Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Simply Catholic and author of several OSV booklets and pamphlets. He is also author of a forthcoming children’s book series on theology and a forthcoming biography of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I. He is the editor of Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood, recently published by OSV.
He recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about this new collection of essays about the lives of the six Black Catholics from the United States whose causes are under formal consideration by the Catholic Church for canonization.
Michael R. Heinlein: I’ve long admired and been inspired by these tremendous figures, particularly in their suffering. Over the years, I’ve tried to bring more awareness to their stories. Their causes, I’ve observed, unfortunately sometimes don’t get the attention they deserve or that other more high profile causes do. Then, in this past year, my own conviction to make them better known intensified in the wake of the social upheaval we experienced.
Beyond that, we know that racism also exists in the Church, particularly in this country. I hope that anyone who saw or experienced the racial unrest of the past year asked themselves what they can do to contribute to the advancement of racial justice. We all have to do something. One thing I knew I could do was to highlight these important and life-giving stories. All six of these men and women emerged from the black Catholic community, and they are the only six black Catholics currently under consideration for canonization. A few other pieces of writing and projects related to these six figures led me to the idea for this book.
CWR: Can you mention something about each one of these men and women that stands out to you, especially in light of where we are in 2021?
Heinlein: During this pandemic, we have experienced a renewed corporate suffering. This same suffering is something each of the figures in the book experienced in regard to racism. So while we might not be able to relate to racial injustice, we can all relate to their stories of suffering because that speaks to the very essence of what it means to be human. The stories expose to us how racism’s wicked tentacles reach even into the Church. The lives of these holy men and women exhibit the virtues that ours should. As we face the struggles, hardships, and difficulties of life, their stories give us a greater awareness of racism’s ugliness. But they also shed light on how to respond to suffering, pain, and mistreatment.
It was not the practice of these men and women to return hatred with hatred. They did not wallow in their suffering. Rather, through the mystery of the cross, they transformed their suffering into something life-giving and fruitful by their virtue.
In Pierre Toussaint, we see an enslaved free man choose generosity and charity rather than allow himself to be embittered and angry about his circumstances. Mother Henriette Delille was a woman of persistence and perseverance who would not take “no” for an answer when she knew that Christ was calling her to give her life to him completely—even when she was first rejected from religious life because of her race. Father Augustus Tolton offers a model for unity and integration and especially racial harmony within the Church—despite his own experiences with continuous rejection and mistreatment at the hands of many in the Church.
In Mother Mary Lange, we are presented with a creative and pioneering woman who models humility and obedience and prayerfulness. In Julia Greeley, we are met with a living embodiment of what it means to make Christ’s heart our own. Sister Thea Bowman exuded a contagious Gospel joy and a resolve to stand up for the dignity of all, even in the face of her own terminal illness.
CWR: The issue of racism has been, to put it mildly, hotly debated, even among Catholics, in the past year. How do you think this book might help in that discussion?
Heinlein: I wouldn’t want to pretend that this book offers the solutions to our many challenging problems regarding race and racial injustice in America. Obviously that is a multifaceted problem that has been raging even before this country’s inception. What I hope that this book might accomplish, or play a small part in accomplishing, is to give all Catholics a place to begin the discussion.
Catholics are divided on almost everything these days and conversations on race are no exception. I hope greater awareness of these men and women can help facilitate these conversations by reorienting and perhaps shifting our perspectives. In this book we explore the figures in light of what should be a common denominator of our faith in Jesus Christ: our call to holiness. Isn’t that our most basic and common call? And isn’t that the only way forward?
These men and women faced unfathomable challenges. But they purified themselves in the fire. They persevered despite their persecution. And they did so by the simple act of being Christlike. When you look at a complex issue like race in that vein, the way forward appears much more apparent.
CWR: The book makes the point, in various ways, that while physical slavery is a horrible evil, the slavery of souls to sin is even worse. How might reflecting on the history of slavery inform a deeper awareness of the fight against slavery to sin?
Heinlein: Many people, including our bishops in their 2018 pastoral letter on racism, have noted that racism has been called the “original sin” of our country. There is no doubt that racism is both prevalent in our society and a persistent and systemic moral evil.
But how did we get here? How does racism even exist? It exists because we have failed, time and again throughout human history, to recognize the fundamental, God-given dignity of the “other.” We crown ourselves king and answer to the name “master,” believing it is one’s “right” to do so. In short, racism exists because we are sinners. Those who enslaved other persons did so only because they, in some way, were enslaved themselves by sin.
CWR: You’ve received some criticism about the book, with one critic claiming that you are “whitewashing” history. How do you respond to such attacks?
Heinlein: Obviously, this is a highly sensitive topic. This book, as I outlined in its introduction, and which Archbishop Gomez made clear in his foreword to it, is meant to underscore the holiness of these men and women and help make their stories more widely known. I would think that most savvy readers would find it readily apparent that this book is not meant to provide exhaustive, definitive biographies of these individuals. They would also find that in no way did we ignore how the ugliness of racism that manifested itself in their lives. However, we intentionally limited our scope given our aim with the book is to introduce readers to these individuals with short and approachable biographies to, as I mentioned above, provide a place for greater understanding to flourish.
My hope is that many other Catholics continue to tell these stories, and that there will be more scholarship and research into the lives of these six figures. Ultimately, we want to bring greater attention to their causes of canonization and greater recourse to their intercession before the throne of God. These stories are Catholic stories, and all Catholics should work to share them.
CWR: What are some things, in your opinion, the Church (especially in the U.S.), might consider doing to address the reality and legacy of racism?
Heinlein: Certainly, I’m far from an expert on these matters. But it seems to me that a common sense approach to overcoming racial injustice in our time would have to start with getting to know someone who might look different from you, have a different cultural background or a different life experience. We need to be intentional about socializing together and praying together. Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago, one of the contributors to the book, has written and spoken very eloquently and convincingly on this.
The various discussion groups that began in response to the bishops’ pastoral letter have started us on this path. But we need much more. And we need to be intentional about including diversity in our lives. That can sound simple, but if the Church can foster greater communication and understanding across racial boundaries, that itself would be monumental in our time. Ultimately, as Catholics, we should work for greater unity by praying together and gathering together more around the Lord’s altar.
I’d also like to point out that in their pastoral on racism, the U.S. bishops proposed that we promote greater awareness of the Black Catholics on the road to sainthood. I’m proud that our book responds directly and concretely to that request. As I mentioned before, that is a starting point itself on the long road ahead. I think it will be a blessed and positive development to see these individuals depicted in sacred art in our churches once, please God, they are beatified and canonized. That’s just one way we can begin overcoming racism, too: to see Black Catholics such as these six who have, in all likelihood, achieved the crown of victory to which we all aspire.
CWR: Final thoughts?
Heinlein: I’d be remiss without expressing to you my deep gratitude to all those who have contributed to this project. I cannot thank enough Archbishop José H. Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for participating in this project. In doing so, he underscores the importance of making these holy men and women better known among our Catholic brothers and sisters. The contributors to the book, who offer reflections on each of the six individuals in light of their virtues, make the project infinitely better than anything I could have done alone. It was an honor and privilege to work with each of them: Bishop Joseph N. Perry, Father Josh Johnson, Sister Josephine Garrett, Gloria Purvis, Elizabeth Scalia, and Peter Jesserer Smith.
And I’m humbled beyond words for the outpouring of support and encouragement for this project that has been expressed by so many in the hierarchy who have offered endorsements, many of which are included in the book. My intention for this project, since its inception, has been that this book be fully and truly Catholic in scope and approach. And, thanks be to God, by his grace, I believe we have achieved that.
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