BALTIMORE — During an installation replete with striking pageantry, sounding trumpets and an enthusiastic crowd of 2,000, Archbishop William Lori passionately defended the cause of religious freedom as a defining issue for the American people and the Catholic faithful.

“We do not seek to defend religious liberty for partisan purposes, as some have suggested; we do this because we are lovers of a human dignity that was fashioned and imparted not by the government, but by the Creator,” Archbishop Lori said in a May 16 homily designed to bring the campaign from Capitol Hill to the parishes of Baltimore.

Addressing the congregation from the pulpit at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in north Baltimore, the cathedral church of the oldest Catholic diocese in the nation, the archbishop linked the U.S. bishops’ urgent First Amendment battle to the legacy of the city’s first bishop. He addressed a congregation that included his predecessor, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien; the papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano; a host of Church leaders; family members; local Catholics and a Knights of Columbus honor guard.

“We do this because Archbishop John Carroll’s generation of believers and patriots bequeathed to us a precious legacy that has enabled the Church to worship in freedom, to bear witness to Christ publicly and to do massive and amazing works of pastoral love, education and charity in ways that are true to the faith that inspired them in the first place,” said the archbishop.

Archbishop Lori’s installation took place one day after the general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a formal response that rejected the Obama administration’s proposed “accommodation” to the Health and Human Services mandate. The religious-freedom battle prompted by the HHS mandate made the ceremony a high-profile news story.

Archbishop Lori is the chairman of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, established after Church leaders determined that emerging threats to the First Amendment at the state and federal levels required a unified response.

During his homily, he emphasized the need for unity among Catholics in the archdiocese and around the nation. It was a call to confront together the powerful partisan and secular forces that would deny a vital role for religious witness in the public square, threatening the future of Catholic education, health care and social action.

“I sense your ardent desire for an ever-deeper sense of solidarity and unity; [that] … the Church remain a strong and compassionate presence in the city of Baltimore and in all parts of the archdiocese,” Archbishop Lori said to the congregation, which included many Hispanic and African-American Catholics, who interrupted his remarks with sustained applause.

Supporters of traditional marriage in the state, including many historic African-American Protestant churches located in the Maryland Archdiocese, are organizing to secure a referendum to overturn a new law legalizing same-sex “marriage” in Maryland. The new archbishop has already signaled his plan to play a major role in that closely watched effort, and it will be the first test of his gifts as a religious leader in the archdiocese.

At the cathedral, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Pope Benedict XVI’s representative to the United States, read the apostolic mandate pronouncing Archbishop Lori the new leader of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which oversees a half million Catholics and has about 250 priests.

Reading from the letter, Archbishop Vigano said, “Among the sees (dioceses) located in the United States of America, the Archdiocese of Baltimore occupies a special place, for it is the oldest in the history of that distinguished nation.”

“For this reason, in the faithful exercise of our office as the Vicar of Christ and the Shepherd of the universal Church, we take particular care to assign a suitable man of great pastoral experience, capable of succeeding our venerable brother, Edwin Frederick O’Brien, cardinal of the Holy Roman Church,” he continued.

Archbishop Lori’s homily signaled that he would strive mightily to fulfill that expectation. He began his homily with a meditation on what it means to be a Catholic bishop.

“Doesn’t this seem like a good day to reflect on what a bishop does?” he asked the congregation. “One answer to that question was given by a third-grader at the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Greenwich, Conn., on the occasion of one of my visits. Asked what a bishop does, she enthusiastically put her hand up and said, ‘He moves diagonally and protects the king!’” he recalled, provoking laughter from the congregation.

Shifting to a more serious tone, he asserted that the question was best answered through the personal sanctity and public witness of Blessed John Paul II. Archbishop Lori recalled meeting the late Pontiff at the Baltimore Cathedral 17 years earlier, when Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore and Cardinal James Hickey of Washington “presented me to Pope John Paul II for the first time as a newly ordained bishop. There stood I before John Paul II, an ideal priest and a saintly bishop, whose life spoke more eloquently even than his words about my vocation.”

Noting the day’s reading about St. Paul preaching the Gospel in the “Areopagus of Athens, the ultimate public square, in the height of the Roman Empire,” Archbishop Lori recalled Pope John Paul’s lifelong commitment to the defense of religious freedom, calling the world to “be not afraid” and to open their lives to Christ.

“Few people in history went to more Areopagai than did Pope John Paul II, as he traveled the length and breadth of the globe proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, as indeed his successor, Pope Benedict, XVI, continues to do,” Archbishop Lori said. The archbishop is drawing inspiration and guidance from St. Paul, John Carroll and John Paul II for his new role in Baltimore and on the national stage.

“They are teaching me, they are teaching us all, how important it is not only to bring the Gospel into the public square, but, indeed, to defend the right to do so, not just for ourselves, but for all believers,” he said.

The archbishop recalled the late Pope’s words in defense of religious freedom offered years ago at that very cathedral. By then, the Holy Father had helped to vanquish the totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.

While communist ideology once posed the primary threat to the free exercise of religion, Archbishop Lori echoed the recent concerns of Pope Benedict XVI, who has argued that moral relativism offers a more subtle, but equally powerful, threat to the free exercise of religion.

During a recent ad limina visit with U.S. bishops, Pope Benedict underscored the global significance of the First Amendment fight in the U.S.: “With her long tradition of respect for the right relationship between faith and reason, the Church has a critical role to play in countering cultural currents, which ... seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth.”

Benedict told the American bishops that a “legitimate separation of church and state cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the state may choose not to engage or be engaged by the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.”

During the 2012 presidential-election year, the controversy over the HHS mandate has become entangled in partisan politics, and the U.S. hierarchy has been accused of engaging in a “war on women.”

The bishops are on a steep learning curve, and Archbishop Lori acknowledged as much as he contemplated the challenges ahead.

“St. Paul did not carelessly enter the public square, the Areopagus. Not only did he first carefully study the culture and religious practices of the Athenians, he came filled with the love of God, poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit. He knew that the churches where he had preached and fostered the faith needed to be both strong and vibrant, faithful and fruitful, truthful and loving.”

“He knew that for his witness of faith to be believed and for the Church to flourish in times of peace as also in times of persecution, that its members must not only stand fast in the truth of the Gospel, but, indeed, to live the truth in love, to love in accord with the truth we have received,” he stated. In this, he echoed the same theme that shaped Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York’s recent commencement address at The Catholic University of America.

While calling on the entire congregation to prepare for battle by strengthening  themselves spiritually, Baltimore’s new archbishop earnestly expressed his own desire to worthily fulfill his office.

That humble acknowledgement underscored the recent failures of episcopal leadership that have handicapped the bishops’ fight for religious freedom. Archbishop Lori marks a new generation of Catholic leaders who know they must earn respect rather than expecting it.

“On a day such as this, how hard we should pray that, in God’s grace, I will be a wise and holy bishop who seeks to model my life and ministry on the Good Shepherd,” he concluded.

“Pray that, as the Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict XVI unfolds, I shall not only teach the faith, but bear witness to it in a manner that helps to heal the breach between faith and culture.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register's senior editor.