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Posted February 21, 2009

Rollins Lambert

March 3, 1922 — January 25, 2009
A Beloved Mentor, Friend, Example

During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II stated: “The breath of God is within all of us.” Today we are blessed with the opportunity to reflect on God’s breath in Rollins Lambert.

St. Isidore once said: “A prudent man is one who sees from afar (porro videns)” According to Boethius, this is where we get the word providentia — foresight.

In the year 1991, Rollins wrote two commentaries in the study, Keep Your Hand On The Plow: The African American Presence in the Catholic Church. They give us a beautiful example of his prudence and foresight.

“We suggest that thought be given to creating a corps of African Americans in the Church [dedicated especially to evangelization] as we enter the third millennium to respond to the ‘new evangelization’ to which Pope John Paul II alerts us.”

“Studies need to be conducted on the history of evangelization of Black slaves. Where were there examples of effective evangelization? What models were used to evangelize? What were the personalities of those who evangelized? What part did geography, politics, and the social climate play?”

“Some free Blacks, as well as slaves, formed self-help communities, what is the story behind these communities? Are there any such self-help communities in the present history of the Church?” [At a time of economic crisis in our country, pursuing this idea of Rollins would be most apropos. There are people in this country who feel Washington, D.C. is the epicenter of our nation. Washington is attempting to bail us out, but unless self help communities are formed, bail outs alone won’t do the job!]

Another apropos topic for our times he addressed was the need to research African American brotherhoods (the confradias). He wrote, “These brotherhoods were found in Latin America and Brazil and exist to some extent today. Historically, they included Africans and mulattos, male and female, slave and free. It seems they did not exist in what is now U.S. territories. Why is this so?”

In line with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nunciandi, he addressed the need to study popular religiosity. “Within every culture popular religiosity helps to keep it religiously alive. A study of African American popular religiosity should be conducted asking questions like, what are its roots? What does its world of symbols look like, and what sense of Church does it foster?”

“Successful African American liturgies and preaching need to be studied to learn the causes of their effectiveness.”

In the study on African Americans, he concluded, “Only an African American can fully appreciate the African American culture to its fullest. Most new research on African Americans should be conducted by African American researchers.”

These are but a few examples of Rollins foresight and prudence that reflect God’s breath at work in him.

He was truly a man for all seasons, championing African Americans, social justice, evangelization, and cutting edge ideas. His mind was always at work. So too was his heart.

Rollins was very well known and respected in this country. And yet when he championed a cause he wasn’t doing it to champion himself — to amass personal prestige and self aggrandizement! It was always for the good of another.

When I looked for pictures of him in my scrape book, there weren’t many. As I furthered looked through the book, I found many of myself that Rollins had taken. He was forever there for me, as he was for so many others. If there is one outstanding quality he possessed, it was promoting others. I can’t count the number of times I experienced him encouraging others; giving them tips and taking them under his wing.

I would not be a columnist today was it not for the suggestions he gave me for good topics to write on, and he loved correcting my horrible spelling.

He liked to pray the divine office in Latin. It was not that he was trying to return to the old church in which he was ordained. Rather, he was cultured and loved the Latin language, as he did classical music, and especially Gregorian Chant. He was forever on the outlook for good plays, uplifting concerts and wholesome literature. And oh, how he studied and imbibed in his Indian culture.

He once confided that it was our liturgy that caused him to think about converting to Catholicism. [I don’t know how many people know it, but Rollins was responsible for composing the Church’s yearly liturgical calendar in this country.]

He not only converted to Catholicism, but then felt the call to become a priest. Even though he was a graduate of the University of Chicago, knew Latin very well, and was an outstanding student, he was told by seminary officials that it would be better to apply to an African American seminary, the archdiocese of Chicago wasn’t for him.

This was one of many indignities he had to swallow, and swallow he did. Thanks to Msgr. Rene Hillenbrand, the rector of Mundelein who took him in, he became the first Black priest for the archdiocese of Chicago.

Once when we were watching a movie on the antebellum age in the South in which dapper men and southern bells dressed to the hilt, I turned to Rollins and said, “That must have been a beautiful era.” He replied, “Yes, for some!”, and then not to embarrass me he let loose with one of those memorable laughs of his.

Rollins was blessed with a magnificent voice and stature. When he addressed social justice, that voice rang out forcefully and with the conviction of being there. And yet, as many indignities he endured, and as much as he was one with the sufferings of others, he exuded a certain beautiful discreteness.

The word discrete is connected to the idea of harvest, connoting cutting down corn, wheat, soy beans and other cereals. Rollins did speak of the difficult times he endured and the injustices of Blacks, but I never remember him dwelling on them out of resentment. If resentment did exist, he was quiet about it because he had cut out acrimony from his vocabulary that comes with hurt.

In Cardinal Newsman’s book, The Idea of a University, we have one of the most beautiful pictures of a gentleman in existence.

“A gentleman is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean in disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil. From a long sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves toward our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.”

This is vintage Lambert par excellence!

Our reflection on Rollins needs one more reflection to be complete. Why is it that we cross paths with people like him? Why this person and not another; why this happening and not another; why did God even create us?

We believe we are here because God breathed on us, and yet we live in mystery as to the wherewithal of our being. And then a person like Rollins Lambert comes into our lives, and suddenly we are filled with a spirit that prompts us to lift our lives to a higher level, to be more circumspect, inquisitive and to especially enter into the plight of others. Thanks to him, we better understand how the breath of God worked in him and how it should work in us. May that beautiful spirit of his continue to live on in us.