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The ties that bind Baltimore to the Bishop of Rome


THE BONDS of faith and affection that tie the Archdiocese of Baltimore to the Bishop of Rome -- the bonds we shall celebrate with Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore today -- go back to the very beginning of the archdiocese in the years after the American Revolution.

In those days, great lengths of time as well as distance separated Baltimore and Rome; a letter might take six months to travel the Atlantic. These would not seem the circumstances in which strong ties could be forged. Yet Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop of the United States, had a striking affection for popes Pius VI and Pius VII during the 25 years of his episcopal ministry here in the Premier See. It was a difficult time for the papacy: Napoleon was ravaging Europe, at one point holding Pius VII prisoner. In 1814, Carroll wrote to tell Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton of his joy that prayers were answered and Pope Pius VII had been restored to freedom after a long imprisonment in France.

A report to Rome

The third archbishop of Baltimore, Ambrose Marechal, was the first American bishop to make an ad limina visit to Rome: the pilgrimage to the tombs of Peter and Paul which Catholic bishops now make every five years. Archbishop Marechal spent six months in Rome in 1821-22, reporting on the progress of the church in the United States and securing the designation of St. Mary's Seminary as a pontifical university. The chalice Pope John Paul II will use at Mass in Camden Yards this morning was a gift Pope Pius VII placed in the hands of Archbishop Marechal near the end of that historic visit.

The ties between Baltimore and Rome intensified throughout the 19th century. In the years before there was an apostolic delegate nuncio in Washington, or national bishops' conference, the Archbishop of Baltimore was often the link for communications between the Holy See and the American bishops. In 1852, Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, as Apostolic Delegate, convened the First Plenary Council here, bringing U.S. bishops together primarily to deal with challenges posed by the Church's growth west of the Mississippi.

Two years later Archbishop Kenrick traveled to Rome for the solemn definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. With him was John Neumann, the saintly bishop of Philadelphia, who once had served as pastor of Baltimore's St. Alphonsus Church. To these bishops Pope Pius IX confided his hope that the Catholic Church in the United States might have its own seminary in Rome. In the ensuing years, Archbishop Kenrick, at the Holy See's request, coordinated U.S. efforts which led to the opening of the North American College in 1859.

In 1866, the pope appointed Archbishop Martin John Spalding to preside at the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, assembled to revitalize the Church immediately after the Civil War. The bishops met privately after the council meeting to recommend that Father James Gibbons of Baltimore be named a bishop and the missionary vicar apostolic of North Carolina. A few years later the future cardinal became, at age 35, the youngest bishop in the world to attend the First Vatican Council in 1869-70; when he died in 1921, he was the last surviving father of that historic council as well as of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore.

Cardinal Lawrence Shehan was a leading figure at the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65, where he served as one of the council's 12 presidents during its fourth and last period in the fall of 1965. Cardinal Shehan also represented Pope Paul VI in Istanbul on December 7, 1965, at a service with Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras for the reading of a joint statement of Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch consigning "to oblivion" the mutual excommunications of the 11th century.

Links to Baltimore

These links between the Bishop of Rome and the cradle of Catholicism in the United States are of more than historic interest. The pope, for Catholics, is not simply an international religious executive who happens to hold the world's oldest office; he is Peter among us, the custodian of the great tradition of Christian faith that begins with the apostolic band in the Upper Room on Pentecost. The loyalty and affection that the Archdiocese of Baltimore has traditionally displayed toward the Bishop of Rome is, foremost, an expression of our commitment to the Catholic and apostolic faith to which Pope John Paul II bears such a compelling witness.

The dialogue between Baltimore and Rome over the past 200 years has been very much a two-way street, and the conversation has been spiced -- sometimes quite vigorously -- by a Baltimore accent.

The dialogue springs from a family connection that is not only of historic interest -- it is foremost an expression of our commitment a living faith.

Simon, one of the Twelve, was first to profess his belief in Jesus, who, in response, gave him a new name, Peter, and a striking promise -- "Upon this rock, I shall build my church." After the resurrection, he charged and led the early Church, speaking to and for her members, laboring in the first missionary efforts which took him to Rome and a martyr's death. Through nearly two millenniums, each of his successors as Bishop of Rome has also succeeded him as first witness to the world of the risen Jesus and as a living visible sign of our Catholic unity in faith and love.

When we welcome Peter today, in the person of Pope John Paul II, we are welcoming one whose presence and whose message confirm us in the faith to which so many in this city and state have given such a singular and noble expression.

Cardinal William H. Keeler is archbishop of Baltimore.

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