books ordering info
Arx Publishing, LLC
P.O. Box 1333
Merchantville NJ 08109, USA

Tarpeian Rock

An Annual Literary Magazine

"Hinc ad Tarpeiam sedem et Capitolia ducit
aurea nunc, olim siluestribus horrida dumis."

                    --Virgil's Aeneid, VIII, l. 347-8
Articles from
the 2019 issue...

The Kisses That Killed Prejudice

La Pucelle

"It's Either Surrender or Fight!"

Return to
Tarpeian Rock homepage

The Kisses that Killed Prejudice

by Claudio R. Salvucci

Father ToltonOn a cold January morning, in the year of Our Lord 1892, the Reverend Dr. Henry L. Phillips, entered a Catholic Church and stayed to observe High Mass. He was not himself Catholic. In fact, he was rector of the Crucifixion Protestant Episcopal Church of Philadelphia. But he was a black minister serving a black congregation, and he was there for a special event: the Third Colored Catholic Congress, whose purpose was to gather black Catholic leaders across the United States. Its opening Mass was celebrated by the first recognized black priest in the nation: Father Augustus Tolton. And assisting Father Tolton that day were two white priests: Father John Burke as deacon, and Father John Griffin as subdeacon.
     Two days later, Reverend Phillips had occasion to address the delegates to the congress. He said that during the Mass on Tuesday, he had been watching with the closest interest these two white priests at Father Tolton’s side. And what he saw there made a great impression on him. In no other denomination, he said, could such a thing be seen, or would it be permitted.
     Because extensive changes to the Mass have taken place since that time, it is easy, perhaps, to miss the full significance of what Reverend Phillips saw that Tuesday morning in Philadelphia. We might simply assume that his remarks merely involve a black priest serving at the altar with white ones. Of course, this would indeed have been a remarkable image in an environment of widespread racial prejudice. But yet that alone doesn’t seem to entirely justify Phillips’ rather striking remarks. Would black and white ministers together really be unseen or unpermitted in any other denomination? Why would a few white priests sitting in on Father Tolton’s Mass be such cause for amazement?
     Well, it’s not recorded what exactly Phillips saw that struck him at that Mass. But we can make an educated guess simply by placing the ceremony in its proper liturgical context.
     Now if you have been to any traditional Latin High Mass, you’ve probably seen that it includes a number of kisses. These are known as the solita oscula. When the deacon and subdeacon hand an object to the priest or receive one from him, they kiss both the object and the hand of the celebrant. Also, the subdeacon kneels before the celebrant and kisses his hand after reading the Epistle. Then the deacon does the same thing before reading the Gospel. To anyone carefully watching the activity at the altar, these kisses are quite prominent, as are the many other places where the deacon and subdeacon act as humble servants to the celebrting priest.


The Young Catholic's Bookshelf

     But imagine these rubrics carried out at Tolton’s Mass on that winter morning in 1892. Two white priests publicly serving, kneeling before, and especially, and repeatedly, kissing the hands of a black priest.
     That sight alone could well have been positively shocking in a country that was going through what some historians regard as the low point of American race relations. In that same year of 1892, the number of lynchings would reach a horrible peak of 230, never to be exceeded since. The supposedly “gay” nineties would see new state constitutions disenfranchising voters throughout the South, as well as the northern-dominated Supreme Court enshrining “separate but equal” in Plessy vs. Ferguson.
     In his address to the Third Colored Catholic Congress, Dr. Phillips would go on to say that it was true, he knew, that at the altars of the Catholic Church there was no distinction as to color, and that Church has a lever possessed by none other to secure for the colored people the same rights in the workshops as it freely grants them in its sanctuaries. If it exerts its powerful influence to this end, he said, it will be scared by the rush of colored people to its fold and, as for himself, he would bid his three boys Godspeed if they desired to enter the ranks of that or any other Church which would secure for them their just rights.
     As American Catholics we have not, sadly, always made use of that lever as well as we should, and our failings in that regard have undoubtedly been the reason that the rush of black Americans into the Catholic Church never quite materialized the way that Daniel Rudd and the other delegates had hoped. Liturgically, also, we seem to have lost all patience for these little gestures of service that undoubtedly so moved Reverend Phillips.
     But it is worth remembering that in one of our country’s most shameful hours, an observant clergyman saw how justice and equality could flow out in torrents, if we could only learn to lower ourselves before the altar of God, to see Christ in every human being, and to kill every last prejudice with a kiss.

Claudio R. Salvucci is the founder of Ancilla Press ( and has written books and articles for Latin Mass Magazine, New Liturgical Movement, and Liturgical Arts Journal.

Home | The Tarpeian Rock | The Arx Literary Catalog