Saturday, November 08, 2008

"The Church 'At Home' in America"

As we enter into the feast celebrating the Dedication of the Mother and Head of the churches of the world, it's a perfect coincidence that, come Monday, the shepherds of these United States gather again in the place that's American Catholicism's Ecclesia Mater et Caput: the Premier See of Baltimore, our common home.

For what it's worth -- no offense to the DC crowd -- Charm City really beats Capitol Hill... not even as it's a good bit more cost-efficient, but simply because it reminds us so intensely of our roots. Or, at least, it should. And maybe in no year more than this one -- the bicentennial of its elevation as a metropolitan church and the initial expansion of a small, yet growing, united and committed people in a young country with the foundation of its first suffragan sees in New England, the Mid-Atlantic and on the "Holy Land" of our First Frontier.

God love the folks who came before us. They made so much possible... so much that, maybe, more than just sometimes, we seem to take it for granted.

Ensuring our better future was no easy task on their part. What's more, they knew the dream wouldn't be accomplished in their lifetimes... but, still, they did it anyway, that we might enjoy a fullness of liberty they knew would never be theirs.

Now 70 million, we numbered 25,000 (and 22 priests) spread across the 13 colonies at the Founding. Again, for them it wasn't easy.

Where they were able to gather, many had to worship in hiding; others were so far-flung that they either had to live their faith on their own or travel long, hard distances (often in conditions we'd shudder just to think about -- remember, no cars nor paved roads... and, in those days, carriages or horses were for the lucky) to make Mass on the occasional chance a circuit-rider was even some hours' journey nearby.

As time wore on, cities flourished and the community grew, it still wasn't easy. Our churches were burned, our people were persecuted -- and, even more frequently, were prejudiced against, misunderstood, seen as suspect. Many of the first waves of immigrants who brought us to a greater strength in the public square often found themselves less-than-welcomed on the inside while, from the outside, they were attacked as agents of a foreign power (i.e. the Vatican) dispatched to these shores to facilitate a Romish takeover of the government.

In some parts of the country, this continued even into the living memory of many today... but the point is that we can't let all that sacrifice, all that work, all that endurance, all that faith, be betrayed with the comforts of division, or even regression.

It literally took centuries before our fathers and mothers in faith were believed that they, we, could be fully Catholic and fully American -- impeccably faithful to their church and unstintingly loyal to their country. But from Day One, they always proved it less in words than they did in fierce, loving witness to both; as our first President wrote to our first Bishop in 1790: "I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of your Government, or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed."

Almost exactly a century later, Washington's support was returned in Rome. Having just become the nation's second cardinal, another archbishop of Baltimore took possession of his titular church with a homily -- given the circumstances, an almost brazen one -- declaring his faith in the American experiment...
"For myself, as a citizen of the United States, and without closing my eyes to our shortcomings as a nation, I say, with a deep sense of pride and gratitude, that I belong to a country where the civil 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. She rears no wall to exclude the stranger from coming among us. She has few frowning fortifications to repel the invader, for she is at peace with all the world. She rests secure in the consciousness of her strength and her good will toward all. Her harbors are open to welcome the honest emigrant who comes to advance his temporal interests and find a peaceful home. But while we are acknowledged to have a free Government, perhaps we do not receive the credit that belongs to us for having also a strong Government. Yes, our Nation is strong, and her strength lies under the overruling guidance of Providence, in the majesty and supremacy of the law, in the loyalty of her citizens, and in the affection of her people for her free institutions. There are, indeed, grave social problems now engaging the earnest attention of the citizens of the United States, but I have no doubt that with God's blessing these problems will be solved by the calm judgment and sound sense of the American people without violence or revolution or any injury to individual right."
And now, in the 220th year of an American church, here we are -- free as anything, yet divided amongst ourselves as one of our own has risen to the second office in the land.

Each in their time, John Carroll and James Gibbons were respected as sages of the epoch, respected and sought out from both sides of the aisle not just as men of God, but lovers of liberty and believers in the dream these shores promised to any who came their way. Neither would live to see the highest of this nation's possibilities fulfilled by one of their own flock, but something seems to say they'd be pleased that, in time, it happened -- indeed, their work and witness paved the way for it.

Of course, this moment in history wouldn't -- and doesn't -- arrive again without a degree of trepidation. Sure, the Know-Nothings can rest safe in their graves knowing that our new #2 won't make good on their paranoia (namely, that a Catholic at the helm of government would bore a tunnel under the Atlantic to bring the Pope across, that he might reign from the White House). But, that said, the reception of this moment within our own walls could use some improvement.

There may be differences, and significant ones -- indeed, ones impossible to diminish or ignore -- at that. But, church, an election many of us fought with immense fidelity and immeasurable conviction is over. And going forward, however great the internal divides among us might remain, let us be honest with ourselves: it's not as if an Atheist has been elected Vice-President of the United States. That the public response to one of our own can be perceived as such, however, is to dismiss and demean our history, our struggle, our unity as God's People on this soil -- and, indeed, it's no constructive way to go about attaining anyone's further conversion of heart.

In our church, the Magisterium and competent authority govern. In our nation, the Constitution and the people rule. And in this, there need be no conflict... unless three centuries of hard-won goodwill -- which, truly, has accomplished so much -- is about to get torn up on a ballroom floor in the place where it all began.

As we go into this week, let us unite ourselves in prayer with our shepherds... let us thank God for the gift those who came before us won at great cost -- the ability to live our faith freely in this blessed place where, even for our own, anything is possible... let us continue our work, each in our own way, to build a culture of life for both a more-perfect Church and a more-perfect Union... let us remember, even amid the "grave social problems," the difficulties and disputes of our own time, the road of sacrifice and persecution that, by faith in God and love of country, got all of us here in (more or less) one piece... and let us never, ever, even appear to have turned our backs on any of it.

* * *
Earlier this year, as no less an authority than The Pope Himself declared his "admiration and gratitude" for John Carroll, whose "tireless efforts to spread the Gospel... enabled the church in America to grow to maturity," the spirit of our first shepherd is worth recalling right now.

To that end, there's no better "Carroll 101" than a re-run of the April lecture given on our Founding Father by Archbishop Tim Dolan of Milwaukee (the last student of Gibbons' biographer) in the Cathedral-church which was the first bishop's design and dream... yet one he wouldn't live to see completed: