Monday, February 20, 2012

On President's Day, "The Atmosphere of Liberty"

Yet again, this third Monday of February is officially observed here in the States as Washington's Birthday, but known far better as President's Day.

Of course, the observance commemorates the 22 February 1732 birth of the "Father of the Country," George Washington. While Washington's birthday has been marked as a national holiday since at least 1796 -- the final year of his presidency -- subsequent years saw Abraham Lincoln's 12 February birthday added to the calendar as a separate civil observance. In the late 1960s, the Lincoln holiday was suppressed, but Washington's anniversary widely became dubbed "President's Day" in the years since.

In keeping with the house custom on the great feasts of state, it wouldn't be President's Day 'round here if we didn't revisit the famous "Prayer for the Nation" written and first delivered in 1791 by the father of American Catholicism -- the nation's first bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore:
We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.

We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.

We pray for his excellency, the governor of this state , for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.

We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance.

To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.
In 1790, Washington addressed a letter to American Catholics expressing his supportive hope "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 [i.e. France] in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed."

Aided by the contribution of the early church on these shores -- a community that then numbered some 25,000 souls (served by 22 priests) scattered across the 13 new states -- the first Commander-in-Chief said that, "America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad."

The founding father added his prayer that "the members of your Society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity."

And perhaps in these days, quite possibly more than last year, odds are the significance of that hope -- and the value many American Catholics can find in it -- has increased.

* * *
Given the threads of recent news-cycles, however, there's more.

Of course, the moment brings a high-stakes conflict on the question of church and state. And amid it, in a shining occurrence of history, the successor of Carroll -- who knew Washington, was championed by Franklin; indeed, a cousin of the lone Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence -- has been elevated to the College of Cardinals.

The year isn't 2012, but 1887. The setting, meanwhile, lies an ocean away from Washington, and the mother-church which included the capital for 150 years.

Lest anyone forgot, ecclesiastical Rome in the late 19th century was no enthusiastic observer of the prior century's sea-change of governments. These were, after all, the days when the Popes lived as self-declared "Prisoners of the Vatican" following the seizure of the States they governed, memories of Napoleon's abduction of Pope Pius VI still ran fresh, Bismarck's Kulturkampf in newborn Germany saw bishops jailed, clerics banished and religious orders legally suppressed, and the sometimes violent anti-Catholicism of American Protestants -- highlighted by the burning of Northeastern churches and the dumping into the Potomac of a stone donated by Pius IX for the construction of the Washington Monument (inside which, the most hysterical maintained, the pontiff had been smuggled across the Atlantic to complete his alleged master plan to take over the country and reign from the White House) -- was enough to sour the Vatican on the pluralist polity of these shores.

Given that backdrop, maybe today's chief domestic concern suddenly doesn't seem so visceral to some. In the broader sweep of history, though, a seemingly forgotten part of what makes it precisely that is the degree to which the path toward the Magisterium's eventual detente with and embrace of secular Western democracy was paved by... the foundational assurance of religious freedom in the United States.

Decades ahead of John Courtney Murray and a full century before Dignitatis Humanae developed the principle into Catholic Tradition -- regardless of what the SSPX might say about it -- the first significant shift of the evolution was made on the centenary of the Constitution, as a new American cardinal accepted one of Rome's oldest churches as his own, and used the experience of his homeland to make what was, for the time, an extraordinary case.

Considering both the era's ecclesial and political contexts, an address of the sort would've widely been considered as an inadvisable move. A junior cardinal from a suspect land advocating a concept that, from their experience, the natives would undoubtedly deem toxic could've made for more than enough to exile Americans from the old "caput mundi" for generations.

Such was the intensity of James Gibbons' patriotism that he did it anyway... and ended up reaping a whirlwind.

Next month marks the 125th anniversary of the "heroic" speech given by the Premier See's first cardinal as he took possession of his titular church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, on Annunciation Day, 1887. And as that milestone nears, another of Carroll's successors has now taken his seat in the Papal "Senate."

The moment would've been worth recalling just on those alone. Yet amid the tensions and stakes of the times, the reminder seems all the more needed.

Here, Gibbons' text:
The assignment to me by the Holy Father of this beautiful basilica as my titular church fills me with feelings of joy and gratitude which any words of mine are inadequate to express. For, as here in Rome I stand within the first temple raised in honor of the ever-blessed Virgin Mary, so in my far-off home, my own Cathedral Church, the oldest in the United States, is also dedicated to the Mother of God. This venerable edifice in which we are gathered leads us back in contemplation to the days of the catacombs. Its foundation was laid by Pope Calixtus in the year of our Lord, 224. It was restored by Pope Julius in the fourth century, and renovated by another Supreme Pontiff in the twelfth.

That never-ceasing solicitude which the Sovereign Pontiffs have exhibited in erecting these material temples, which are the glory of this city, they have also manifested on a larger scale in rearing spiritual walls to Zion throughout Christendom in every age. Scarcely were the United States formed into an independent government, when Pope Pius VII established a Catholic hierarchy and appointed the illustrious John Carroll the first Bishop of Baltimore. Our Catholic community in those days numbered a few thousand souls, and they were scattered chiefly through the States of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. They were served by a mere handful of priests. But now, thanks to the fructifying grace of God, the grain of mustard seed then planted has grown to a large tree, spreading its branches through the length and breadth of our fair land. Where only one bishop was found in the beginning of this century, there are now seventy-five exercising spiritual jurisdiction. For this great progress we are indebted, under God and the fostering vigilance of the Holy See, to the civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic.

Our Holy Father, Leo XIII, in his luminous encyclical on the constitution of Christian states, declares that the Church is not committed to any form of civil government. She adapts herself to all. She leavens all with the sacred leaven of the Gospel. She has lived under absolute monarchies, under constitutional monarchies, in free republics, and everywhere she grows and expands. She has often, indeed, been hampered in her Divine mission. She has even been forced to struggle for her existence wherever despotism has cast its dark shadow, like a plant shut out from the blessed light of heaven. But in the genial atmosphere of liberty she blossoms like a rose.

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 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 employing 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.

As an evidence of his good will for the great republic in the West, as a mark of his appreciation of the venerable hierarchy of the United States, and as an expression of his kind consideration for the ancient See of Baltimore, our Holy Father has been graciously pleased to elevate its present incumbent, in my humble person, to the dignity of the purple. For this mark of his exalted favor I beg to tender the Holy Father my profound thanks in my own name and in the name of the clergy and faithful. I venture to thank him also in the name of my venerable colleagues, the bishops, as well as the clergy and Catholic laity of the United States. I presume also to thank him in the name of our separated brethren in America, who, though not sharing our faith, have shown that they are not insensible—indeed, that they are deeply sensible—of the honor conferred upon our common country, and have again and again expressed their admiration for the enlightened statesmanship and apostolic virtues and benevolent character of the illustrious Pontiff who now sits in the Chair of St. Peter.
One of the great bridge-builders of Catholicism's Stateside pilgrimage, from The Cathedral Carroll Built -- itself raised as a shrine to American religious freedom -- Gibbons served as de facto chaplain to Presidents of both parties, and even a trailblazer of warm ecumenical and interfaith relations, for nearly four decades following his elevation to the College.

Given the accomplishments and turbulence that fill the scene 125 years later, as it didn't just emerge from a vacuum, the milestone seems an especially good moment to look beyond the haze and reflect.