August 24th 2019

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COVER STORY Biological and transgender worldviews are mutually exclusive

CANBERRA OBSERVED Can you have too much of a renewables thing?

FREEDOM OF SPEECH Professor Augusto Zimmermann addresses NCC WA on freedoms

NSW ABORTION BILL Clear and present danger to women's health

RURAL AFFAIRS Land-clearing laws render productive land useless and worthless

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Why an indigenous referendum is misconceived

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY The post-liberal way: Make good use of the time in the wilderness

ASIAN AFFAIRS Hong Kong defies its obtrusive overlord

SPECIAL FILM REVIEW Danger Close: Australia's fiercest battle of the Vietnam War

HUMOUR Rage against the baked bean

MUSIC Riff wrap: The thing that makes it go 'pop'

CLASSIC CINEMA Dr Strangelove: Helpless fear turned to laughter

BOOK REVIEW The epic awfulness of Mao and his 'isms'

BOOK REVIEW From slave to son of the Church




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From slave to son of the Church

News Weekly, August 24, 2019

FATHER AUGUSTUS TOLTON: The Slave Who Became the First African-American Priest

by Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers

Sophia Institute Press, New Hampshire
Paperback: 176 pages
Price: AUD$49.99

Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel

One of the most inspirational persons in the history of the United States Church in the 19th century is Servant of God Rev Augustus (Augustine) Tolton, the first full-blooded African-American man to be ordained to the priesthood. The author of this biography, Harold Burke-Sivers, is a permanent deacon of African-American background who regularly appears on EWTN, and whose previous works include Behold the Man: A Catholic Vision of Male Spirituality.

Born a slave on 1 April 1854 in Missouri, Augustus was the son of Peter and Martha Tolton. The family escaped North in the chaos that enveloped the South during the American Civil War, making their way to a Union camp. His father Peter served in the Union Army; he died of dysentery towards the end of the war.

Martha Tolton took her children to Quincy, Illinois, where Augustus worked as a child in a cigar factory. During the winter layoff, he began his formal studies. After the family was ostracised by white parishioners in their local parish, they attended Mass at St Lawrence’s, whose parish priest, Irishman Fr Peter McGirr, mentored Augustus.

Discerning a vocation to the priesthood, Tolton and McGirr had to contend with the reality that no seminary in the U.S. would accept Tolton as a student. This obstacle was overcome by Tolton being educated in Rome, where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1886 in the Lateran Basilica.

Initially assigned to an African-American parish in Quincy, Tolton became renowned for his pastoral ministry and preaching, which resulted in several conversions of African-Americans to Catholicism. He was subsequently transferred to Chicago, ministering at St Monica’s. Tragically, Tolton died in 1897, a comparatively young man, from heatstroke.

Tolton has already been the subject of a full-length biography by Sister Caroline Hemesath, From Slave to Priest. First published in 1973, it was republished by Ignatius Press in 2006. Burke-Sivers notes that this work, particularly the republished edition, with a forward by Burke-Sivers himself, was seminal in advancing the opening of the canonisation process.

On the basis of online promotional advertisements, I expected Burke-Sivers’ book to be a modern full-length biography, and was initially disappointed, when I started to read it, to learn that the biography was restricted to a survey of Tolton’s life in the first chapter, the rest of the book being a reflection upon aspects of the faith, using Tolton’s life and legacy, and how it applies to modern-day Catholics.

However, upon reading the rest of the work, I found Burke-Sivers’ reflections and analysis to be cogent, thoughtful, engaging and challenging. The first reflection in Chapter 2 is called “Overcoming Racism”. Burke-Sivers reminds readers of the evilness of racism and its devastating effects on U.S. society.

In reviewing positive initiatives the Catholic Church in America has adopted to overcome racism, he sees Tolton as a model. Thus, Burke-Sivers notes that Tolton was prepared to minister to anyone, whether they were white, immigrant, or African-American. This was often in spite of the lack of support and outright opposition from other clergy, which he bore with equanimity and charity.

In the next chapter, entitled “Building Strong Families”, Burke-Sivers examines the important role of the family, using Tolton’s family as an example. The next chapter, “The Power of Prayer”, talks about the central role prayer – the Mass in particular – played in Tolton’s life.

The final two reflections are entitled “A Culture of Life and the Meaning of Human Suffering” and “Freedom in God’s mercy”. Burke-Sivers concludes with an epilogue entitled “Towards Sainthood”, which explores the current status of Tolton’s cause for canonisation, noting that Most Rev Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago – himself of African-American heritage – has been instrumental in its advancement since the canonisation process formally commenced in 2011. At the time of writing in 2018, the historical consultants for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had voted that the cause should advance.

Overall, Father Augustus Tolton is extremely well written. The author brings to bear his considerable knowledge of current issues facing Catholics in the U.S., responding to them with impressive and thoughtful analysis. Burke-Sivers is adroit in applying the wisdom of Church teaching to the contemporary situation, and in doing so is faithful to Catholic teaching.

Although the reflections are written primarily for a U.S. readership, particularly an African-American one, most of the contents of Father Augustus Tolton are applicable to the Church in other countries. For example, in the Australian context, Aborigines have been the victims of racism; similarly, the call to combat the culture of death by promoting a culture of life is as relevant in virtually every Western country as it is in the United States.

This reviewer ultimately found the book engaging, challenging, and hard to put down. Highly recommended.

Michael E Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.

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