Devotion to Julia Greeley grows as beatification cause advances in Rome

An icon of Julia Greeley, the humble African American lay woman who received the greatest honor in the history of the Archdiocese of Denver and has been declared a Servant of God, is becoming increasingly popular as her cause for canonization advances in Rome. 

The image, which was commissioned by the chancellor’s office for the Archdiocese of Denver, depicts the suffering endured by Julia during her childhood under slavery – as portrayed by her closed right eye, which she almost lost after it was grazed by a lash that struck her mother – and is being venerated across the country along with that of other distinguished Black Catholics from the United States on the road to sainthood. This group of devout Catholics also includes Servant of God Mother Mary Lange,Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, Venerable Henriette Delille, and Venerable Pierre Toussaint. 

“All the saints have something about them that makes them stand out – they’re not all born in the same mold. Even when people are praying for something, they know the life of the person they’re praying to”, said Father Blaine Burkey, O.F.M, a local champion of Julia’s cause and author of In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley. “Julia Greeley and a number of these holy African Americans send a very important message to the Church and the world in our time. Their example can help the Church and the world understand what it means to be treated poorly because of your skin, but also know how to respond. Julia Greeley had some terrible things happen to her during her lifetime, but spent her whole life helping people, especially people who were from the very same race that persecuted her.” 

The example of Julia Greeley and these prominent figures was specially highlighted during Black History Month. A parish in Cleveland, for example, displayed banners of these holy witnesses throughout the month. Likewise, different publications highlighted the lives of these African American Catholics: Our Sunday Visitor published a book titled Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles dedicated its magazine cover in their honor, and other articles focusing on Julia Greeley were written out of Brooklyn and New Jersey.  

Julia Greeley’s cause advances 

Denver in particular has a reason to rejoice after Julia Greeley’s cause for canonization took a step forward in the Vatican, an event that has also increased awareness about the Servant of God. 

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints recently issued a decree certifying that the Archdiocese of Denver had done everything according to the rules for conducting a local investigation. This was the first step of what could be called the “Roman phase” of the beatification process.  

The first phase was the archdiocesan inquiry, which concluded when the Archdiocese of Denver sent 36 volumes of documents, totaling 11,750 pages, to the Vatican in September 2018. These documents detailed the investigation of Greeley’s life and virtues that the archdiocese had conducted since Dec. 18, 2016. The Roman phase began when the documents were opened by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  

After the approval of the work carried out by the archdiocese, the Vatican will advance the cause by allowing the Roman Postulator for the cause, Dr. Waldery Hilgeman, to arrange for someone to process and organize the information into a book. This book would then be published and sent to three different commissions that study the process, Father Burkey explained. 

If these three commissions agree that Julia Greeley practiced the virtues to an extraordinary, heroic degree, the Pope would then declare her venerable. 

The road from “venerable” to “blessed” can be long: in some cases, it has taken centuries, in others, only a handful of years. Given the need for a miracle in order to be declared a blessed, Father Burkley said that, after that, “the process can move on only if God is ready to move it.” 

For people who are interested in helping advance Julia Greeley’s cause for beatification, Father Burkey assured that there are two ways in which the faithful can participate. The first and best way is by asking for her intercession. 

“There’s no point in going on with a cause if people are not asking for her intercession. Part of what needs to be proven is that people have considered her an intercessor and have received favors through her,” he said. “There’s thousands of little things already happening, people have received favors, sometimes serious things, but not all of them can be proven.” 

Secondly, the Franciscan friar said that another way of helping Greeley’s cause for beatification is by assisting with the heavy financial burden. The organization postulating the cause must pay for all the work carried out in Rome, including the investigation process and any celebration following a beatification or canonization. 

“The whole purpose of beatifying or canonizing someone is to find people that can be help up as models and intercessors,” Father Burkley said. “The Church itself holds them up as an example to be followed and also [assures] that there is someone in haven who can intercede for us. 

“Julia Greeley shows us that we can forgive and learn to love everybody as she did. It’s a message that she sends to the Church, and, at this time, it’s a very important message. Let us ask for her intercession.” 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.