Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
200th Anniversary of the Dedication of the Basilica of the Assumption
May 31, 2021
A Unique and Precious History
In 1803, Bishop John Carroll surveyed his diocese, the Diocese of Baltimore, stretching from Canada to Florida and westward to the Mississippi River. It was a vast new diocese in a vast new country, a republic founded on the proposition that all persons are created equal, and endowed by the Creator with fundamental freedoms, among them, freedom of religion –freedoms for which, over time, many would give their lives to defend. John Carroll knew that his new diocese would need a spiritual center, a cathedral, and so he invited his people to contribute what they could to its design and construction. Specifically, he asked parishioners in his far-flung diocese to contribute one dollar annually, each December for four consecutive years, and moreover, like a good American, he also instituted a lottery to help pay for this edifice.
Having secured the hill upon which this Cathedral sits from Gov. John Eager Howard, John Carroll and his Trustees set about building a Cathedral that would be a beautiful manifestation of the Catholic faith in the spirit of the new republic. He enlisted the architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who had designed the Capitol, to design this neo-classical structure that would be filled with light, so as to reflect the light of faith and the light of reason, and yes, the sunlight of authentic freedom.
Archbishop Carroll did not live to see the completion of the project he had begun so ably. It fell to the 3rd Archbishop of Baltimore, Ambrose Maréchal, to complete it. With great energy and industry, Archbishop Maréchal did just that, and on this date in 1821, he consecrated the nation’s first Cathedral, dedicating it first and foremost to the celebration of Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In a pastoral letter issued prior to its consecration, Archbishop Maréchal spoke of the grandeur of the Temple in Jerusalem, but added that this Cathedral would have a superior grandeur because of the divine mysteries which would be enacted herein, in this place possessing its own worthiness and beauty. “Ministers of peace [he said] will continue to offer up to heaven, under the symbols of bread and wine, the same adorable victim which was once immolated on Mount Calvary for the redemption of mankind.” Here, he said, “The Law of the Gospel…will be announced to you from the pulpit… pure and holy, as it flowed from the lips of the Son of God and the Apostles…” The Archbishop spoke also of the sins that would be pardoned in this Cathedral church through the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance. It was in view of this edifice’s “sublime and holy ends”, that the Archbishop dedicated it to God, praying that the faithful would receive, within these walls, “courage in their temptations; comforts in their afflictions and infirmities; light in their doubts; and all the graces necessary to persevere in the service and love of God.” So too did he pray that those suffering from spiritual infirmities would return home from this Cathedral “made whole, praising and glorifying God.” These most fundamental purposes of this Basilica continue in our times, and today, we give thanks for the torrent of graces communicated and received in this sacred space.
Archbishop Maréchal could not have envisioned fully the role our nation’s 1st Cathedral would play in the history of the Church in the United States. This would be the scene of the seven provincial and three plenary councils of Baltimore, meetings in which the nation’s bishops laid the foundations of the Catholic Church in the United States and gave it its institutional shape. No other structure in the United States can claim such a history and no other church, even to this day, has witnessed the consecration of more bishops than this venerable Basilica, which rightly claims the title, “America’s First Cathedral.” All of which and more led James Cardinal Gibbons in 1905 famously to declare, “What Mecca is to the Mohammedan, what the Temple of Jerusalem is to the Israelite, what St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is to the faithful of the Church Universal, this Cathedral is to the American Catholic” … a claim we today reassert! There are, to be sure, bigger and grander cathedrals and churches across our land but none is so venerable as this haven of tranquility amid the chaos of modern life, none so noble as this house of prayer where reigns the peace of Christ in troubled times. Is it any wonder that Card. Keeler, given his love for Baltimore and its history, saw fit to restore America’s Cathedral to its original beauty and genius, so that, once again, its light could radiate across our land, around the world, and in our souls!
Foundation and Mission
If, my friends, you look up at the lightsome dome above us, with its oculus emblazoned with the image of the Holy Spirit, you can easily imagine how strong and solid the foundations of this building must be. Were you to visit its undercroft you would see four inverted arches, ingeniously designed by Latrobe to support and sustain the massive dome overhead. Yet, the foundations of this Basilica are far more solid and deep than that. For, as St. Paul says in our second reading, “… no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Mary, our Eucharistic Lord, remains the true and enduring foundation of this Cathedral; it is upon Christ that we build!
While the Cathedral was patterned on classical architecture, especially the Pantheon in Rome and the chapel of Lulworth Castle in Dorchester, Eng., where, in 1790, Archbishop Carroll had been consecrated a bishop—nonetheless– this Cathedral finds in its patroness, the Blessed ever-Virgin Mary, an even more sublime model and pattern for its form, its prayer, and its mission. Today’s feast, the Feast of the Visitation, manifests Mary as archetype of this Temple: Mary who, in her sinless heart, absorbed the living Word of God and believed in it; Mary, who by the power of the Holy Spirit, conceived the Word – and in whose virginal womb, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Thus, within her was the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Savior. If, as St. Paul says, we are all temples of the Lord…even more can it be said of Mary, that she is a temple in whom God dwelt, or to use the words of St. John Paul II, “When at the Visitation, [Mary] bore in her womb the Word made flesh, she became in some way a ‘tabernacle’ – the first ‘tabernacle’ in history – in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed himself to be adored by Elizabeth, radiating his light, as it were, thru the eyes and voice of Mary.”
In the radiant light of this Basilica, we feel the maternal warmth of Mary’s love, as here we listen to the voice of Christ proclaimed in the Scriptures, re-enact sacramentally the death and resurrection of her divine Son, receive his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, and, like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, adore him in the Blessed Sacrament Reserved. From this Basilica, there arises Mary’s timeless hymn of praise, “The Lord has done great things for me, holy is his Name… His mercies are from generation to generation…” And like Mary, having received Our Lord into our hearts, we too become temples, as it were, ‘tabernacles’, who are called to bring Christ outward, no longer to the hill country of Judea but now to the streets of Baltimore and beyond… streets where we meet “Jesus in his distressing disguises” as St. Teresa of Calcutta often said, whether in the poor and homeless or in those who are spiritually impoverished.
Thus, this Basilica continues, not only to celebrate history, but to make history, just as it has done in the ministry of Msgr. James Hobbs and Fr. Jeff Dauses, in the ministry of Msgr. Art Valenzano, whom we remember so lovingly, in Bishop Madden’s devoted care for this parish, and now in the dedicated ministry of our current Rector, Fr. James Boric. It is he who had the vision to undertake an initiative known as “Source of All Hope” – young men and women, urban missionaries, whose lives are centered on the Eucharist, and who go forth from this Basilica to minister to the poor and homeless in our midst, treating them not as a problem to be solved but as human beings, endowed by God with inalienable dignity and called to friendship with him.
At the heart of this initiative is indeed the Eucharist and Eucharistic Adoration, and with that in mind, today we rejoice to inaugurate for the 1st time in this historic Basilica and for the first time in the City of Baltimore – perpetual Eucharistic Adoration. Under Fr. Boric’s leadership, a chapel renovated during Msgr. Valenzano’s rectorship, has been made even more beautiful with a new and secure tabernacle – and adorers have been identified, hundreds of them, who will come here day and night, to adore the Lord and to make of this Basilica the true spiritual heart of the City. You can be sure, that this will be the source of hope and joy for countless people, many of whom will be unaware that powerhouse of prayer exists in their midst.
Ad Multos Annos
Dear friends, on this solemn and joyous occasion, may we, faithful to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, magnify the greatness of the Lord, together with Mary and with all the saints, … and through Mary’s intercession may this song of praise resound within these walls and echo far beyond them, for hundreds and thousands of years to come! And may God bless us and keep us always in his love!