, is the only way forward. Holiness will eradicate racism and the violent reactions to it.

Now, as our country reels in pain and fear, with scenes of great violence, the Church should make a concerted and coordinated effort to bring greater attention to the witness and holiness of those African Americans with open canonization causes. In them, should anyone doubt their human dignity and worth because of the color of their skin, we can find the greatest of human stories. In them, we can find a path forward for a productive response to hatred. God’s manifestation through them would bring healing and hope to the Church and the wider society. Their time is now.

Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman. CNS

Consider New York City’s Venerable Pierre Toussaint, who was once denied entrance to the city’s Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral — a structure that he helped raise funds to build — because of the color of his skin. He spent a good deal of his post-slavery freedom to serve the poor, sick and orphans. Or consider Venerable Henriette Delille, who, after she was prohibited from entering a religious congregation because she was black, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family to serve the racially marginalized and poor children of New Orleans. Or consider Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, the former slave and first recognized black Catholic priest from America, who was run out of his parish by a racist priest across town in Quincy, Illinois. Father Tolton’s response was a move to Chicago, where he poured out his life pastoring a growing community of Black Catholics before his premature death at age 43. The stories of the Servants of God Mother Mary Lange, Sister Thea Bowman and Julia Greeley are equally harrowing and inspirational, and their causes add to the vibrancy brought to ecclesial life by the Black Catholic community.

We can and must do more to advance the canonization causes of the heroic men and women from the Black Catholic community. Financial support is needed for the work associated with the research and dissemination of materials to promote the individual’s cause. But more critical is a more concerted effort on behalf of Church leaders to ensure these causes get the attention and assistance they deserve.

Servant of God Julia Greeley. CNS

Toussaint, Delille, Tolton, Lange, Bowman and Greeley are sources of inspiration for us all, and the advancement of their causes is not only good for the Church but for all of American society. What a gift it would be to both, filled with promise and potential, if the Holy See would move one or more of these causes to the top of the list of those pending. St. Benedict the Moor was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1807 “not only for his sanctity,” wrote black Catholic historian Father Cyprian Davis, OSB, “but because his canonization was a statement regarding the evils of the slave trade.” There is at least one miracle from among the current six black Catholic canonization causes currently being investigated in Rome. Why not give it priority now at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints?

In 2010, Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI, opened the canonization cause for Father Augustus Tolton. Four years later, as the archdiocesan phase of the cause was concluded and sent to the Holy See, Cardinal George stated that introducing Father Tolton’s cause was “one of the most important, if not the most important” ecclesiastical event in his nearly 17 years as archbishop of Chicago. That is a notable statement from the accomplished churchman who also penned a major pastoral letter on racism in 2001, “Dwell in My Love.”

It’s clear that a good portion of Father Tolton’s story is echoed in the lives of the other black Catholic candidates for canonization. A 2014 description of Father Tolton offered by Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, vice-postulator of Tolton’s cause, could describe all six black Catholic candidates for canonization: They have “showed us how to handle setback, mistreatment, bigotry, [and] handle these with our faith, our hope and our love found intact.”

We are greatly blessed by the contributions of black Catholics in the Church in America, particularly the legacy of holiness that shines therein. Such men and women for our times. And it is up to us to tell their story for the good of the Church and the world. Doing so will help eradicate the sin of racism, bring hope to society and glorify God.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic. He writes from Indiana.

Michael R. Heinlein

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV's Simply Catholic and author of "Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I."