The Great Equalizer: How the Sacraments Make Us All Equal [uCatholic]

The following is a preview of an article I wrote for uCatholic on June 14, 2018, and I wanted to share it on Laudare.

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Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized African American priest in U.S. history.

I founded my BLACKCATHOLIC apostolate on Easter day 2018, and during the octave week that followed, I was discussing it with my priest. Since the main target for my outreach is towards the Black community our conversation switched to the question of how we as Catholics can reach out more effectively to Black people for the Church.

I remember suggesting that one of the ways we could improve our outreach is by becoming more acquainted with the problems and needs facing my community and propose that the Catholic Church provides the best solutions to these problems from both a material and spiritual standpoint as its advocate before God and man. Then we talked about the tragic epidemic of fatherlessness among Black families and how important having a dad around is, especially for young men.

Here we divulged a problem (fatherlessness/broken homes) and derived a need (fathers). Then we asked: In what ways could the Church help aid this problem? We saw at least one solution hidden within the person of the Catholic priest, of all places, and his virtues. One thing we agreed upon that still sticks in my mind was the potential of the fatherhood that a priest provides for his parish to be a powerful icon of fatherhood to my community. With so many fathers missing from the house fostering instability and creating a lack of the much-needed male figure, the parish priest brings a source of stability. He will not leave his parish family, barring a reassignment, of course; thus, the priest brings fidelity. The priest brings nourishment for both soul and body through the sacraments. The priest brings a strong and committed male figure. The priest brings morals, limits, and challenges for the youth. The priest brings companionship, especially fraternity, with boys and young men to help keep them out of gangs. Oh, how the Black community needs such men, priest or not!

Another issue that came to mind was the sense of deep inequality that Black people have felt in society throughout the years. Here again we divulged another problem (a felt sense of inequality) and derived another need (the experience and application of equality while living in a society of persons). Once more we asked: In what ways could the Church help aid this problem? Again we saw a solution in the person of the priest. Throughout time the priesthood has been one of the greatest overlooked symbols of equality lived out. Case in point – a valid priest is always a valid priest, if you ordain him properly. In regards to the substance of a man in his humanity, it doesn’t matter what man is receiving Holy Orders; a true priest confects true sacraments.

Take Servant of God Fr. Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), the first recognized African American priest in U.S. history, for example. Facing opposition from the beginning of his vocation, Tolton was rejected by seminary after seminary in America. Only with help from his friend and advocate Fr. Peter McGirr, an Irish priest, Tolton was able to go to Rome for his studies where he was ordained in 1886. Having graduated from St. Francis Solanus College (present-day Quincy University) before going off to Rome and learning Italian, Latin, and Greek during formation, Tolton was, without question, intellectually qualified to be a priest. However, he was sent back to a country that called him property when he was a slave and wouldn’t educate him as a candidate for the priesthood on account of his race. He faced resistance when he came back to serve, and I have no doubt that some of his opponents probably questioned whether or not a Black man could actually become a priest. I imagine they accounted as dubious the ordination of a man who was considered virtually a tool no different than a plow used to till the land or a gin used to pick the cotton just a few decades before. I imagine that some of his skeptics pondered if it was possible for a man who supposedly was in many ways “less” than a White man in his humanity and intellect could ever have lasted in the seminary.

But all their skepticism would not have mattered when it came to the actual sacramental theology of the Church, which would have truly determined the validity of Tolton’s own priesthood. Was he a man? Yes. Did a Church possessing true Holy Orders ordain him? Yes. Did a bishop possessing valid apostolic succession perform the ceremony? Yes. Were the correct words said during his priestly consecration? Yes. Did his bishop grant him his faculties and parochial jurisdiction? Yes. Then, all this being true, Fr. Augustus Tolton was a true priest of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church, and there was not a thing any detractor could have said about it. He was as much of an alter Christus as a White priest was. He could confect the same Eucharist, forgive the same sins, witness the same marriages, baptize the same babies, and anoint the same sick all not due to his race but rather to the sacrament he received. When he performed his duties he did them in the Person of Christ not in the person of a Black or White man, for the One Priesthood he was ordained into is not a respecter of race. All of this would be true for any other Black man ordained after him.

Thus, the sacrament of Holy Orders was itself a true bastion of equality far beyond Tolton’s time when you consider all the other jobs and positions he would have been denied the opportunity to obtain based solely on the pigment of his skin. The dogma of social Darwinism of his day taught that Tolton, and every other Black man, just wouldn’t have been able to perform any given secular task as well as a White man because of the order of nature. On the contrary, the dogma of the Church taught that Tolton, and any other Black priest, would have been just as able as a White priest to perform any given heavenly task because of the order of grace. When I said this much during the conversation with my priest it got me thinking about equality and the sacraments in general. Then, it hit me.

For all the differences in race and ethnicity we inherit, for all the variances in ability and intellect we have, for all the inequalities of economy, class, and circumstances we bear – we are all the same before the altar, in the confessional, under living water made holy in the Jordan, under outstretched hands made holy by chrism, and in the sick bed during the eleventh hour. Furthermore, our reception of these sacraments helps to showcase this point. This is because our reception of the sacred mysteries is not determined by any of the differences listed above. The only status that truly matters is the state of grace, and for that reason the sacraments are collectively what I will call in this article “the Great Equalizer” because they and the theology behind them help point towards the equality of all people.

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The full article can be found at here.

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