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The 'Call of the King' with Venerable Augustus Tolton

Eric Styles meditates on the legacy of America's first openly Black Catholic priest with an Ignatian flair.

A sketch of Venerable Augustus Tolton. (Wikimedia Commons/William J. Simmons)

The fourth annual “The God of Us All: Praying with Black Spirituality” retreat took place in Illinois from June 24 to July 3, offering participants “an opportunity to spend time in exuberant song, prayer, silence, and community to experience the transformative nature of the Spirit moving through two deep traditions: African American and Ignatian spiritualities.” 

The following address was given on the day retreatants prayed the themes of the Ignatian spiritual exercise known as the “Call of the King,” with Venerable Augustus Tolton as a witness, holy ancestor, and prayer partner. It is reprinted here with permission on his feast day.


I confess that I have found, over the years, Venerable Augustus Tolton’s story a difficult one to embrace as an exemplar worthy of imitation. As you may or may not know, Tolton was the first recognizably Black Catholic priest in the United States. Like so many other Black priests and religious, he died young. Was he burdened by the immeasurable stress of just making it through life, placing all his own needs aside? Did he work himself to death? 

Though key local priests confirmed and encouraged his desire to respond to God’s call to ordination, he was rejected by every seminary in the U.S. and had to study in Rome. He was ordained in 1886 having expected to be sent to Africa. The cardinal in charge of his training, determined to upstart an indigenous African-American Catholic clergy, missioned Tolton back to his home diocese. Those next 11 years were filled with ups and downs, extraordinary embrace, and debilitating rejection. Some doors closed, and others opened. But Tolton never stopped believing in his own call or in the call from God to the Catholic Church to become a “true liberator” of his people.

Having collapsed on the street in Chicago during a heat wave on July 9, 1897, Fr Tolton died on the same day at the age of 43 at Mercy Hospital, where I would be born 80 years later. He had only been ordained to the priesthood 11 years before. 

I find it difficult to not see sadness and tragedy in Tolton’s story. Was his sacrifice too great? I have been wrestling with this question, and when I discovered I’d be preaching on this day, I found myself wanting to wrestle a bit more with Tolton—with all of you. So bear with me. 


What is sacrifice? 

In everyday language, including in the Church, we think about sacrifice in very transactional ways. We calculate the cost of giving up something of value to us to gain something else of presumed greater value. But the emphasis is on the “giving up” part. This is risky business because, in all honesty, we don’t know how things will turn out.

But authentically Christian sacrifice requires a deeper dive. We Christians, at our best, find our lives caught up in the self-offering, reciprocal love that is the Trinity: 

  • The Father is giving everything, unreservedly, to the Son.
  • The Son, out of perfect gratitude, returns that self-gift, all that he has and holds, to the Father.
  • That dynamic of self-offering, that back and forth, is the Holy Spirit. 

What does the Son have and possess? Us. 

By saying “yes” to the Lord Jesus, in his incarnation, in his call to serve, in his willingness to live until he dies, his Passion, in his death and resurrection—by saying yes, at any time (and every time) on the journey, we allow ourselves to be caught up in Jesus, the Son of the Living God, his self-gift to the Father. We are that gift.

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, 
Soldiers of the Cross.
Every round goes higher, higher, 
Soldiers of the Cross.

The more conscious, the more free our choice to participate in the Son’s one choice, the more perfect the gift. Sacrifice is the offering of self that is freely chosen. Ultimately we offer ourselves because that is who we are: daughters and sons of the Father. The Father is the ground and the source of all things. The flow of self-gift from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father is a stream of love: the Holy Spirit.

Tolton was seized by that Holy Spirit and he wanted to participate in the work of redeeming the world. How do we know he made the right choice? Certainly, his life was marked by sadness and tragedy. All we know is that he had a desire and felt a deep prompting from the source of all things. To answer the call to holiness as an ordained priest, Tolton was helping the church fulfill its own mandate to be Catholic, universal.

And now that we return to his life 127 years after his death, we see in Tolton an extraordinarily tenacious young man, born into American slavery, marked by the pernicious effects of a death-dealing caste system, who lived out the dream God had given him: to be ordained a priest in the Roman tradition. 


What is priesthood?

To be an ordained priest in the Catholic Church is to be in service to God’s priestly people, intimately enmeshed in that work of sacrifice. Our priests 1) call to mind—for all of us—the saving deeds of Jesus and 2) invoke the Holy Spirit on our behalf. But it is the all-of-us, the whole assembly of God gathered together, who participate in the one priesthood of Christ and the one eternal sacrifice that Christ has already lived out.

So we have been called, you and me, to be with Christ in the ongoing work of creating the world. You have been called. Tolton’s story is both sad and tragic, and is not that different from a man who lived 2,000 years ago in Palestine. There is some chance that yours might not be either. So why bother? Well, because we were made for love. 

As Fr Clarence Joseph Rivers has said, this is a love “that does not shrink from living, even in the face of death.” To be caught up in the one self-gift of the Son, back to the Father, is to allow even sadness and tragedy to be transformed—body and blood—into signs of joy and hope.

If you love him, why not serve him? 
Soldiers of the Cross.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the Cross.

I recently heard actor and director Ethan Hawke talking about vocation. He said:

“If you want to know who you are, a case can be made—a very compelling case—that God is telling you who you are by what you love.”

Venerable Augustus Tolton loved being a priest. He fulfilled his calling day after day. You have been called

Eric T. Styles is rector of Carroll Hall, an undergraduate residential community at the University of Notre Dame. He has written on theology, liturgy, cultural production, and race for America Magazine, Notre Dame's Church Life Journal, and Liturgy Training Publications. He is trained in Ignatian spirituality. Since 2013 Eric has also been a collaborator with Afro House, a Baltimore-based, music-driven performance art ensemble.

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