3rd Sunday of Lent
Basilica of the Assumption
March 7, 2021
This month, the Archdiocese of Baltimore observes the 100th anniversary of the death of James Cardinal Gibbons, the 9th Archbishop of Baltimore. It seems fitting that we remember this great servant of the Church who served as the Shepherd of this, the Nation’s oldest Archdiocese from 1877 until his death at the age of 87 in 1921, a total of 44 years. No one, except Archbishop John Carroll, has left behind a larger footprint on the Church in the United States than Cardinal Gibbons, and for that reason alone we should not let this anniversary go unnoticed.
It is also fitting that we should celebrate the centenary of his death here, in this the nation’s first Cathedral, the historic Basilica of the Assumption. After all, in 1834, James Gibbons was baptized here, in the very font that is still in use, and it was here that, in 1857, he was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Kenrick. Only eleven years later, he was consecrated a bishop in this Cathedral by the 7th Archbishop of Baltimore, Martin John Spalding.
As we commend Cardinal Gibbons to the Lord of life and love, what can we learn from the times in which he lived, from his leadership, and from the example he set? Much could be said; indeed, his definitive biography fills two large volumes, so I shall be selective, concentrating on three aspects of his life: 1st, his vocation as a priest; 2nd, his role as a unifier of the Church in the United States; and 3rd, his role as a preacher and teacher of the Holy Catholic Faith.
The Priestly Vocation of Cardinal Gibbons
First, a word about Cardinal Gibbons’ priestly vocation. He was born in Baltimore in 1834 to Thomas and Bridget Gibbons but in 1837 Thomas and Bridget moved their family back to their native Ireland, where, in the town of Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Thomas ran a grocery store. After his death, Bridget moved back to the United States, to New Orleans, where young James Gibbons worked in grocery, until that is, the preaching of a Redemptorist father inspired him to become a priest. The future Archbishop and Cardinal was formed for the priesthood here in Baltimore, matriculating at St. Charles College and St. Mary’s Seminary, then on Paca Street.
The point I would like to make is this: When that Redemptorist preached his mission in a New Orleans parish, he probably had no idea that he encouraged a young man brimming with talent to give his life over to the Lord as a priest, a priest who would serve brilliantly. Last week, twenty-two men made a vocations discernment retreat, and there are more than fifty seminarians studying to become priests for the Archdiocese. Who knows whether among them there is another Cardinal Gibbons, or a St. John Neumann, or a Blessed Father Michael McGivney, also ordained right here. From his place in eternity, may Card. Gibbons intercede for his beloved Archdiocese, that there may be an abundance of good holy priests to serve God’s people!
Cardinal Gibbons Role as a Unifier
Let’s turn to Cardinal Gibbons’ extraordinary role of leadership in the Church, especially his role as a unifier of the Church during times that, like ours, were divisive. The future Cardinal was well prepared for his role as head of the Premier See. Soon after his priestly ordination, Archbishop Spalding tapped him to help organize the 2nd Plenary Council of Baltimore, a watershed event in the organization of the Church in a still expanding country. Not long thereafter, in 1868, James Gibbons was consecrated a bishop, and sent to take care of North Carolina where, at the time, only a few Catholics resided. When he was consecrated, Bishop Gibbons was the youngest bishop in the world and was still the world’s youngest bishop at the time of the 1st Vatican Council in 1870. In 1872, Bishop Gibbons was appointed to the Diocese of Richmond which, this past year, celebrated its own bicentennial.
All of that prepared him for the role he assumed in 1877, as Archbishop of Baltimore. As yet, there was no papal representative, no nuncio, in the United States. And so, as a practical matter, the Archbishop of Baltimore performed that vital function and was, in effect, the unofficial primate, or chief bishop, in the United States. This meant that, among his brother bishops in a rapidly growing and divided country, the Archbishop of Baltimore exercised a major leadership role. This included convoking, in 1884, the 3rd Plenary Council of Baltimore, a gathering that, even now, shapes the footprint of the Church in the United States. … Now, here is a fact from history that I hope you will find somewhat consoling. Back then, the Bishops of the United States were divided among themselves and their divisions were reported widely in the press and thus were well-known. Moreover, the Holy See kept a wary eye on those unruly American bishops, at times finding it hard to grasp the issues facing the Church in a democratic society. The specific issues in the late 19th century were largely different than today’s issues, but one issue was the same, viz., how the Church should relate to the larger society. Cardinal Gibbons sided with bishops who believed the Church would flourish in a free society, where Church and State were separated, and fundamental freedoms guaranteed. In sum, Cardinal Gibbons believed one could be a good Catholic and a loyal American. This led him and other bishops to establish stronger ties with the surrounding culture, for example, by championing the labor movement, relating to other faiths, cooperating with public schools, and working closely with public officials. Other bishops, including the then Archbishop of New York, strongly disagreed.
Even so, Cardinal Gibbons never let divisions among the bishops spin out of control. Indeed, he was very concerned to maintain the unity of the Church. And so, he kept the conversation going, found common ground where possible, never acted or spoke in a divisive manner, and, in a sense, played the long game. He knew that eventually these matters would resolve themselves, as indeed they did. (And, of course, the long game is played more easily when you stay in office until you’re 87!) The point I wish to make is the importance of maintaining the Church’s unity in times like ours, when the culture is very divided and those divisions affect the Church. The unity which we seek is not mere compromise or a lowest common denominator, but rather a unity that is rooted in Christ and flows from the Catholic faith itself. Let us ask the masterful Cardinal Gibbons to intercede for us, that we may be one!
Cardinal Gibbons as a Teacher of the Faith
Which leads me to the third aspect of Cardinal Gibbons’ ministry, his role as a foremost teacher of the Catholic faith in the United States. As a young bishop in North Carolina, he saw the need for a readily understandable explanation of the faith – and finding nothing suitable – he wrote Faith of Our Fathers, a book which is still consulted to this day. Other books include Our Christian Heritage, Ambassador of Christ, and his Discourses and Sermons…and innumerable other writings. Cardinal Gibbons also supported the development of the Baltimore Catechism from which yours truly first learned the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. In 1918, an aging Cardinal Gibbons met a young seminarian, Lawrence Shehan, who would go on to become Cardinal Shehan, the 12th Archbishop of Baltimore. Cardinal Gibbons asked the future Cardinal Shehan if he had read Faith of Our Fathers!
Moreover, Cardinal Gibbons preached, taught, and lectured throughout the United States and beyond, and this at a time when traveling about was difficult and time-consuming. The Cardinal strongly supported parochial schools and was a prime mover behind the founding of The Catholic University of America. Of particular interest to us should be the fact that, on many Sundays, Cardinal Gibbons preached in this very Cathedral, mostly to a packed house. By all accounts, the Cardinal’s voice carried well in this challenging structure, and his words were at once heartfelt, erudite, and yet accessible to one and all. Clearly, he took seriously his responsibility as a teacher of the faith, a responsibility that was nourished daily in this Cathedral where he prayed and where, at the Lady Altar, he offered Holy Mass.
As we mark the centenary of Cardinal Gibbons’ death, let us remember him as “a friend of people of every condition, race, and faith” … let us remember him as “a patriot, a citizen, and a statesman, a man of great vision whose words were always peaceful and just” – and let us ask the Lord to raise up in our midst leaders that will follow in his footsteps. May the great soul of James Cardinal Gibbons rest in peace. Amen.