In Honor of 200 years of Catholicism in the U.S.
(Aerial shot of the Baltimore Basilica)
In 1789, when Pope Pius VI issued the Papal Bull Ex Hac Apostolicae, John Carroll was appointed the first bishop of the newly formed colonies which would eventually become the USA and would begin a legacy that has endured under the patronage of The Blessed Virgin Mary, for over 200 years.
(Archbishop John Carroll)
Archbishop Carroll, a born-Marylander, grew up around the aegis of a religious culture which arose in response to persecution by Protestants in other colonies. His roots did not deter him however from strongly encouraging Catholics in his diocese to immerse themselves in society and not just in their familiar Catholic circles. This was a new way of being Catholic for many in this new land. He strongly encouraged what would eventually come to be called ecumenism, as well as promoting the distinct yet complementary roles of Church and state – something not previously envisioned in European society – as well as fostered a new concept of freedom of religion which served as the bedrock upon which the state of Maryland was founded.
“Behold henceforth, all generations shall call me Blessed.”
(Augusto Stoppoloni, 1878, recreation of Ottaviano Nelli’s, Madonna del Belvedere (affresco, 188 x 250 cm; Gubbio, Santa Maria Nuova)
The Basilica of the Assumption – America’s First Cathedral, established in 1821 and located in the first diocese in the United States, was the site of the cathedra – or chair of the new Archbishop, as well as being the location of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Plenary Councils of Baltimore in 1852, 1866 and 1884, as well as being host to 10 provincial councils.
(Laying the cornerstone of the Basilica)
These councils, the first like them in the New World, led to the formulation of the Baltimore Catechism, the founding of the Catholic University of America (CUA), and the beginnings of the Church in North America which would eventually grow to comprise almost 200 dioceses and archdioceses.
In 1937, the Baltimore Basilica was elevated to the status of a Minor Basilica by Pope Pius XI. And after being placed on the register of National Landmarks in 1972, it was also designated a national shrine in 1993.
Religious Liberty & Collegiality were meant to be hallmarks of the design and construction of this Cathedral.
In the words of John Waite, writer for the Journal of Sacred Architecture,
“The new cathedral to be built in Baltimore needed to be both “American” and “modern,” (Archbishop Carroll) believed. It could not be Gothic, which anti-Catholic forces would use against the Church by tying it back to Europe and the Middle Ages and domination by the Vatican.
Architecturally literate, the bishop of Baltimore had been educated in Europe, where he became interested in neo-classical architecture, then considered the most fashionable and progressive architecture of the time. He was raised to the episcopacy in 1790 in the chapel of Lulworth Castle in England, and it has been noted that the chapel may have been the inspiration for classical architecture later manifested in the Baltimore Cathedral. […]“The Gothic style has great beauty and spiritual strength, but it speaks to the past,” he said, when first presented with a Gothic design. “Our cathedral should share the perspective of the new American nation. It will speak to the future in the neoclassical style of the national capitol in Washington.”
(Architectural layout of the Basilica from a side-view)
According to Jack Waite, chief architect of the Basilica’s early 2000s restoration project – “Carroll wanted a symbol for the Catholic Church that would look to the future and would be a symbol of the importance of the church in the United States.”
(Knights of Columbus stand at attention for 2006 grand reopening after remodeling of the Basilica)
As the current Archbishop William Lori has stated: “The Basilica stands today as a shining reminder of our nation’s unflagging commitment to religious freedom and serves as the cradle of the Catholic Church in the United States.”
Another early bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Cardinal James Gibbons, speaking of the Church’s relationship with the state, once asserted that,
“The Church is not committed to any form of civil government.” He would continue, “The Government holds over us, the aegis of its protection, without interfering with us in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Christ. Our country has liberty without license, and authority without despotism.”
Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, as the representative of Pope John Paul stood in the Baltimore Cathedral commemorating the bicentennial of John Carroll’s appointment, repeating similar words to those of Cardinal Gibbons, to great approval. This theme of the separation of church and state was not without its controversy however.
(Cardinal James Gibbons)
The liberty expounded in America over the course of the 200 years since Archbishop Carrol first laid the cornerstone of this monument to American Catholicism has faced considerable scrutiny from Cardinals and Popes when it is thought to exceed its boundaries. A tug-of-war has been ongoing between Rome and the American Hierarchy, over the limits of this freedom and the right relationship of Church and State, eventually culminating in the encyclical Testem Benevolentiaen of Pope Leo XIII. Some of this type of scrutiny continues to this day – with concerns being expressed most recently by Pope Francis who identifies an ideology called “Americanism” sometimes being subtly expressed in U.S. Catholic media, in a way which can seem to undermine the Rome when so-called freedom is held above obedience.
John Courtney Murray S.J., a recent protagonist of the 20th century, helped to solidify a healthier notion of the relation of freedom to faith however, when Cardinal Spellman, another pivotal American Cardinal appointed him a peritus at the second session of the Second Vatican Council. (These same themes would later express themselves poignantly in the famous Ratzinger-Habermas dialogue, which envisioned a non-coercive church and state dynamic, which encourages a sort of cross pollination (a frequent theme in Ratzinger’s thought) between the two, so that they can harmoniously build upon each other and fortify each other.)
The special appointment of Fr. Murray by Cardinal Spellman culminated in his becoming the architect of one of the most controversial documents of Vatican II – Dignitatis Humanae – the Council’s decree on religious liberty, which placed a special emphasis on freedom to follow ones conscience, freedom from coercive governments in the practice of one’s faith, and which solidified the teaching on religious liberty or the intrinsic freedom, provided by God for the practice of one’s faith as a dynamic relationship between an individual and God. This ensured that the religious impulse which spontaneously arises in an individual is to be fostered and not suppressed, even when that impulse may erroneously lead one to practice a faith different from what Christ through his Church has taught authoritatively. One’s conscience, – ideally well-formed, – is seen in this manner to be a necessary component in one’s search for and journey towards ultimate truth.
(John Courtney Murray)
This new Basilica in America has also fostered and seen many saints walk beneath its majestic dome over the centuries since it’s founding, including perhaps most prominently, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton – a wife, mother, eventual nun, and founder of the first Catholic Schools in the US. Her Baltimore home is located on the same site as the first Catholic seminary a few blocks away.
(From left to right: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Mother Seton House, and St. Mary’s Seminary)
Blessed Seelos, following St. John Neumann were a couple of other well-known local figures – both pastors of the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus, located just a block away from the Cathedral.
(From left to right: St. John Neumann C.S.S.r., Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos, and the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus)
In 1877, Blessed Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, was ordained at the Basilica. His cause for canonization is actively proceeding, being aided by Archbishop Lori, who also serves as the Grand Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.
(Blessed Fr. Michael McGivney)
Another “saint” of Maryland, Mother Mary Lange founded the nearby Oblate Sisters of Providence, which became the first black religious order, while she was the first black Mother Superior. Her cause for canonization is being actively pursued as well.
(Mother Mary Lange)
Saints Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II have also made appearances at the Basilica and in the surrounding state of Maryland.
Mother Teresa came in 1996, to accept the vows of over 30 new professed religious of her order – The Missionaries of Charity; and Pope John Paul II, – in an event remembered in the minds of many Marylanders, in 1995, to celebrate a packed mass in Camden Yards, the Orioles baseball stadium, on his famous pilgrimage to America.
(Left: Mother Teresa speaking at the Basilica; Right: Pope John Paul II leaning on his crozier at Camden Yards)
Many other popes and saints, known and unknown, have visited this Shrine in honor of Our Blessed Mother over the years.
In remembering these 200 years of Catholicism in America, special honor is due Our Lady.
As my grandfather and theologian James Likoudis remarked in an article entitled Our Lady, Star of Evangelization,
“As always in the past 2,000 years of the Church, it is Our Lady Who leads us to Christ Jesus. “Evangelization” – as it is called today – She has pointed out to us, depends on our own holiness – making proper use of the immense graces Christ has confided to His Church… She is truly the Mother of the Church, the Mother of Christians.
Pope Paul VI in his magnificent Evangeli Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World – a document indispensable for us today) puts it: “We say to all: our evangelizing zeal must spring from true holiness of life. . .Our Lady is the true ‘Star of Evangelization’. . .On the morning of Pentecost She watched with Her prayer the beginning of evangelization prompted by the Holy Spirit.” We have seen something of the role She has played in the history of the Church. It is well for us to pray the words from the same saintly pontiff, that Our Blessed Lady may play such a role in our times: “May She be the Star of the Evangelization ever renewed which the Church, ever docile to Our Lord’s command, must promote and accomplish, especially in these times which are difficult but full of hope.”” (James Likoudis)
Obviously the Assumption of Our Lady is also due our special attention, as the dogma upon which the Basilica of the Assumption is established. (And having just celebrated the Feast of the Assumption today, as of the writing of this essay.) (Further note: This article was published on the Feast of the fulfillment of the octave of the Assumption, namely the Coronation of Our Lady.)
In remembering Our Lady’s Assumption, what more fitting words could be found than those given us by Pope Pius XII who, in Munificentissimus Deus, infallibly declared Her blessed Assumption to be a divinely revealed truth, …”God, who from all eternity regards Mary with a most favorable and unique affection, has “when the fullness of time came”(2) put the plan of his providence into effect in such a way that all the privileges and prerogatives he had granted to her in his sovereign generosity were to shine forth in her in a kind of perfect harmony.” After proclaiming these words, he then solemnly declared,
“For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. (44). . . Consequently, just as the glorious resurrection of Christ was an essential part and the final sign of this victory, so that struggle which was common to the Blessed Virgin and her divine Son should be brought to a close by the glorification of her virginal body, for the same Apostle says: “When this mortal thing hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.””(46)
(The Assumption, depicted on the saucer dome of the Basilica)
As solemnities in the Catholic Church are followed by octaves which culminate in feasts which serve as the high point of the solemnity, it is also fitting, that Mary’s Assumption is fulfilled eight days later by none other than the Feast of Her Coronation.
(Our Lady’s Coronation, by Blessed John of Fiesole OP (Fra Angelico) – (1430-32))
Special notice should additionally be given to the fact that the solemn definition of the Assumption was given to the Universal Church on a Jubilee year, in 1950.
This leads us to consider a considerable grace for our own day, namely the jubilee of the 200th Anniversary of this Basilica of the Assumption, the inspiration for this essay, and which coincides so closely with another Jubilee of the Universal Church, namely, The Jubilee of the Third Millennium. This jubilee was so emphatically promoted by the Pope who himself, crossed this threshold of the Third Millennium, with enormous hope, but also with a special challenge for the Church.
As the great Marian Pope John Paul II wrote in his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente on the significance of Jubilees, especially those of our day,
“[…] [P]reparing for the Year 2000 has become as it were a hermeneutical key of my Pontificate. It is […] aimed at an increased sensitivity to all that the Spirit is saying to the Church and to the Churches (cf. Rev 2:7 ff.). […] In a certain sense, all the Popes of the past century prepared for this Jubilee. […] The individual Churches have their own role to play, as they celebrate with their own Jubilees significant stages in the salvation history of the various peoples. […] In Christianity time has a fundamental importance. In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, time becomes a dimension of God, who is himself eternal[…] From this relationship of God with time there arises the duty to sanctify time. […] In the Church, we celebrate the jubilees of parishes and dioceses. All these personal and community Jubilees have an important and significant role in the lives of individuals and communities.”
How much more significant is the 200-year Jubilee of the Church in America at the dawn of the 3rd millennium?
The Pope continues,
“[…] In the Church’s history every jubilee is prepared for by Divine Providence.[…]The future of the world and the Church belongs to the younger generation, to those who, born in this century, will reach maturity in the next, the first century of the new millennium.[…]One thing is certain: everyone is asked to do as much as possible to ensure that the great challenge of the Year 2000 is not overlooked, for this challenge certainly involves a special grace of the Lord for the Church and for the whole of humanity.[…] Among the most fervent petitions which the Church makes to the Lord during this important time, is that unity among all Christians of the various confessions will increase until they reach full communion.[…] The best [action] for the new millennium, therefore, can only be expressed in a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the life of every individual and of the whole Church.[…] It is […] necessary to inspire in all the faithful a true longing for holiness, a deep desire for conversion and personal renewal in a context of ever more intense prayer and of solidarity with one’s neighbour, especially the most needy.[…] In this eschatological perspective, believers should be called to a renewed appreciation of the theological virtue of hope, which […] on the one hand encourages the Christian not to lose sight of the final goal which gives meaning and value to life, and on the other, offers solid and profound reasons for a daily commitment to transform reality in order to make it correspond to God’s plan.[…] two commitments should characterize [our efforts especially -] meeting the challenge of secularism and dialogue with the great religions. […] [I]t will be fitting to broach the vast subject of the crisis of civilization, which has become apparent especially in the West, which is highly developed from the standpoint of technology but is interiorly impoverished by its tendency to forget God or to keep him at a distance. This crisis of civilization must be countered by the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice and liberty, which find their full attainment in Christ. […] For her part the Church “seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ himself under the lead of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served”. […] In our own day too, the Spirit is the principal agent of the new evangelization.
(Basilica’s Holy Spirit Dome with sky-light)
The Church has endured for 2000 years. Like the mustard seed in the Gospel, she has grown and become a great tree, able to cover the whole of humanity with her branches (cf. Mt 13:31-32). The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, thus addresses the question of membership in the Church and the call of all people to belong to the People of God: “All are called to be part of this Catholic unity of the new People of God … And there belong to it or are related to it in various ways, the Catholic faithful as well as all who believe in Christ, and indeed the whole of mankind, which by the grace of God is called to salvation”.(35) Pope Paul VI, in the Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam illustrates how all mankind is involved in the plan of God, and emphasizes the various circles of the dialogue of salvation.(36) Therefore, ever since the apostolic age, the Church’s mission has continued without interruption within the whole human family. […] In the future too, the Church must continue to be missionary: indeed missionary outreach is part of her very nature. With the fall of the great anti-Christian systems in Europe, first of Nazism and then of Communism, there is urgent need to bring once more the liberating message of the Gospel to the men and women of Europe.(39) Furthermore, as the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio affirms, the modern world reflects the situation of the Areopagus of Athens, where Saint Paul spoke(40). Today there are many “areopagi”, and very different ones: these are the vast sectors of contemporary civilization and culture, of politics and economics. The more the West is becoming estranged from its Christian roots, the more it is becoming missionary territory, taking the form of many different “areopagi”. “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (1:18). The Incarnate Word is thus the fulfilment of the yearning present in all the religions of mankind: this fulfilment is brought about by God himself and transcends all human expectations. It is the mystery of grace. In Christ, religion is no longer a “blind search for God” (cf. Acts 17:27) but the response of faith to God who reveals himself. “(Tertio Millennio Adveniente)
To further reinforce this message, Nostra Aetate, a document from Vatican II succinctly states,
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.” (Nostra Aetate, 4)
It can be seen for us today, that since The U.S.A. is a microcosm of the world with all its diversity of people, cultures and heritage, and since Christ has revealed that His Church is the fulfillment of God’s plan for the salvation of all peoples in time and eternity, then we are left to with no other choice but to conclude that the Mother Church of America is destined to be a place for all peoples to come to be enlightened by the truth, and to eventually come to know and worship the one true God, who although formerly unknown to these people, is being revealed.
As St. Paul says of those Greeks on the on the hill of the Areopagus, praying to an unknown God – “You are religious in every way”. Likewise he says to us today, on the hill on which our beloved Basilica is built, – the religions of today, with their implicit religious elements, require a purification so that, the people of our day may find Christ speaking to them through us, inviting them and us to take off our sandals and walk on Holy Ground towards the one who is always inviting us deeper into his sacred mysteries.