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.
What is a Sacrament?
Maybe the notion that our reception of the sacraments helps to make us all equal is an obvious point to some of you. Perhaps you might already be at the finish line with a conclusion you have gleaned from my opening paragraphs. Even still, I ask you to follow me all the way through in my main objective of showing more deeply how the sacramental theology of the Church helps to demonstrate the crux of my argument in a beautiful way. So, let’s start with the basic definition of a sacrament.
The Catholic dictionary on CatholicCulture.org defines it as “a sensible sign, instituted by Jesus Christ, by which invisible grace and inward sanctification are communicated to the soul.” By “inward sanctification” being communicated to the soul the primary focus of the sacraments is the interior spiritual life of the individual receiving them. Though the use of external displays (rites) and objects (sacramentals) may be accompanied in the administering of the sacraments, these sacred mysteries of our faith not only transform the activities and the objects used to be holy things set apart, but they also have the main purpose of transforming the souls that receive them into holy creatures set apart for the glory of God.
How do we get a Sacrament?
Now that we know what a sacrament is, we also must recognize that we have to get them in a specific way. We can’t just pull anything together and get one of these things. In fact, many of us already intuit this truth in a much simpler way than the sort-of complicated theological approach I am about to use to get at this. We know that certain objects are used in the effecting of sacraments. We also know that specific words must be said within a collection of precise actions we normally call the liturgy or rites. And, finally, we know that not just any Joe Schmo could come up and use those objects and say those words. Rather, certain persons must be present.
Thus, we as Catholics recognize sacraments normally take place within an already established context where the correct objects and the right words are being employed by people who are truly suitable for the job, and it is when the sacraments are removed from such context that we know that something is off or an extraordinary case might be taking place.
So, in regards to actually getting a sacrament, it looks like we need at least three things. The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott explains: “All these Sacraments are perfected by three (elements) namely: by things (which are) as it where the matter; by words (which are) as it were the form, and; by the person of the minister who confers the Sacrament with the intention of doing that which the Church does.” In summary, in order to actually get a sacrament the three things we need are the objects/matter, the words/form (think “formula” – I used the example of the “Krabby Patty Secret Formula” from SpongeBob SquarePants for my catechism students), and the person/minister who confects it. Ott goes on to state, “If any of these (elements) is lacking, the Sacrament is not effected [sic]”; ergo, you have an invalid sacrament.
Out of the 3 things necessary . . .
I bring all this up in order to arrive at this point. When it to comes to the confection of sacraments that are valid and thus efficacious in the grace that they bestow through the ministry of the Church, all we need are the three above elements in their correct administration. However, notice one important thing. What is not included in the list of elements that compose a valid sacrament? Race, color, ethnicity, nationality, and economic class are all left out. And it takes none of these temporal human distinctions in order to receive them, either.
Just as a valid priest is a valid priest, if you ordain him properly, a valid sacrament is a valid sacrament, if you confect it properly. Throughout time as people moved out from each other and developed distinct cultures and societies, we have found ways to separate ourselves from one another for both understandable and reprehensible reasons. Additionally, inequities formed between people in social classes due to bustling economies that at times left some to fall through the cracks of society and never quite catch up with their neighbors. Even more, others were born with natural talents that allowed them to succeed above those who were either not given such innate abilities or were born with crippling disabilities that made success even more of a challenge to attain. And to top it all off, certainly, there have been times when man has used some of these and other differences to derive excuses to separate from his neighbor even when it came to the worship of God in churches – think back to segregation on American Sunday mornings decades ago.
But even during such times when Black and White Catholics failed to worship together in the same pews, the sacraments transcended these differences. For, no one could truly say (and be correct at the same time) that the Eucharist offered by a Fr. Tolton and received by a Daniel Rudd was a counterfeit Jesus because both the offeror and the receiver were a little too dark in their skin tone. And no one could validly claim that a poor bride and groom’s marriage would have been a good candidate for an annulment solely because their nuptial Mass and reception lacked the good tastes and adornment of the ceremonies of wealthy newlyweds.
Moreover, as stated earlier, the primary focus of every sacrament is the “inward sanctification” of the interior life of the soul not the outward appearance of the body or the presence of money in the pocket. Normally speaking, (though God is not limited in the distribution of His own graces) in order to obtain the full benefit of sacramental grace we must have the one life of Christ in us that transcends all of the distinctions we give ourselves or are born with. Though I identify myself as a “Black Catholic” I know full well that the life of Christ in me that I must help spread to others transcends my race, and the New Covenant that Our Lord established is designed to draw all men of all shades to Himself. Furthermore, it is through the sacraments that the soul receives “invisible grace,” grace that none of us can earn purely on our own, regardless of whatever statuses in the temporal life we maintain for ourselves.
When we try to separate ourselves from one another or place ourselves in superiority over our neighbor for whatever puffed-up reason it is the sacraments that equalize all of us to the same level – a sinner in need of the grace that the sacraments bestow. Thus, the sacraments are the “Great Equalizer” because although we may enter our churches at different levels of life, privilege, and opportunity, we are stripped of all that when the Son of God appears on the altar. We may enter our churches with a sense of being better than our neighbor, but we all get humbled in the confessional. We may go through our entire lives with more talent, education, prestige, and friends than others, but we all end up as beggars knocking on the door of eternity and needing the Last Rites offered by the Church to make sure we end up tapping on the right door. Lastly, when we get to these various moments of sacramental thirst in our lives we all come to a minister (or become the minister in the case of marriage) who only got to that position through the very same graces from God that we all needed in the first place.
Christ said it Himself, “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and He reminds us of this in His sacraments. Either we accept this and allow ourselves to be made brothers and sisters through His sacred mysteries or we all perish together as the nothingness that is found without Him.