Friday, March 28, 2008

First and Forever

For any ecclesiastical history buff, one of life's great pilgrimages is entering into the American church's "holy of holies": the "Gibbons Room" in the residence of the archbishops of Baltimore.

Added onto 408 N. Charles St in the 1870s, the room is the newest section of Stateside Catholicism's answer to the White House. In the days when the Premier See's shepherds also acted as the Holy See's delegate to the national church, the various provincial councils and regular meetings of the nation's archbishops -- the precursor to today's episcopal conference -- took place within its walls, alongside gatherings ranging from diplomatic receptions to the stream of humanity, great and small alike, who would come to see "The Cardinal" during his daily calling hours.

The spirits almost fill the room there. A late-life portrait of Gibbons in his choir robes hangs across the room from the throne used for the sitting. The chair of John Carroll, the first American bishop, holds a place of honor. And flanking the fireplace, the twin croziers made for Carroll and his successor, Ambrose Marechal, stand guard facing each other, fixed to the wall.

What keeps the room alive, however, is that its history is never static.

Copies of Arimaic manuscripts from the early church sit on a credence table. A bust of the only pontiff to cross its threshold holds down a corner, alongside some photos (shot by the 14th archbishop) of John Paul II hovering over a Denver crowd in Marine One, the presidential chopper. And in an addition echoing the spirit of the room's very namesake -- who, in his time, was once publicly blessed by a rabbi as "holy unto the Lord" -- its sense of antiquity is enhanced by its lone modern-day touch: a menorah with six candlesticks, each depicting a human figure to represent one million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

This year's center stage might belong to the four suffragans which mark the bicentennial of their founding. Lest anyone forget, however, the American Catholic project was born in Baltimore, where Carroll -- the founding pastor of the new nation -- became America's archbishop on 8 April 1808 as his charge was carved up with the establishment of new dioceses at Bardstown, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

Since Charm City had the spotlight all to itself in 1989 as the archdiocese -- and, by extension, the American hierarchy -- celebrated its bicentennial with a papal legate and the first plenary of the nation's bishops there in a century, this anniversary will be a quieter one. But as history always lives in Baltimore, the event will go far from unnoticed.

Plans for the metropolitan milestone were unveiled this morning by Carroll's 14th successor, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, in the Basilica of the Assumption -- the cathedral Carroll envisioned, yet didn't live to see completed.

The centerpiece of the festivities is slated for the weekend following the anniversary, with a Sunday morning Mass in the nation's mother-church, followed by the unveiling of a bust of O'Brien's predecessor, Cardinal William Keeler.

Archbishop from 1989 until his retirement last year, Keeler -- the keen historian who prophetically pushed for the basilica's comprehensive restoration -- will be the fourth archbishop so honored. Memorials to Gibbons and Carroll have long stood in the church's transepts, and the cardinal's bust will be placed in the nave opposite that of Baltimore's "middle" cardinal, the Council-era giant Lawrence Shehan. Poignantly, though, as Carroll, Gibbons and Shehan were each born and bred in the Premier See, Keeler -- whose tenure breathed new life into the "Maryland tradition" of his predecessors -- is the first non-native prelate to receive the accolade.

Just as Gibbons once proclaimed that he "love[d] every stone" of the Assumption, while his cardinal-disciple has found a new energy following his retirement, Keeler has long indicated his wish to be buried in the basilica crypt alongside Carroll, "The Cardinal" and six of the other archbishops. Since the "New Cathedral" of Mary Our Queen opened in 1958 with its own crypt, no Baltimore prelate has been laid to rest beneath Carroll's cathedral. But no worries about that anytime soon. Charmopolis makes for long and happy living; just ask the 13th head of the Premier See, Archbishop William Borders, who's still up and kickin' at 94... and a half.

Both the 12 April Bicentennial Mass and bust ceremony are open to the public. The day before, an exhibit on the archdiocese's history will open at the nation's first seminary -- St Mary's, now located in the city's Roland Park. And right on the heels the papal visit, the basilica will host a lecture on Carroll from the nation's best-known prelate-historian: Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, the last student of John Tracy Ellis (and O'Brien's predecessor as rector of the Pontifical North American College).

Due to the difficulties of Transatlantic travel, exacerbated by the blockades of the Napoleonic Wars, Carroll never received his pallium despite living for nearly eight years after his elevation. Having headed the nation's lone non-metropolitan archbishopric -- the Military Services -- for a decade, O'Brien can well associate... that is, until June, when the Premier See's 15th head finally receives the woolen band symbolizing "the fullness of the episcopal office" on the solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul from Pope Benedict.

On next month's papal visit, the Bronx-born "first among equals" of the American hierarchy will have an altar-spot alongside the pontiff and the other "bicentennial bishops" at Yankee Stadium, a stone's throw from his boyhood home.

* * *

Speaking of American archbishops, the latest members of the group are less bound to Baltimore than... Alabama.

Tomorrow morning, the newly named papal nuncio to Bangladesh, Archbishop-elect Joseph Marino, will be ordained to the episcopacy at St Paul's Cathedral in his hometown of Birmingham. A 20-year veteran of the Holy See's diplomatic corps, Marino, 55, is the first native Southerner made a bishop in the Vatican's direct service.

As a tribute to his home region, Marino was assigned the titular see of Natchitoches, the Louisiana diocese whose seat was moved to Alexandria in 1910. Though most archbishop-nuncios are ordained by the cardinal-secretary of state, given the venue Marino's rites will be presided over by his former boss Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, now president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Then, as soon as next week, the Pope is expected to appoint a new archbishop of Mobile to succeed the venerable native son Oscar Lipscomb, the nation's longest-serving metropolitan, who reached the retirement age of 75 in September 2006. Multiple sources report that the nod will fall to the senior suffragan of the province, Bishop Thomas Rodi of Biloxi.

A native New Orleanean who turned 59 yesterday, Rodi led the rebuilding of Mississippi's Gulf Coast diocese following Hurricane Katrina. The Mobile appointment is one of several to be announced before B16's 15 April arrival in Washington.

PHOTOS: Maryland Historical Society (1,5); Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore(2); Doug Kasputin and Angelina Perna/Baltimore Sun(3,4)