This evening as I am writing these reflections, I think of my origin in the Midwest–Illinois–and a song whose words are: “By the rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois.” I think of the leaves that are changing at the moment and the frost and the rain and the soon-to-come snow. I remember the lessons of life that I learned from my parents and friends and family that were grounded in the soil of Illinois and its crops and the change of seasons. And those lead me, as well, to the people of Illinois. And I would like to acknowledge two of them at this moment, separated by years, but not separated by Faith and its witness.
I would like to congratulate and acknowledge my friend Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., whose nomination to the College of Cardinals was just announced by our Holy Father Pope Francis in Rome. I was a “downstater,” but he grew up in Chicago. We had the same influences that helped us to hear the voice of the Lord to “COME FOLLOW ME.” I was personally blessed to come to know him when, as a priest, I would often be in Chicago to work on the Appellate Court for the Province of Illinois. One time I was walking toward Holy Name Cathedral and we were able to stop and visit. When he was the Bishop of Belleville, he was our neighbor to the south of Springfield and we would visit at Provincial gatherings on various occasions. His love of the Liturgy, from his time in Rome where he earned a Doctorate in Liturgy from San Anselmo, showed in his care for the Liturgy and the way he would celebrate Mass. I am sure that it was his love for the Liturgy that strengthened him in the challenges of his years as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and his ongoing commitment to racial justice, rooted in his Faith and vocation.
I would like now to refer back to another Illinois native, also African American, Father Augustine Tolton, a former slave, who was born April 1, 1854 in Ralls County, Missouri, and died from heat stroke on July 9, 1897 while pastor of St. Monica’s parish in Chicago. Augustine always wanted to be a priest, growing up in Quincy, Illinois, and was encouraged by his pastor in Quincy, Fr. Peter McGirr, who stood up to the racism of the day and encouraged young Augustine in his vocation, and eventually helped him to enter the seminary of the Propaganda Fide in Rome when no seminary in the United States would accept him. His faithfulness and his perseverance, and his love for those whom he served, despite the racism in Quincy, continue to be a great testimony of holiness and a witness to truth, justice and love. I knew of Fr. Tolton when I would stop at his grave at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy. Fr. Tolton, from his place in Eternity, I am sure is very grateful and proud to see an African American, Archbishop Gregory, like himself from Illinois, take his place in the College of Cardinals as one of the Holy Father’s College of advisors.
From another proud Illinoisan grateful to the Lord for the witness of both of them.
+Kevin W. Vann