Free of the English, free to profess themselves Catholics
Apr 04, 2006
Two hundred years ago the first cathedral in the United States was constructed in Baltimore. Symbol of that freedom that the Declaration of Independence guaranteed to Catholics also.
(30Giorni, December 2005) Recalling the two hundred years since the laying of the foundation stone of Baltimore Cathedral (1806), the first to be built in America after the Declaration of Independence, is equivalent to talking about the history itself of the Catholic Church in the United States. And it can’t be done without underlining that if there is an ideal particularly dear to this great local church it is that of freedom, religious freedom to be precise. When the Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore William Keeler reopens the basilica – dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and restored to its original architectonic splendor –, he will certainly not forget to remind his faithful of this constituent characteristic, linking many and diverse episodes: from the War of Independence against the English, to the relations between Church and State in the nomination of the first bishop of the Confederation of the United States, down to the “Baltimore Catechism” that accompanied generations of Catholics overseas. Thus, going back over a past that envelops the present, our talk with Cardinal Keeler unwinds. From the windows of his room in the North American College on the Janiculum, Rome is resplendent in all its colors in a limpid winter dusk.
Your Eminence, what was the Catholic Church in Baltimore two centuries ago?
WILLIAM KEELER: It had to face great struggles because of the anti-Catholicism that had been part of the culture of the British colonies. And it was only with the War of Independence against the English that we gained full religious freedom in the United States. Maryland was the first place in the English-speaking world to be granted religious freedom, if even for a brief period, thanks to an agreement with King Charles I of England, so that the Catholics who were persecuted in England could come here and be free in their worship of God. But it didn’t last very long, only from 1634 to1688, when William of Orange won the “Glorious Revolution”, gained the throne of England and was immediately able to restore the old anti-Catholic penal laws and eventually send a royal governor to Maryland to immediately enforce these anti-Catholic penal laws. Between 1651 and 1657 the Puritans had temporarily prevailed in Maryland, applying their anti-catholic opinions. By the year 1700 every Catholic church in Maryland had been razed to the ground… The only place in the colonies where the anti-Catholic penal laws were not being enforced was Pennsylvania, because William Penn, a Quaker, simply ignored them. That’s why so many from Maryland fled to Pennsylvania.
The reply that George Washington delivered to Pius VI about the freedom of the Pope to nominate the bishops in the newly born Confederation of the American States was surprising. The choice fell on the Jesuit John Carroll – who then became archbishop of Baltimore – who had greatly insisted that the first bishop be a native and not one sent from Rome…
KEELER: Carroll well understood that you need someone who understands the local situation. That’s why in more recent periods the popes have tried very hard to ensure that they have native bishops all around the world, aware of the local culture, the ways of the particular people, in the sole purpose of helping to advance the cause of the Church.
And the second American bishop was also a Jesuit, Leonard Neall. When I was once ordaining some Jesuits, I told them that the decision of Clement XIV to abolish their order had been a blessing for us, because that made it possible for the Jesuits to come back from Rome and for two of them to be nominated the first two bishops in the United States.
In some of his statements John Carroll seemed very intent on underlining a wish for autonomy from Rome, from Propaganda Fide…
KEELER: John Carroll had a great love and veneration both for Pope Pius VI who nominated him, and for Pope Pius VII, and he had all the bells rung in the diocese of Baltimore when Pius VII was freed from captivity by Napoleon. It’s a simplification to say that the American Church wanted to be free from the Church of Rome. That’s not the case. While Carroll was sincerely loyal to the pope, he saw it as very useful for Rome to understand the advantages of making the most of the qualities of the American people and that it would encourage the flowering of the American Church. Today we have almost 200 dioceses.
It was Benjamin Franklin, then American ambassador in Paris, who passed on George Washington’s reply to Pope Pius VI: the Church could be confident of enjoying full religious freedom.
KEELER: But there are difficulties today, precisely when the government gets into areas that have to do with religious freedom, issues such as life, when it talks of cloning, or in regard to abortion - because the Supreme Court has declared it legal in certain cases. The government takes decisions that make it difficult for the Church to function freely in proclaiming its message to the people.
With regard to the ideal of democracy in the United States: before being nominated by the Pope, John Carroll was chosen by an assembly of local clergy.
KEELER: The Pope sent him a letter appointing him the first bishop of Maryland, but he declined because he thought that there should be a prior election by the local Church. Speaking to the Jesuits’ archivist, I asked whether he had ever believed for a moment that John Carroll wouldn’t have shown to the priests, assembled there for the election of the bishop, the letter of nomination from the Pope. He said that he didn’t believe it.
At the time the Church of Baltimore was the most important in the country…
KEELER: The diocese had the largest number of Catholics, it was the biggest in the United States, even if the total number of Catholics in Maryland was probably less than 15% of the population. But Catholics were the largest landowners. A cousin of John Carroll, Charles Carroll [the only Catholic to sign, as delegate of Maryland, the Declaration of Independence in 1776, ed.] owned more land than anyone else in the thirteen States of the Confederation.
And the Church of Baltimore was presented with the responsibility of presiding over the evangelization of the Confederation.
KEELER: The main missionary activity of the Church was to maintain the faith of those who emigrated from Europe. That was the important thing, and it’s how I imagine the early Christians kept the faith for those who would come afterwards.
Baltimore hosted many Provincial and Plenary Councils, in which all the American Church was represented. What did they talk about?
KEELER: Particularly those topics that we are also concerned about today, that is to give young people a Christian education, pass on a living faith to the generation growing up. The first Plenary Councils established norms about this, before there were public schools on American soil. Those then existing were run by the different religious denominations: Catholics, Baptists, etc.
Baltimore has other things to be proud of: the first church – named after Saint Francis Xavier in 1864 – officially dedicated to the care of blacks, slaves and freed people, coming from Africa; and a celebrated predecessor of yours, Cardinal James Gibbons, a great defender of the workers sacrificed to the Industrial Revolution.
KEELER: The Sulpician Fathers took care of the black refugees coming from Haiti as early as 1792-1793, in the place where in 1807 Mother Seaton later established the first religious community in the United States, the Sisters of Charity.
As far as Gibbons is concerned, I recall that he was in the forefront of those who worked to encourage Pope Leo XIII to write the encyclical Rerum novarum itself. Gibbons was an advocate of Christian social doctrine.
Your Eminence, what is the “Baltimore Catechism”?
KEELER: The third Plenary American Council decided on the composition of a catechism that would be valid throughout the United States given that there were so many different catechisms in use then. The Council set up a special committee and an Italian priest was chosen to draft the texts that were then reviewed by a committee of bishops. The Catechism was published around 1890.
And how according to the Church of the United States should a catechism be?
Very clear and consistent. It was to teach the main doctrines of the Catholic Church, which at that time were the teachings of the Council of Trent. With the coming of Vatican Council II some parts of our Catechism became a little out of date, for example those relative to the treatment of other religions and social justice issues. Ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, were not envisioned by Trent, which was held at a time when there were great polemics and great opposition between the families of Islam, Christianity, Judaism.
For a long time Baltimore was one of the richest sources of vocations.
KEELER: There was Saint Mary’s Seminary, the first seminary in the United States founded in 1791, and then also the second seminary, Mount Saint Mary’s founded, in 1808. In those days it was the custom for ordinations to be held in the place where the seminary was, so that’s why you have, for example, Father Michael McGivney the founder of the Knights of Columbus, being ordained in Baltimore in 1877 even though he was from the diocese of Hartford, in Connecticut.
Vocations are gifts from God and in 2005, we had more vocations than since I became archbishop. This is a blessing. We had a dozen candidates entering the seminary in September. Today we have seen a great downturn because of so many options open to young people today and a generalized prosperity… But I see wonderful vocations and I am very grateful to the Lord, there have been genuinely blessed vocations of priests and of women religious.
Have you thought of what you will say to your faithful on the day when the restored Cathedral reopens?
KEELER: Actually the church itself tells its own story. We are trying to restore it now according to the design of the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who designed it for free. It was he who designed the first US Capitol for Thomas Jefferson, who wanted a reproduction of what he had seen in Paris, that is a building into which lots of light could enter. And our Cathedral was constructed that way originally, and the changes that had to be made during the Second World War because of the anti-aircraft black-out laws will now be eliminated. We will reopen the windows, enlarge the skylights, so that it can hold all the possible light.
Pope John Paul II blessed this restoration project and said he remembered his two visits to Baltimore very well, and recalled that our American Basilica, with its light, was itself the symbol of religious freedom throughout the world.