Thursday, July 12, 2007

Balto Goes Gotham

Fifteen months in the offing, the mother-diocese of the United States has received its fifteenth change in command.

This morning, Pope Benedict accepted the age-induced resignation of Cardinal William Keeler as archbishop of Baltimore, naming Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of the Military Services USA as the fourteenth successor to John Carroll, the nation’s founding bishop.

The first New Yorker sent to American Catholicism’s birthplace since James Roosevelt Bayley became its eighth archbishop in 1872, the Pope’s appointment of O’Brien, 68, is a marked signal that priestly formation is Priority #1 in the US’ Premier See. The nation’s only bishop to have led two major seminaries will now head the lone American see boasting two of its own: St Mary’s in the city’s Roland Park section, and Mount St Mary’s in Emmitsburg. In testament to his experience as a formator, the Holy See tapped the archbishop to head the Apostolic Visitation of US seminaries during the 2005-6 academic year.

A son of the Bronx, O’Brien was ordained for the archdiocese of New York in 1965. After spending the first decade of his priesthood as an Army chaplain, then earning a Roman doctorate in moral theology, he returned to his hometown’s “Powerhouse,” rising through the ranks as vice-chancellor, director of communications, and private secretary to Cardinals Terence Cooke and John O’Connor before beginning his first stint as rector of St Joseph’s, Dunwoodie in 1985. (Ironically enough, the Harlem-born Bayley – a cousin of presidents and nephew of a saint – also served as priest-secretary to a New York archbishop: the famed first of the bunch, “Dagger John” Hughes.)

Five years later, he was recalled to Rome to lead the NAC, whose resurgence began over the course of his four year term, the end of which saw his return to Gotham and Dunwoodie. Ordained auxiliary bishop by O’Connor in 1996, O’Brien remained at his alma mater’s helm until his appointment the following year as coadjutor-archbishop of the Military Services. For the last decade, he’s served as chief shepherd of the 1.2 million Catholics of the US Armed Services stationed on bases and in combat the world over. Though theology is his formal discipline, he is said to take a keen interest in church history, an interest particularly well-suited for a chief occupant of 408 N. Charles Street.

A relatively under-the-radar figure as senior US prelates go, friends hail the newest resident of Charm City as a “great supporter of the priesthood” and note his genuine concern for the souls in his care. These traits were highlighted in the famous case of Eugene Hamilton, a Dunwoodie seminarian struck with terminal cancer in the course of his formation. As Hamilton’s one desire was to be ordained before he died, O’Brien’s intervention pushed the case to the Holy See, which green-lighted his petition for early priesthood. Placing his own stole over Hamilton’s shoulders, the bishop-rector ordained the 25 year-old in his family home hours before he died on 25 January 1997.

Almost two hundred years on since Baltimore’s elevation to metropolitan rank, the appointment of its 15th head brings to a close one of the Premier See’s great archiepiscopal runs. Named archbishop during the 1989 bicentennial of the American hierarchy, the storied accomplishments of his charge have been brought into a new age by Cardinal Keeler, whose keen scholarship and faithful stewardship of the “Maryland tradition” will reside in the books alongside the triumphs of Carroll and his most exemplary heir, James Cardinal Gibbons, neither of whom could claim to have welcomed Peter’s successor to the nation’s first cathedral.

Alongside the daylong visit of John Paul II in 1995, the capstone of Keeler’s tenure was the fulfillment of his dream project: the $34 million, two-year restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption. Rededicated last November, over 70,000 pilgrims have since been drawn to discover Benjamin Latrobe’s masterpiece as the architect envisioned it, and the local Sun recently reported that an enhanced corps of docents and guides are being trained to handle the larger-than-expected crowds.

As the lead Catholic of the nation’s armed services, O’Brien has had to tow a tight line between the Holy See’s opposition to the war in Iraq and his post’s imperative to nourish the troops under his care. In his 2007 Memorial Day message to the flock, he noted that while the nation “continues to search for an honorable and morally responsible end to our military involvement in Iraq,” the state of the operation four years on “compels an assessment of our current circustances and the continuing obligation of the Church to provide a moral framework for public discussion.”

While the war proceeded despite the Vatican’s stated fears that an incursion would incite “an ominous and long-term escalation of violence throughout the area, with gravely negative repercussions for the people of the region and the fragile Christian presence there,” he concluded that “[u]nfortunately, such has been the case.”

“[R]aising moral questions, even grave moral questions about US involvement in Iraq, is not to question the moral integrity of our military personnel,” the archbishop said, also emphasizing that “at no time has the Holy See or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops cast doubt on the motives of our national leadership in the Executive or Congressional branches.” However, “at this stage, our nation must honestly assess what is achievable in Iraq using the traditional just war principles of ‘probability of success,’” he said, “including the probability of contributing to a responsible transition.

“Our troops should remain in Iraq only as long as their presence contributes to a responsible transition.”

Predecessor and successor will appear at a 10am press conference under the Basilica’s central dome, and O’Brien will concelebrate today’s 12.10 Mass there at Keeler’s side. The installation has been scheduled for Monday, 1 October in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. In the interim, Cardinal Keeler will serve as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese by appointment of the Holy See.

As a nod to the post’s preeminent role in shaping American Catholicism, according to the provisions of an 1858 decree from Rome Baltimore’s archbishop enjoys the “prerogative of place,” ranking first among equals in the number of the nation’s archbishops.

Though the deference to the Premier See’s lineage is rarely honored in modern times, the document granting it has never been abrogated.