Baltimore Basilica, America’s First Cathedral and Birthplace of Baltimore Catechism, Marks 200th Anniversary

The celebration of the bicentennial of the Baltimore Basilica symbolizes the resilience of our faith and the hope we have in the future.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (photo: Basilica1, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Praying in a local Adoration chapel recently on one Sunday, I suddenly heard someone begin to sob and then rush out of the chapel. I quickly bowed to the Eucharist and went searching for her. There she was, crying on the chapel steps. As I tried to comfort her, I found myself saying, “It’s been a horrible past year,” to which she exclaimed, “Yes, it has! Thank you for saying that.” Sitting there together and talking, I thought about how remarkable it was that the Church, particularly our Lord present during Adoration, was the means of bringing us together and helping this woman deal with her distress. 

And it is in this atmosphere of situation-weariness that God in his mercy has given us a chance to celebrate the anniversary of the first Catholic cathedral in the United States, the Baltimore Basilica (formally known as the “Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary”). Yes, there have been numerous silver linings and many blessings associated with this past year’s pandemic, but I’m thrilled now to have the chance to celebrate and in the joy of Jesus and Mary, in our Church. After a year of dealing not only with the effects of the coronavirus, but also some of the most divisive politics and inner-city strife, Catholics can look to the 200th anniversary of the first cathedral in the United States and see a stronghold that has gotten us through many difficult periods in U.S. history.

The celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Baltimore Basilica symbolizes this resilience of our faith and the hope we have in the future. No matter what obstacles may be before us as Catholics living today in the United States, we can trust that Christ will walk hand-in-hand with us and with his mother. Having 2021 also be the Year of St. Joseph is an additional reminder to us to model this saint’s perseverance. I think particularly of how hard it must have been for St. Joseph to endure his exile in Egypt, even with his family. And yet, clearly strengthened by the presence of Jesus and Mary, St. Joseph overcame this and other difficulties and went on to continue to do God’s will. We can, too, as we model St. Joseph in 2021 no matter what is behind us. 

When we find ourselves in moments of frustration, like the woman I comforted outside the local Adoration chapel, we have Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament as an especially strong means of encouragement now and in the future. Seeing Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration be started at the Baltimore Basilica on the same day as its anniversary celebration is a further reminder of what we have as a means of remaining strong whatever is thrown our way. I can say with St. Paul, “I can accomplish all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). While praying with our Lord in any Adoration chapel, I can meditate on his life and that of the Blessed Mother and choose to model their openness to our Father in Heaven, who loves us so much and knows what is best for us. Like Jesus and Mary, I can choose to take up my cross and let God make something good out of it for other people. That’s the power of the Eucharist. That’s the power of living the Catholic faith. And so, like St. Paul, I rejoice!

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Baltimore Basilica also reminds me of the impact that the Baltimore Catechism has had on so many lives. My own mother’s life was changed forever by being introduced to it. As a young woman from an Ohio farm family, she had to go to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to work in a factory making fighter jet parts during World War II, another difficult time to live through for many Americans.

To work in Fort Wayne also meant that Mom had to live with a family and care for their children as a means of affordable housing. Mom recalled that, during her introduction to the family, the children’s Baptist mother, married to their Catholic father, handed my mother a copy of the Baltimore Catechism with the remark, “And when you have time, please read the children this.” My mother remembered being appalled. Raised in a family from a branch of the Amish religion, Mom described herself as not only Protestant but also anti-Catholic. And yet, as she started to read the Baltimore Catechism, she said to herself, “This is the truth.” 

A woman on her own in the 1950s, my mother converted to Catholicism. At that time, she recalled that to do so, she had to kneel before the priest and state, “And now I will reject this heresy...” before being confirmed. And yet she did it despite her family’s disapproval and went on to meet and marry a Catholic man and raise a Catholic family. I am thankful for the impact on my family made by the Baltimore Catechism. 

Knowing the influence the Baltimore Catechism made on my mother, I keep a copy in my house of the Catholic Catechism promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II. It is a great means of reference when I have any confusion about points in our faith that need clarification or that come up when evangelizing other people. Adoration has also been a great place to sit and read the Catechism slowly over several months, to let our Lord teach me about the faith in the quiet of the chapel together with him. 

What lies ahead we do not know. Some have described these as dark times. But I thank God for his mercy in giving us the anniversary celebration of the Baltimore Basilica as a shining example of Christ’s power and the comfort of Mary our mother that we always have with us. Rejoice!