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Juneteenth and the life of the first Black American Catholic priest

Venerable Augustus Tolton. / Credit: Public domain

CNA Staff, Jun 19, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

On June 19, the United States commemorates the anniversary of the 1865 order that gave freedom to enslaved African Americans in Texas, issued two months after the Civil War ended. More commonly known as “Juneteenth,” it became a federal holiday in 2021 and serves as a fitting day to remember the first Black Catholic priest in the U.S. whose cause has been opened for canonization — Venerable Augustus Tolton.

Tolton was born into slavery in Brush Creek, Ralls County, Missouri, on April 1, 1854, to Catholic parents Peter Paul Tolton and Martha Jane Chisley.

Peter Paul escaped shortly after the beginning of the Civil War and joined the Union Army, dying shortly thereafter. In 1862, Augustus Tolton, along with his mother and two siblings, escaped by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois. 

“John, boy, you’re free. Never forget the goodness of the Lord,” Tolton’s mother reportedly told him after the crossing.

Tolton began to attend St. Peter’s Catholic School, an all-white parish school in Quincy, Illinois, thanks to the help of Father Peter McGirr. The priest went on to baptize Tolton, instruct him for his first holy Communion, and encouraged his vocation to the priesthood.

No American seminary would accept Tolton because of his race, so he studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained in 1886 at the age of 31, becoming the first African American ordained as a priest.

Tolton returned to the U.S. where he served for three years at a parish in Quincy. From there he went to Chicago and started a parish for Black Catholics — St. Monica Parish. He remained there until he died unexpectedly while on a retreat in 1897. He was just 43 years old. 

During his short but impactful life, Tolton learned to speak fluent English, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, and African dialects. He was also a talented musician with a beautiful voice. He helped the poor and sick, fed the hungry, and helped many discover the faith. He was lovingly known as “Good Father Gus.”

Tolton’s cause was opened by the Archdiocese of Chicago on Feb. 24, 2011, making him a Servant of God, and then on June 12, 2019, Pope France declared him Venerable, which is the second step toward canonization.

Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, announcing to the committee deciding where Tolton would be sent after his ordination in 1886 and who overruled the previous decision to send him to Africa, reportedly said the following:

“America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a Black priest, it must see one now.”

Despite President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, it could not be implemented in states still under Confederate control, and enforcement of the Proclamation relied upon the advance of Union troops. It wasn’t until Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that more than 250,000 enslaved African Americans were freed by executive decree.

From alcoholic to future saint: The inspiring conversion of Ireland’s Matt Talbot 

Venerable Matt Talbot, an Irishman whose journey from alcoholism to the heights of holiness has inspired many who struggle with addiction, is being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church.  / Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Jun 19, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

Venerable Matt Talbot, an Irishman whose journey from alcoholism to the heights of holiness has inspired many who struggle with addiction, is being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church. 

After spending more than a decade of his life as an alcoholic, Talbot found strength in the Eucharist, the rosary, and confession to uphold a vow he made at the age of 28 to abstain from all alcohol and in the process cultivated a deep interior spiritual life that led some to dub him “an urban mystic.”

Father Selva Thomas, one of the Salesian priests who ministers at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Dublin where Talbot is buried, says that many people grappling with alcoholism or drug addiction continue to come to Talbot’s tomb to pray nearly 100 years after his death.

The Matt Talbot Shrine in Dublin. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA
The Matt Talbot Shrine in Dublin. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

“Matt Talbot has become the source of inspiration for so many,” Thomas told CNA.

People feel that the Matt Talbot Shrine in central Dublin is a place where they can come and experience “spiritual rehabilitation as they undergo other forms of rehabilitation,” he added.

Talbot was born into a poor working class family in Dublin on May 2, 1856. He was the second of 12 children — nine who survived beyond infancy — and grew up surrounded by poverty and alcohol abuse in the wake of Ireland’s Great Famine.

He dropped out of school barely knowing how to read or write and began working for a wine merchant at the age of 12 where developed the habit of sampling the drink, often coming home drunk. By his early teens, Talbot had already developed a dependency on alcohol, which consumed him for the next decade. 

Many people grappling with alcoholism or drug addiction continue to come to Venerable Matt Talbot’s tomb at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dublin to pray nearly 100 years after his death. Credit: Cograng, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Many people grappling with alcoholism or drug addiction continue to come to Venerable Matt Talbot’s tomb at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dublin to pray nearly 100 years after his death. Credit: Cograng, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite holding various jobs as an unskilled laborer at the Dublin docks and later as a bricklayer, his wages were often squandered at the pub, leaving him in a state of destitution and despair.

The turning point came in 1884, when, at the age of 28, Talbot, penniless and humiliated after being refused credit, vowed to change his ways. He went to confession and made a solemn pledge to abstain from alcohol for three months. This initial pledge was the first step in a journey of lifelong sobriety, which was underpinned by a profound spiritual conversion. 

Amid the difficulties of withdrawal, Talbot turned to prayer and found solace in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as well as the rosary. He eventually embraced a life of prayer, penance, and dedication to the Church. He joined many prayer groups and confraternities, which provided a strong sense of community. He became one of the first members of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart after it was founded in Dublin in 1898.

With Talbot’s newfound sobriety, he was finally able to learn how to read and write, which allowed him to deepen his faith. He read biographies of St. Catherine of Siena, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Philip Neri, St. Thomas More, and many more saints, as well as “The Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues” by St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, “Growth in Holiness” by Father Frederick William Faber, and “True Devotion to Mary” by St. Louis de Montfort.

The Matt Talbot Shrine in Dublin. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA
The Matt Talbot Shrine in Dublin. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

Talbot was “a poor man who lived an extraordinary kind of focused life,” according to Father Hugh O’Donnell, who has served at the Matt Talbot Shrine for 20 years.

O’Donnell told CNA that even as Talbot continued working in a tough environment down on the docks he was “always focused on the divine.”

“Prayer was like breathing for him,” O’Donnell said. “It wasn’t an effort. It was what he loved to do.”

“He was able to do his work, but every time there was a lull in his work … he’d be either reading or praying,” he added.

For the last 35 years of his life, Talbot was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, or Secular Franciscans. He rose early to attend daily Mass before he began work at 6 a.m. He embraced the ascetic traditions of the early Irish monks, taking on many personal penances. 

A statue of Matt Talbot at Matt Talbot Bridge in Dublin with Dublin’s financial district in the background. Credit: Cograng, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A statue of Matt Talbot at Matt Talbot Bridge in Dublin with Dublin’s financial district in the background. Credit: Cograng, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“He slept on a couple of planks which he had by the side of his bed and a little block of wood that he rested his head on, which must have been awful,” O’Donnell said.

“He seemed to manage to be able to work a full day doing physical labor on a very small amount of food, which always struck me as some kind of connection with the Eucharist,” he added.

Talbot’s death on June 7, 1925, was as humble as his life. Collapsing on a Dublin street on his way to Mass for Trinity Sunday, he was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. It was only then that the extent of some of his penances became known, revealing secret chains he had worn as acts of devotion.

The Franciscans recall Talbot’s memory each year on June 19. Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of Talbot’s death. His legacy is one of hope. 

A prayer plaque with the Prayer for Canonization of Venerable Matt Talbot at the Matt Talbot Shrine in Dublin. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA
A prayer plaque with the Prayer for Canonization of Venerable Matt Talbot at the Matt Talbot Shrine in Dublin. Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

Talbot’s story has inspired many people battling addiction, serving as a testament to the possibility of recovery, redemption, and the human capacity for change, regardless of past mistakes.

The Salesian priests at the Matt Talbot Shrine hold a special Mass on the first Monday of every month offered for people struggling with addictions and their families. Many churches and cathedrals throughout Ireland now also offer a Mass at the same time for this intention. 

The Matt Talbot Prayer Society prays daily for its enrolled members to be freed from addictions, including alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, eating, and smoking, through Talbot’s intercession.

‘American Spartacus’: Honoring a Black Catholic Civil War hero on Juneteenth

An 1889 rendition by architects Bullard & Bullard of the National Emancipation Monument proposed for Springfield, Illinois (Library of Congress), superimposed on a 34-star U.S. flag dating to the Civil War. / Credit: Wikimedia Commons

National Catholic Register, Jun 19, 2024 / 04:00 am (CNA).

Juneteenth is a federal holiday recognizing the liberation of Black Americans and marking the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War. On June 19, 1865, enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, saw the Union Army, which included regiments of armed Black Americans fighting under the American flag, reunite the country and declare them free from bondage. 

Black Americans began Juneteenth celebrations in Texas, and the celebration eventually spread throughout the country as the struggle to secure the peace and promise of racial equality won by the Civil War continued. This Juneteenth 2024 marks 168 years after the first Juneteenth celebration and is the fourth time the entire U.S. will observe it as a national holiday. 

Catholics on Juneteenth should celebrate this day by honoring the memory of Capt. André Cailloux, the Black Catholic hero and patriot called the “American Spartacus,” whose ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield was crucial to turning the tide of the Civil War and allowing us the opportunity to live in a country that strives after “peace and justice for all.” 

In 1861, at the outset of the Civil War, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens proudly declared the Confederacy would be the first nation in the world built on white supremacy, “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

But the Confederacy would end in ruins by 1865, and the United States would triumph, because Black Americans — making up 10% of the Union Army and suffering 10% of total battlefield casualties — would help turn the tide of the U.S. Civil War.

President Abraham Lincoln, at the strong urging of abolitionists like the Black orator Frederick Douglass, agreed in 1863 to allow the enlistment of Black Americans for combat regiments. But everything depended on how the first Black Americans proved their valor in battle and whether Black Americans would join in the overwhelming numbers needed to win the war.

Cailloux responded to the call to form one of the first Black combat regiments in the Union Army, the First Louisiana Native Guard. Moreover, this Catholic — a married father who owned a cigar business, supported the charitable works of the Church, and proudly called himself the “Blackest man in New Orleans” — was a commissioned officer. So much responsibility rested on his decisions; he doubtless knew his conduct in the heat of battle would become the measure by which the fighting capability of Black Americans would be judged.

Cailloux and his men met their finest hour in the bitter siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana. He was ordered to lead the First Louisiana Native Guard in an assault on entrenched Confederate fortifications — practically a suicide mission in the face of artillery and sharpshooters. In his charge, Cailloux never wavered, urging his men onward in both French and English as the bullets pierced his flesh, until finally an artillery shell struck him down. Even then, he managed to give one final order for his lieutenant to take charge.

The news of Cailloux’s undaunted heroism in the face of certain death electrified the country, and the significance of his pivotal sacrifice as a Black officer, soldier, and free man led African Americans to enlist in droves into the Union Army. With the valiant sacrifices of the Black volunteers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry at the Battle of Fort Wagner following Cailloux’s death in July 1863, the U.S. had its answer: Black Americans would fight with courage and distinction for the union and freedom. 

Over the next two years, Gen. Robert E. Lee would see the ideology of the Confederacy unravel before his very eyes. White and Black Americans together in the Union Army fought his Army of Northern Virginia, and with their combined strength, finally defeated Lee and forced his surrender at Appomattox Court House. 

Cailloux’s body would later be recovered with the fall of Port Hudson. New Orleans commemorated this native son and hero with a military parade, with mourners stretching a mile long. Cailloux’s funeral Mass was celebrated by Father Claude Paschal Maistre, the only Catholic priest in New Orleans who opposed slavery against the pro-Confederate clergy and suffered greatly for his witness at the hands of his own archbishop.

Cailloux’s life was cut short in his prime, but contemporaries stood in awe of his decisive contribution to ending the Civil War.

Louisiana civil rights activist Rodolphe Desdunes (1849–1928), whose brother served under Cailloux, wrote: “The eyes of the world were indeed on this American Spartacus. The hero of ancient Rome displayed no braver heroism than did this officer who ran forward to his death with a smile on his lips and crying, ‘Let us go forward, O comrades!’”

One Union Army veteran, Col. Douglass Wilson, would say of Cailloux: “If ever patriotic heroism deserved to be honored in stately marble or in brass that of Captain Caillioux deserves to be, and the American people will have never redeemed their gratitude to genuine patriotism until that debt is paid.”

This article was first published by the National Catholic Register, CNA's sister news partner, and has been updated and adapted by CNA.

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Bishops speak out against worsening violence in southwest Colombia

The flag of Colombia. / Politicnico Grancolombiano Departamento de Comunicaciones via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

ACI Prensa Staff, Jun 18, 2024 / 17:50 pm (CNA).

The bishops of the dioceses located in the Valle del Cauca district of Colombia have demanded that armed groups stop their actions that continue to cause more deaths in the southwestern part of the country and have called on the authorities to “find the solutions” that would bring peace to the country.

The prelates issued a statement on June 14 signed by the archbishop of Cali, Luis Fernando Rodríguez; the bishop of Buenaventura, Rubén Darío Jaramillo; Bishop César Alcides Balbín of Cartago; Bishop José Roberto Ospina of Buga; as well as the bishop-elect of Palmira, Father Rodrigo Gallego Trujillo, and the apostolic administrator of the same diocese, Bishop Edgar de Jesús García.

In their statement, the prelates decried “the worsening of polarization, threats, harassment, extortion, attacks, murders, and other acts of violence in Valle del Cauca and in a good part of southwestern Colombia, resulting in uncertainty, sadness, pain, and death, creating fear and eroding the hope of citizens.”

Given the situation, the prelates strongly reiterated their call to the armed groups “to cease these actions.”

“In the name of the Lord, we exhort those who plan and carry out these insane acts to become aware of the evil they do to the population and even to themselves. Nothing justifies violence!” the bishops stated.

They also asked the authorities on behalf of “the population that feels overwhelmed and afraid” to join forces with civil society “in order to find the solutions that will lead to overcoming this disturbing and painful situation.”

In their statement, the bishops of the Valle del Cauca district also reiterated the commitment of the Catholic Church “to continue accompanying all efforts to foster bridges of dialogue that would make it possible to achieve the pacification of hearts and the silencing of weapons.”

The Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz) noted on its X account that on the same day that the bishops issued their statement, “three people were shot to death in the Nuevo Horizonte neighborhood of Florida, Valle of Cauca.”

According to Indepaz, the Dagoberto Ramos Front of the Western Bloc, local gangs, the Adán Izquierdo Company, with “Front 57 possibly moving in,” operate in this area. 

The Dagoberto Front and Front 57 are factions of the marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that rejected the 2016 peace agreement with the government.

Indepaz also noted that in its early warning 031/23, the People’s Ombudsman’s Office stated that “between southern Valle del Cauca and the northern Cauca there is a worsening of the armed conflict and direct violence, not only due to the presence and territorial control of the groups present but also for the entry into these areas of other illegal armed elements.”

Indepaz said these groups were not executing a “permanent incursion or operations” in these regions “beyond sporadic transiting or pamphleting.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

U.S. bishop applauds Biden’s move to allow undocumented spouses pathway to citizenship

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at an event marking the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in the East Room at the White House on June 18, 2024, in Washington, D.C. / Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jun 18, 2024 / 17:30 pm (CNA).

The head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Migration, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday praised the Biden administration’s new plan to offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented spouses and children of American citizens.

This new streamlined process will permit noncitizen spouses married to U.S. citizens to apply to legally live and work in the U.S. without fear of being deported. In addition to the spouses, noncitizen children of applicants would also be allowed to receive such protections.

To be eligible for this process, noncitizens must have resided in the U.S. for 10 years or more and be legally married to an American citizen while satisfying all other applicable immigration requirements. Those who qualify under these guidelines would be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after three years while also being allowed for work authorization in that period of time.

“We welcome today’s announcement and the hope it brings to thousands of American families who have grappled with the fear of separation for a decade or more,” Seitz shared following Tuesday’s announcement from the White House.

This executive action would also relieve the visa process for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who would be able to stay in the country upon receiving a degree from an American educational institution and a job offer with a company based in the United States.

The Biden administration’s announcement comes on the anniversary of DACA, an Obama-era program created to protect eligible young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

“As we commemorate the 12th anniversary of DACA, we’ve seen the positive impacts such programs can have, not only for beneficiaries themselves but for the families, employers, and communities that rely on them. This new program is sure to yield similar benefits,” Seitz stated. “However, as the fate of DACA hangs in the balance, we also know how insufficient these programs are.”

This plan of action comes amid an ongoing legislative stalemate on immigration reform. Last month, a bipartisan security bill pushed by the Democrat-led Senate failed to advance on a 43-50 procedural vote. Immigration policy has especially remained a prominent issue leading up to November’s presidential election, in which both candidates have spoken extensively of the topic on their campaign trails.

Despite this, Seitz emphasized the importance of advancing legislation centered on families.

“Legislators have a moral and patriotic duty to improve our legal immigration system, including the opportunities available for family reunification and preservation. A society is only as strong as its families, and family unity is a fundamental right,” he said. “For the good of the country, Congress must find a way to overcome partisan divisions and enact immigration reformation that includes an earned legalization program for longtime undocumented immigrants.”

Texas doctor indicted after exposing transgender child surgeries at children’s hospital

null / Credit: ADragan/Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Jun 18, 2024 / 17:08 pm (CNA).

A Texas doctor has been indicted for allegedly breaking federal law after he accessed patient records as part of an exposé into child transgender surgeries. 

In 2022, Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston announced that it would cease performing transgender procedures on minors, citing concerns over “legal ramifications” after state Attorney General Ken Paxton said some of those medical procedures could be considered child abuse under state law. 

Roughly a year later, journalist Christopher Rufo reported at City Journal that the hospital had “secretly continued to perform transgender medical interventions … on minor children.” Rufo cited “whistleblower documents” he obtained from inside the institution. 

On Monday the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas said in a press release that Texas doctor Eithan Haim had been “indicted for obtaining protected individual health information for patients that were not under his care and without authorization.” Rufo previously identified Haim as the source of the documents. 

Haim was set to make his first court appearance on Monday afternoon, the attorney’s office said. The doctor allegedly “obtained personal information including patient names, treatment codes, and the attending physician” from the Texas children’s hospital without authorization. 

He “allegedly obtained this information under false pretenses and with intent to cause malicious harm to TCH,” the press release said. 

If convicted, Haim “faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 maximum possible fine,” the government said. 

Texas has in recent years been at the forefront of the ongoing cultural and legal fight over transgender issues. The Biden administration in 2022 condemned the state policy whereby parents who facilitate “gender transition” medical treatments for children can be investigated for child abuse.  

Gov. Greg Abbott in February of that year directed Texas Family and Protective Services to investigate certain procedures performed on children, including ​​castration and hysterectomy, as well as puberty blockers and hormone treatments, as possible instances of child abuse. 

Earlier this month, Paxton announced that the state had “won a major victory” against the Biden administration over the White House’s attempt to rewrite federal Title IX law to include transgender protections.

The government’s new education rules in part redefined “sex discrimination” under Title IX to include protections for “gender identity.” A judge subsequently ruled that the federal government “cannot regulate state educational institutions in this way without violating federal law.”

Texas “prevailed on behalf of the entire nation,” Paxton said in announcing the ruling. 

The Texas Supreme Court, meanwhile, heard oral arguments in January in a challenge to the state’s ban on extreme transgender procedures performed on children. The outcome of that case is still pending.