In a whirlwind tour that took him to the westernmost reaches of his new archdiocese, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien visited 17 parishes and schools in Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties Oct. 4-6 – the first pastoral visits the prelate has made since his Oct. 1 installation as Baltimore’s 15th archbishop.
One of the new archbishop’s first stops was at Bishop Walsh School in Cumberland, where he was warmly greeted by Cumberland Mayor Lee Fiedler, school leaders and more than 550 elementary and high school students.
“I chose this part of the archdiocese because it’s probably the most beautiful spot in 1,000 miles,” said Archbishop O’Brien, quickly winning over his audience of students, teachers, parents and area priests who filled the gymnasium. He noted that God’s power can be seen in the majestic mountains of Western Maryland.
On what happened to be the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Archbishop O’Brien urged the children to model their lives after St. Francis as the New York native celebrated an afternoon Mass – his first public Mass since his installation. He later strongly encouraged them to consider religious vocations and promised to visit Bishop Walsh again before the end of the school year to see how the school has been promoting vocations.
“Are you going to live your life for yourself or are you going to live your life for others?” he asked. “What are you doing in your life to imitate Christ? Let us hear Jesus’ voice today and answer as St. Francis did.”
The archbishop commended the students for their commitment to their faith and he said he believed there were future priests, brothers and sisters at Bishop Walsh today. The former head of the U.S. Military Archdiocese pointed out that there are 16 Air Force bases in the United States that don’t have priest chaplains, noting that the church needs young people to answer God’s call.
“I’m asking you to pray for generous people to come forward to serve,” he said.
In an interview with The Catholic Review, Archbishop O’Brien said he believed it was important to get out and meet the people of the archdiocese from the very beginning of his Baltimore ministry. He plans to visit each of the 151 parishes in the archdiocese, he said.
“I think it’s easy to sit behind a desk and stay within one or two miles of your home,” he said. “If the Lord says preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, my coming to the end of the diocese might give some idea of what I think about evangelization.”
Archbishop O’Brien said his Western Maryland tour reminds the region that “it is as important as every other Catholic area and that they have many gifts.”
Acknowledging that Allegany and Garrett counties have suffered economically and have been challenged with a declining population, Archbishop O’Brien said the archdiocese remains committed to “Mountain Maryland.” The presence of Catholic parishes and schools help maintain the population, he said.
“It attracts people to the area as well,” Archbishop O’Brien said, hailing Western Maryland as “grassroots Americana.”
“We always want schools to be there waiting for people to come, and it’s the role of the bishop to make that clear and encourage it,” he said.
Mayor Fiedler, a parishioner of St. Patrick in Cumberland who also serves as president of the school board at Bishop Walsh, called it “very much an honor” that the new archbishop visited his city. The kindergarten students each had a chance to shake the archbishop’s hand and accept a prayer card from him.
“I’m sure this is something the children will remember all their lives,” he said. “I went to parochial schools in Ohio and I can’t remember the bishop ever visiting.”
Archbishop O’Brien, who celebrated a regional Mass on Oct. 5 at St. Patrick and met with the priests, deacons and religious of the vicariate, did not return to Baltimore empty handed.
Parishioners of St. Peter in Hancock gave him some of their famous homemade apple dumplings and a Bishop Walsh teacher baked his favorite chocolate chip cookies.
“We’re just thrilled he has chosen to come our way,” said Sam Torres, Bishop Walsh principal. “We want him to know that we are continuing the missionary work of the church here in Western Maryland.”