City on a Hill – reflections on 200 years of America’s First cathedral on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

City on a Hill – reflections on 200 years of America’s First cathedral on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary August 15, 2022

City on a Hill – Reflecting on 200 years of Catholicism in the U.S.


In 1789, when Pope Pius VI issued the Papal Bull Ex Hac Apostolicae, John Carroll was appointed the first bishop of the US and would begin a legacy that has endured under the patronage of Our Lady, for over 200 years.


(A portrait of Archbishop Carroll)


Archbishop Carroll, a born-Marylander grew up under 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 the familiar Catholic circles. He strongly encouraged ecumenism, the separation of Church and state, and the freedom of religion which was the bedrock upon which Maryland was founded.


“Behold henceforth, all generations shall call me Blessed.”


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 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Plenary Councils of Baltimore in 1852, 1866 and 1884. It was also the host of 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, and the beginnings of the Church in 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. After being placed on the register of National Landmarks in 1972, it was designated a national shrine in 1993. 


Religious Liberty & Collegiality were meant to be the hallmarks of the design and subsequent 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,” he 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.”


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.”


Cardinal Gibbons, a former head of the Archdiocese of Baltimore 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 was not without its controversy however. 


The liberty expounded in America over the course of these 200 years has faced considerable scrutiny from Cardinals and Popes. A kind of tug-of-war has been going on between Rome and the American Hierarchy, over the limits of this freedom and the separation of Church and State, culminating in the encyclical Testem Benevolentiaen of Pope Leo XIII and continued to this day in some of Pope Francis’s interviews and audiences.


John Courtney Murray S.J., a somewhat recent protagonist, helped to solidify this relation of freedom to the faith however, when Cardinal Spellman, another pivotal American Cardinal made him made a peritus at the second session of the Second Vatican Council. This special appointment culminated in his becoming the architect of one of the most controversial documents of Vatican II – Dignitatis Humanae – 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 between an individual and God, which meant that the religious impulse is to be fostered and not suppressed, even when that impulse may erroneously lead one to practice a faith different from what the Church puts forth. 


This new Church in America also fostered many saints including St. Elizabeth Ann Seton – a wife,mother, eventual nun (mother superior, founder?), and founder of the first Catholic Schools in the US. Her Baltimore home is located on the same site as the first Catholic seminary.


Blessed Seelos, following St. John Neumann were both pastors of the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus, located just a block away from the Cathedral and predating its completion.


(St. John Neumann C.S.S.r.)


(Bl Francis Xavier Seelos)


In 1877, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Blessed Michael McGivney, was ordained at the Basilica, followed by the ordination of the first African-American priest born in the U.S., Venerable Augustos Tolton in 1891. Both priests’ causes for canonization are actively proceeding.


(Bl. Fr. Michael McGivney)


(Ven. Augustos Tolton)


Another “saint” of Maryland, Mother Mary Lange founded the nearby Oblate Sisters of Providence, which became the first African-American religious order, while she was the first African-American 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 the surrounding state of Maryland. Mother Teresa, to accept the vows of over 30 new professed religious of her order – The Missionaries of Charity.


(Mother Teresa speaking at the Basilica)


Pope John Paul II, – in an event remembered in the minds of many Marylanders, came to celebrate a packed mass in the famous Orioles baseball stadium, Camden Yards on his famous pilgrimage to America.


(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.


(Basilica Interior)


In remembering these 200 years of Catholicism in America, special honor is due Our Lady.


As my Grandfather, 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. (James Likoudis)


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.” (Evangeli Nuntiandi)


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.)


(Our Lady’s Assumption depicted in chalk before the front steps of the Basilica.)


In remembering Our Lady’s Assumption, what more fitting words could be found than those given us by the Pope who 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)


Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith. (45)


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 followed eight days later by none other than the Feast of Her Coronation.


(Our Lady’s Coronation, by Augusto Stoppoloni, 1878)


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, which coincides so closely with another Jubilee of the Universal Church, The Jubilee of the Third Millennium – a jubilee 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 Advenient,


[…] [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. 


[…] Against this background, we can understand the custom of Jubilees, which began in the Old Testament and continues in the history of the Church.


[…] Jesus of Nazareth, going back one day to the synagogue of his home town, stood up to read (cf. Lk 4:16-30). “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (61:1-2).


[…] The words and deeds of Jesus thus represent the fulfilment of the whole tradition of Jubilees in the Old Testament. […] As we read in Leviticus: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you” (25:10). 


[…] For the Church, the Jubilee is precisely this “year of the Lord’s favour”, a year of the remission of sins and of the punishments due to them, a year of reconciliation between disputing parties, a year of manifold conversions and of sacramental and extra-sacramental penance.


[…] 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


[…] 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.


(Basilica’s Holy Spirit Dome with sky-light)


[…] 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. 


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. 


With sincere esteem, the Church regards the elements of truth found in those religions as a reflection of the Truth which enlightens all men and women.


For 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 conclude that the Mother Church of America is a home for all peoples to come 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, as He spoke through St Paul, inviting them and us to take off our sandals and walk on Holy Ground towards the one who is always inviting us closer.



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