Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
"A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them" (Mt 25:14-15, 19-21).
We are in Matthew 25 and know that Matthew is coming to the end – the Great Commissioning. During this special time, as we celebrate people of color living their call to the Great Commissioning, let’s take a moment to look at The Magnificent Seven, the first seven priests of Negro descent to serve in the Church of the United States. The parable for this day is the story of their lives and the people of color who continue to serve.
And, so the story begins:“… a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability” (Matthew 25:14-15).
The first is Augustine Tolton, who was ordained in 1886 after his formation overseas because no bishop in the United States would accept him as a seminarian. With the power of his witness, Negroes and Whites were excited to have him serve as their parish priest. Following Tolton, The Josephites made the first serious commitment to act boldly on their charism to form leaders of color, receiving three men into their seminary in the United States: Charles Uncles (1891), John Dorsey (1902), and John Plantevigne (1907). Like Tolton, all of these men were gifted ministers. Uncles was among the brightest men in his seminary classes, ranking among the top five academically in most of his seminary classes and teaching in their formation program. Shortly after his ordination, Dorsey toured cities in the north and conducted Josephite missions in the south to enlist white support for the Josephites’ mission. Plantevigne, a pastor at a parish, conducted a mission and was impressed by the 230 members who came back to the sacraments and the 30 who joined the Church in response to Plantevigne’s witness. All of these men who professed to be Negro, Catholic, and ordained had similar experiences in our Church. They were persecuted and vilified as they served, not by white supremacists or angry parishioners, but by their brother priests and bishops. These four died as young men, martyrs of their day. They were serious, and they invested their talents, overcame obstacles, and served all the people of God.
The three that are the foundation of The Magnificent Seven were ordained nearly 20 years before Augustine Tolton. James Healy was ordained in 1854 as the first priest of color, though he denied his Negro heritage. In 1875, he became the Bishop of Portland, ME, another first in the nation. Alexander Sherwood Healy, ordained in 1858, was a gifted theologian who advised the Archbishop of Boston at the First Vatican Council, and Patrick Healy, ordained in 1864, became the President of Georgetown University, nearly a century before the University admitted its first student of color. Therefore, to The Magnificent Seven, we repeat Jesus’ words to honor them: ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy’ (Matthew 25:21).
There is another side to this parable. The life of the one who was afraid to acknowledge and use his gifts said: “… out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground” (Matthew 25:25). This is true of white priests and bishops who denied the opportunity for formation in the United States, and attacked The Magnificent Seven as they served the Church. Undeterred by the obstacles presented during formation and in ministry, The Magnificent Seven overcame the racism in the Church of their day and shared in the Master’s joy. As the people of God, we remember them by serving the Church as they did. In the face of great opposition, they took the cup as Christ did, putting service above self. As it was for The Magnificent Seven, so it is for us.
Author: Deacon Timothy Tilghman, the Deacon in the Neighborhood, St. Teresa of Avila Church, Washington, DC.