POPE JOHN PAUL II arrives today in a state steeped in Catholic history and tradition. From its 17th-century beginnings as a proprietary colony deeded to a Roman Catholic convert, Maryland represented not just a haven for Catholics who were harassed in other colonies but also an important beacon for the idea of religious toleration.
As he welcomes the pope, Cardinal William H. Keeler stands in a long line of Baltimore archbishops who have worked to build bridges between an ancient church and contemporary culture. Three decades ago, in an appropriate echo of Maryland's pivotal role in the church's history in America, Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan helped draft the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty, as well as its Decree on Ecumenism.
And more than two centuries ago, John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore (and the first in the country) helped a hierarchical church adapt and flourish in an emerging democracy. Given contemporary worries about liberal trends in the church, it's worth noting that Archbishop Carroll was selected for the position by his fellow clergy, then officially appointed by Rome. Moreover, he was a Jesuit, an order sometimes considered too liberal to play a major role in mainstream church affairs.
Archbishop Carroll became a model of the civic-minded church leader. He encouraged the laity to play a role in managing church property. He served on the boards of non-Catholic colleges, St. John's College in Annapolis and Washington College in Chestertown. And as head of the country's first diocese he also played a central role in the periodic gatherings of the country's bishops in Baltimore and in the development of the Roman Catholic Church in the young United States.
Unlike church-state ties in Europe, where countries usually embrace an official church, the challenge for religious groups in America is to forge these bonds on understanding and toleration rather than laws and strictures.
Fortunately for Roman Catholics in Maryland and throughout the DTC United States, Archbishop Carroll was followed by other giants of the church. Cardinal James Gibbons, who headed the archdiocese from 1877 to 1921, was so masterful at mediating between the church and the surrounding culture that he was known as "the most influential private citizen of the nation."
Pope John Paul II, a keen student of history, is mindful of this legacy. His visit to Baltimore is a tribute to a city and state that nurtured Catholicism in America, enabling the church to thrive even as it spread its ministry into a restless culture always in need of a spiritual touch.