My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The name of George Floyd has become well-known across the United States and throughout the world due to widespread media coverage given to his brutal killing, which was recorded on video and subsequently viewed by countless numbers of people.
Not so well known and with little or no media attention are the names of many other people who have been recent victims of senseless murders. In the first three months of this year, 30 young black men and women in the District of Columbia lost their lives to violent crime. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that 18 people were killed on one Sunday, May 31, “making it the single most violent day in Chicago in six decades.” Over the full weekend, “25 people were killed in the city, with another 85 wounded by gunfire.” According to the Sun-Times, there were 492 homicides in Chicago last year, and only three of them involved police.
In an op-ed piece entitled, “Violence Threatens Black Lives,” in the June 8 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Nestride Yumga, an African-American woman who serves as a senior airman in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, wrote, “America has a major problem called violence. The high crime rates in African-American communities demand more social activism and economic initiatives in recognition of the value of all black lives … . Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X never allowed us the luxury of victimhood. They taught that the struggle for constitutional rights must be waged every day. If rights are not for all Americans, then they are for none.”
Many people know that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a now-famous speech known as his “I Have a Dream” speech. It would be good to recall the content of his dream for America. Speaking before a crowd of some 250,000 people at the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’ … With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Here in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, we are blessed to have the inspiring example of the first African-American priest in the United States, Father Augustine Tolton, declared by Pope Francis to be a “Venerable Servant of God.” Born a slave in Brush Creek, Mo., on April 1, 1854, young Gus escaped from slavery with his mother and siblings to Quincy. In light of his intelligence and devout Catholic faith, he was invited by his pastor, Father Peter McGirr, to consider becoming a priest, but he was unable to gain admission to a seminary in the United States, so he was sent to a seminary in Rome. Thinking that he would become a missionary in Africa, he was instead sent back to serve as a priest here in his home diocese. When the prejudice of a particular brother priest became too much for him to bear, Father Tolton left for Chicago after just three years in Quincy. He ministered in the Windy City for eight years until his death on July 9, 1897 at the age of 43. His body was brought back to Quincy and was buried in St. Peter Cemetery, where his remains lie today.
In light of his life story, Venerable Father Augustine Tolton provides us with a powerful exemplar to whom we should turn as we as we pray for racial harmony and healing in our country.
Father Daren Zehnle, a priest of our diocese, who was born and raised in Quincy, has written a beautiful prayer for the intercession of Venerable Father Augustine Tolton, which I have approved for public as well as private use. As we approach the 123rd anniversary of Father Tolton’s death on July 9, I encourage you to say this prayer:
Venerable Augustine Tolton, out of your great love for God and man you served those who came to you without consideration for the color of their skin in a time when such charity was not always welcome; in humility, you stood in testimony against a sinful generation and persevered in hope. Our generation, too, is tainted by the sins of prejudice, racism, and violence; we stand in need of great healing and conversion of heart and will. Intercede for us to obtain the gift of true friendship among peoples so that in one another we may meet Christ Jesus who calls us all his friends, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
May God give us this grace. Amen.