Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Easter 2011: God sets us free, even when laws enslave

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Two weeks ago, I joined Bishop Joseph Perry and others from the archdiocese in a pilgrimage to the grave of Father Augustus Tolton (1854- 1897), who accepted Archbishop Feehan’s invitation to found St. Monica’s Parish in Chicago in 1891. (See story on Page 7). Because the archdiocese has introduced Father Tolton’s cause for sanctity, we had to recognize officially that he is a historical personage by visiting his grave. It is marked with a large cross in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy, Ill.

Quincy was the town where Augustus Tolton’s mother, Martha, brought her three young children when she escaped from slavery in Missouri. On pilgrimage, we visited the farm near Brush Creek, Mo., where Augustus was born a slave in 1854. We went to the place where he was baptized and to the cemetery where his owners are buried on one side of the graveyard and their slaves, in unmarked graves, are buried on the opposite side, as separate in death as they had been in life. We prayed at the site near Hannibal, Mo., where Mrs. Tolton courageously got into a small boat and rowed her children across the Mississippi River, swollen with spring rains, to Quincy, Ill. Since her husband had already escaped to join the Union army in the Civil War, she depended entirely upon God’s Providence to find refuge in Quincy. She and her family were received and protected by Catholic priests and sisters.

Years later, after he had been ordained a priest in Rome and sent back to the United States as the first African-American Catholic priest who had been born a slave, Father Tolton, even though he experienced prejudice and the effects of racism, said in a speech given at the First Black Catholic Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1889, “The Catholic Church deplores double slavery — that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both. I was a poor slave boy but the priests of the church did not disdain me. It was through the influence of one of them that I became what I am tonight.”

The process of establishing sanctity is like putting a dead person on trial and examining all the historical evidence to see if he or she practiced virtue to a heroic degree. That amassing of evidence for submission to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome is beginning here now. When we have done everything we can do to arrive at the truth, we will wait for God to give a sign that Father Tolton is among God’s friends in heaven. Usually this is an extraordinary physical cure that cannot be explained by purely natural causes, so far as we can ascertain.

In Holy Week, we have relived liturgically another trial: that of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. When interrogated by the Roman procurator, Jesus replied that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Pilate’s query, “What is truth?” was answered in the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ freedom from the bonds of death is at work in us to free us from slavery to sin. God wants us to be free, and we can rely on the moral miracle of God’s forgiveness to set us free.

Spiritual freedom in possible even when the body is shackled legally, but racial slavery was first condemned as immoral and illegal by Pope Eugene IV in 1435, as soon as European discoverers started to enslave those they had begun to colonize. Because the slave trade was profitable, the colonizing powers ignored the papal condemnations, which continued on a regular basis, century after century, until 1890, when legal slavery finally came to an end almost everywhere (see Joel S. Panzer, “The Popes and Slavery”; Alba House, 1996). Three and a half centuries before the U.S. Constitution was written, therefore, its provisions for racial slavery had already been condemned as immoral by the Catholic Church. As is often the case, practice didn’t follow principle, but the church’s official teaching reflected what Father Tolton said in 1889: The Catholic Church deplores slavery of the spirit and of the body.

Law can destroy rather than protect. If today, our civil laws have been changed so that no one can be destroyed by immoral racial slavery, laws can nevertheless be used to destroy other freedoms, including the freedom of the Catholic Church to be herself, to teach freely and to control her own ministries and religious activities. In Illinois, the church may now be investigated by the State, brought before judges and punished because she teaches the truth about the nature of marriage and because her various educational and charitable ministries reflect this Gospel truth. We’ll see what miracle might support this truth in the months to come. More than ever in recent history, however, we now need Catholics who will imitate Martha Tolton, a strong Catholic woman who was spiritually free and refused to submit to the civil laws that enslaved her and her family. That’s my prayer this Easter of 2011.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago