Mother's Day Mass
Basilica of the Assumption
Our celebration of the Eucharist on this Mother’s Day in the Mother Church of the United States takes on its full meaning from the readings of the word of God just now proclaimed. We pray for and we give thanks to God for our mothers in the context woven by that powerful word.
As we remember with gratitude our own mothers, we give thanks to God for what happened in this Mother Church, where over time the family of faith has been assembled and nourished through the breaking of the bread of life.
In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke describes the life of the early church as dependent on the teaching of the apostles and "the breaking of the bread and the prayers." We know that the term "the breaking of the bread" referred to what we are about this morning, namely, the celebration of the Eucharist.
Today we hear a reading from the Fourth Chapter of Acts, as the Apostle Peter addresses the "leaders of the people and elders." Peter speaks to them of the good deed, the healing accomplished by the power of Jesus in the healing of a cripple. He emphasizes that in no name other than that of Jesus can our human family be saved. At the same time, as we reflect on the death of Jesus, we are taught by the Council of Trent that he died because of the sins of all of us, that this Eucharist is another moment in which his saving, loving power comes to touch and heal us spiritually, and it is a healing and a help for which our spirits hunger.
Bishop John Carroll, born of a Maryland mother and father, chose to be ordained a bishop on a feast of our heavenly mother, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1790, at St. Mary’s Chapel, Lulworth Castle, England. Because of the anti-Catholic penal laws, the ceremony was a private one, not advertised ahead of time.
When Pope Pius VI named Father John Carroll the first Catholic bishop in the infant United States of America, he charged him to see to the construction of a cathedral in which "the breaking of the bread" would be the central, indeed, the crowning liturgical event. Bishop John Carroll went about the task carefully, deliberately. A board of trustees was formed in 1795. A few years later, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the only master architect in the infant country, heard of the project and volunteered his services pro bono. At the time he was working for President Thomas Jefferson in designing the first U.S. Capitol.
Begun in 1806, this cathedral was intended to serve as a seat of a bishop responsible for the preaching of the gospel and giving direction to the life of Catholics in what today are more than 35 states of the present United States. The Diocese of Baltimore, in 1806, comprised, besides the 13 original states, also the Northwest Territory, the Middle West as we know it today. When the Louisiana Purchase was concluded in 1804, the territory for 15 future states was acquired by the United States. Pope Pius VII named Bishop Carroll Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of New Orleans, embracing the Louisiana Purchase Territory. A responsibility he retained until 1815. He became Archbishop Carroll and saw the diocese divided in 1810, with the first bishops of Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown, Kentucky, ordained in Baltimore in 1810. The first bishop of New York, an Irish Dominican, was ordained in Rome, but died in Naples.
At first Latrobe wanted to build a Gothic church, but Bishop Carroll pressed for a Neo-Classical design. He wanted to see the Lulworth Chapel, where he became a bishop, on a larger scale. At the same time he looked for a church to link this country’s first cathedral with the architectural style of the newly emerging federal buildings in the District of Columbia.
Built high on a hill, the Cathedral of Baltimore, now the Basilica, became a symbol of the city. In its original design, the interior was bathed with natural light from windows in the dome, and the church itself was, and is, a testament to a golden age when an ancient faith and a newfound freedom met. Please God, these next few years will see this holy building and its heritage conserved and renewed, as much as possible, according to the original intent of Bishop John Carroll and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
This place has witnessed the action of the Holy Spirit, the assembly of the people for the "breaking of the bread," the Eucharist, in so many ways: many bishops were consecrated here to be pastors and apostles across the nation. For instance, early bishops of Boston and New York were consecrated here, and I have no doubt that at those Masses in 1825 and 1826 Archbishop Ambrose Marechal used the chalice he had received from Pope Pius VII in 1821, the chalice we are using today in the Eucharist. Indeed, this chalice was used also at the Masses in the great Councils of the 19th century, as it was used to hold the precious blood of the Lord Jesus at the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II on October 8, 1995, in Oriole Park at Camden Yards. How grateful we must be to the Holy Father for his personal interest in the Basilica. He visited here both as Cardinal and Pope, and has strongly encouraged our restoration efforts.
At this Liturgy, also, I am honored to wear the pectoral cross of Archbishop John Carroll, and used by the Archbishops who succeeded him.
Also, at the Eucharist today I am taking in hand the pastoral staff of Archbishop Ambrose Marechal, who dedicated this church in 1821.
More than 30 bishops were consecrated here to serve as shepherds for diocesan churches from Florida to Idaho and from New England to New Mexico. Among them were two brothers: Bishop Thomas Foley, Bishop of Chicago at the time of the great fire and builder of Holy Name Cathedral, and his younger brother, Bishop John Foley, who guided the Diocese of Detroit into the early years of the 20th century.
In this sanctuary Cardinal James Gibbons ordained more than 2,000 priests, graduates of our country’s first seminary, St. Mary’s, Baltimore (1791) and Mount St. Mary’s, Emmitsburg (1808). Among those he ordained was Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus. His cause for beatification is moving forward, and I am deeply grateful for the presence here today of Mr. Charles Foose, Supreme Secretary of the Knights of Columbus and a native of Baltimore. To the Knights I am grateful also for the support of the restoration of the Basilica.
The centrality of the Eucharist was important for other groups who gathered here in faith through the years and decades past. Those who met in council here 10 times in the 19th century to chart the Church’s course in the rapidly growing United States needed to remind themselves and those to whom they preached, in the words of the reading from the first Letter of St. John, "Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." This is God’s constant call to holiness.
In the gospel passage Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. Concern for the sheep of his flock and ready to "lay down [his] life for the sheep." His is a pastoral love for all of us. And it was reflected in the love of his Church for those who came to bless these shores with their presence and their faith. They came first from Ireland and then from Germany, France, and here in Baltimore early on, from French-speaking Haiti, where within a few years of the founding of the Diocese, the Sulpicians were ministering to the first faith community in the United States of African descent. With pastoral love the Mother Church welcomed and nourished them.
Likewise, when the countries of the Austra-Hungarian Empire sent their waves of immigrants - Slovakia, Bohemia, Austria, Bosnia, Slovenia - and then the Slav Countries of the East - Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine, coming at the same time as immigrants from Italy, the Church welcomed them and cared for them. More recently, the Middle East, Spanish-speaking countries and now Asian and Pacific lands have enriched our own with new arrivals. In all of these arrivals, the Mother Church saw her children, to be nurtured with word and sacrament in the name of Jesus.
The commission of Christ to teach all nations also reminded those meeting here to be conscious of their call to preach the Gospel to the poor. In the Third Plenary Council, for example, special stress was laid on bringing the Gospel to children, through Catholic schools, to the poor African Americans and Native Americans through a new collection and office for this purpose, and to society as a whole by promoting quality higher education and research at a new Catholic university. In fact, it was in Cardinal Gibbons’ residence next door that he convened on May 7, 1885, the first meeting of the committee to carry forward the project of a Catholic University of America. From this Council came also the vision of a catechism, the Baltimore Catechism, destined to tie together in a clear and helpful way the Church’s teachings.
There was also the consuming love for God overflowing in care for neighbor, seen in the life and works of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose first school opened five blocks from here in 1808, of St. John Neumann, pastor of a parish one block away, consecrated Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, and of Mother Mary Lange, whose Congregation of women religious was the first in the world of African descent, begun here in 1829, when Archbishop James Whitfield saw "the finger of God" in their work. Now the cause of this holy woman, for whom English was a third language, is moving forward toward beatification.
In 1889 and in 1989, the Bishops of the United States gathered here to mark the centennial observances of the Church’s life. The first celebration, in 1889, closed with the bishops going on pilgrimage to Washington to dedicate, in the presence of the President of the United States, the new Catholic University of America. The second celebration, in 1989, saw the largest assemblage of our bishops in the country’s history - the result of efforts directed by Archbishop William Donald Borders - in which many retired bishops came to join others in concelebrating the Eucharist with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Holy Father’s Secretary of State and Special Envoy.
Subsequently, in 1995, Pope John Paul II came to the Basilica to pray and to bless the plaque which commemorates the history of this church. And since that date, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew have worshiped and have spoken here.
The Gospel reading today reminds us of the great Good Shepherd who gave his life for his own. From this church has gone encouragement from shepherds speaking in the name of Jesus, reflecting the wisdom of the Gospel and witnessing with expansion of the Catholic Church across the land, the nearly miraculous growth of service to the Gospel works of mercy and charity, of justice and peace, and the proclamation of the good news to the poor that touched many hearts across our land.
This flowering of faith and the works of faith have not come cheaply. John Carroll and his cousin, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, risked much personally for their Catholic faith and for the foundations of freedom in the infant United States. And so have succeeding generations. There are so many challenges today we cannot blink away - horrendous challenges to God’s precious gift of life. There are challenges for parents who want to rear their children in living faith and find themselves penalized for seeking to educate them in the Catholic schools which, as the Holy Father said here in Baltimore, teach the very virtues that American democracy needs in its citizens. We pray for the light and strength to face these challenges.
And there is the challenge of the darkness of the scandal that spread over our Church last year. That is a darkness very like the darkness which came to this Basilica when, in 1942, blackout laws led to the painting black of the skylights which brought illumination in a marvelous, even mystical way to this holy space. As we pray and see strong action taken to restore the light in our Church nationally, so we pray now that the light in this great church may regain its past brightness as a symbol for our land.
We pray also, mindful that from this holy place came forth, again and again, the call to walk in the way of the Beatitudes, Jesus’ way of prayerfulness, holiness and hope. Seven-and-a-half years ago, when Pope John Paul II was here to bless and dedicate the plaque which lists the great Councils held in this Basilica, he first prayed silently before the Blessed Sacrament and the lovely Madonna of Czestochowa, which he had venerated here years earlier as a Cardinal. May his quiet, reverent time before the altar then inspire our own recollected prayer and participation in this Eucharist, the great prayer of Jesus our High Priest.