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Seminarians, Inspired by Pioneer Priest, Pray for Black Vocations
By
Mark Zimmermann
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Thursday, April 29, 2010
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WASHINGTON (CNS)—In his breviary, seminarian Christopher S. Rhodes carries a special holy card depicting Father Augustine Tolton, the first recognized black priest in the United States. In 2012, Rhodes hopes to be ordained as the first African-American priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., in more than two decades.

"I use that (holy card) always as a source of encouragement. If he could do it as the first, I could do it," said Rhodes, who is the only African-American seminarian now studying at Theological College, the national seminary of The Catholic University of America.

Rhodes now serves as the president of the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association, and he organized and sang as a cantor at an April 24 Mass at the Theological College Chapel to mark the National Day of Prayer for Vocations in the Black Community.

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Martin D. Holley, one of 16 African-American bishops, celebrated the Mass, which was held on the 124th anniversary of Father Tolton's ordination to the priesthood.

"I would not be standing here as a priest and a bishop if not for Father Augustine Tolton," said Bishop Holley. "The odds were stacked against him. He persevered because of faith and the grace of God."

Born into slavery in 1854 and baptized a Catholic, Father Tolton was encouraged by an Irish-American priest to pursue a vocation, but no U.S. seminary would accept him because of his race. He was ordained to the priesthood in Rome on April 24, 1886, and sent back to serve as a missionary in his own country. Despite the racism he endured, he became renowned as a preacher, and founded St. Monica Parish, the mother church for black Catholics in Chicago. He died in 1897 at age 43.

The Archdiocese of Chicago announced in March that it was beginning the sainthood process for Father Tolton.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about 75 seminarians of African descent, most of whom are immigrants from Africa, are studying to be priests in the United States. About 250 African-American priests, 400 African-American sisters and 50 black religious brothers are now serving in the United States, which has 3 million African-American Catholics.

At the Mass, Bishop Holley noted that Father Tolton had been encouraged in his vocation by his pastor, and the bishop said that happened in the case of his own family, when a German-American priest inspired his parents and older siblings to become Catholic, and he was given the name Martin after that priest.

"As a first-grader I watched my namesake" celebrate Mass, and "I wanted to do the same thing," the bishop said.

The bishop encouraged the seminarians to likewise serve their people with love and help lift up vocations. He noted that in today's world, there are "so many obstacles to hearing the voice of the Lord," and he pointed out how the African-American community faces challenges like high rates of abortion, AIDS, drug addiction and incarceration. "It's going to take good people like you to reach out. ... Evangelize, reach out to them."

Seventy-five seminarians and 10 graduate-student priests from 39 dioceses are now studying at Theological College.

During his homily, Bishop Holley prayed that through the intercession of Father Tolton, "the Lord will allow many young men in the African-American community to hear the call of God, through the example of you, (through) the way you live your life."

Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, the author of "The History of Black Catholics in the United States," once said that "for black Catholics, he (Father Tolton) is the father of us all." After the Mass, Bishop Holley said he agreed with that assessment of the pioneer black priest. "He's the one who forged the path, who paved the way for us. He did what Christ did, he embraced the cross. The message of his life is one of love."

Bishop Holley said vocations can be lifted up in the African-American community by prayer, by people encouraging and talking about vocations, and by young people getting connected with supportive groups such as the Knights of Peter Claver.

"We've always been a people of prayer, you have to start with that," he said, adding that people need to share stories of faith and perseverance, like the life of Father Tolton. "They need to tell their story and hear the story of others."


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