Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Homecoming in the Premier See

It may be the nation's oldest cathedral, but the newness of the restored Basilica of the Assumption was clear at Sunday's Rededication Mass when, during the opening hymn, a misplaced whiff of incense was enough to set off the fire alarms.

Luckily, there are no sprinklers in the main church. Miraculously, the choir kept singing over the distracting flashes of strobe lights and din of the airhorns. And the roar of sirens outside seemingly indicated that the false alarm triggered a summons of the fire department.

The congregation, however, couldn't help but have a palpable laugh.

Confined to the newly-reinaugurated Marechal cathedra due to his broken ankle, a bittersweet look etched the face of Cardinal William Keeler as the signal project of his tenure at the helm of America's mother church was accomplished with the anointing of the new altar by the papal legate, Cardinal James Francis Stafford. Sent from Rome, the major penitentiary -- ordained an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore at 44 -- was invited by Keeler to take the role of principal celebrant of the Basilica's first public liturgy as the 14th archbishop remains on the mend from injuries suffered in an October car accident while vacationing in Italy.

Wearing the pectoral cross of John Carroll, the founding father of the US episcopate, Keeler delivered the homily, a simultaneous fleshing out of the day's readings and a rebuttal of criticism that the $34 million project had inhibited the archdiocese's mission of serving the inner city. He began by admitting a sense of sadness that he couldn't participate as extensively in the liturgy as he would've liked, but that he had to roll along with the hand dealt him by the Lord, expressing his hope that, in their moments of trial, his flock would be able to do the same.

While the parishioners of the Basilica got a "sneak preview" liturgy a week before, celebrated around a temporary wooden altar placed in the sanctuary, the Archdiocesan Mass celebrating the reopening was a homecoming in more ways than one. Concelebrating alongside Stafford was his predecessor as Baltimore's urban vicar, the newly-retired Bishop Joseph Gossman of Raleigh. Also very present alongside the auxiliary bishops was Stafford's principal consecrator, the ever-spry Archbishop-emeritus William Borders, still going strong at 93.

Until 18 months ago, Borders occupied the Sexton's House, the small property adjacent to the Basilica that he lived in even while serving as the premier see's 13th archbishop. Having decamped to a retirement home, the charming building was converted into a gift shop and the offices of the Basilica Historic Trust. Borders still makes his way to the archdiocesan offices once a week.

It's no secret that the books in Stafford's voluminous library are heavily annotated in the margins. Suffice it to say, that showed in his message at the close of Mass -- after all, how often do you hear quotes from John Joseph Williams, the first archbishop of Boston, given at the close of the Third Plenary Council of 1884?

In celebrating the liturgy, Stafford used the crozier of Archbishop Ambrose Marechal, the Orleanean Sulpician who served as the third archbishop, and under whose stewardship the "Old Cathedral" was opened. The chalice was likewise a Marechal heirloom, a gift from Pope Pius VII ostensibly conferred during the former's 1821 visit to Rome, the first ad limina made by an American bishop.

As the weather cooperated with yet another day of bright sunshine, the project got another glowing treatment in Sunday's Washington Post, featuring the intriguing insight of Carroll that hierarchs who get political "generally fall into contempt, and sometimes even bring discredit to the cause in whose service they are engaged."

His many family and friends in evidence at the rededication, Cardinal Stafford will remain in Baltimore through the week, returning to the role of papal legate Sunday night as the American hierarchy returns to its home-base. The Basilica will host the opening liturgy of the November Meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, with Stafford as celebrant and Keeler, a former president of the conference, preaching. Nationally and beyond, EWTN will televise the 5PM Mass on a delay.

Archdiocese of Baltimore
PHOTO 3: Angelina Perna/Baltimore Sun