The Past Is Prologue

A NOTE FROM OUR PUBLISHER: The Baltimore Basilica’s bicentennial highlights just how far Catholics have come and just how much we have to lose if we don’t robustly practice the faith and actively defend our religious freedom.

The mother church of the first diocese of the United States continues to inspire and teach, 200 years later.
The mother church of the first diocese of the United States continues to inspire and teach, 200 years later. (photo: By Smallbones - Own work, CC0, Wikimedia Commons)

The nation’s first cathedral celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, marking a significant milestone in Catholicism in the United States. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, better known as the Baltimore Basilica, was the mother church of the fledgling nation and its small Catholic population when its doors opened on May 31. 

The basilica’s bicentennial, especially coming at a time when all three branches of the U.S. government are headed by baptized Catholics, highlights just how far Catholics have come and just how much we have to lose if we don’t robustly practice the tenets of our faith and actively defend our religious freedom. 

In 1821, there were fewer than 200,000 Catholics living in the U.S., and they were still suffering from severe legal disabilities and other setbacks from the widespread persecution of Catholics prior to our nation’s founding. The hostility they faced was both religious and political — religious from Protestants who detested their loyalty to the pope and to Church teaching and political from the inability of many Americans to believe they could be both good Catholics and good Americans.

The basilica stood out as a beacon of hope intended to rise above the prejudices. It was commissioned by Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore — the nation’s first Catholic bishop and cousin of the only Catholic Founding Father, Charles Carroll — partly in order to celebrate the religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Previously, Catholics had been unable to worship in public for nearly a century in Maryland. Despite the fact that the colony was founded as a place of refuge for Catholics, during that period of persecution they were unable to hold office, vote or educate their children at Catholic schools. 

Bishop Carroll also intended for the first cathedral in America to play a key role in the development of other central components of Catholic life. From the Baltimore Diocese flowed the nation’s first Catholic institutions: the formation of the first Catholic school system, the first Catholic university at Georgetown, the first Catholic seminary, the first place of Catholic episcopal consecrations and priestly ordinations, and the founding place of new Catholic religious communities, including the first order of African American religious, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded by Servant of God Mother Mary Lange.

The seeds planted by Bishop Carroll in Baltimore have spread and flourished across the nation on a magnitude few could have envisioned. Today, there are nearly 200 dioceses nationwide; more than 1.6 million students enrolled in more than 6,000 Catholic primary and secondary schools; more than 800,000 students enrolled in more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities; nearly 5,000 seminarians studying at more than 130 Catholic seminaries; and more than 100,000 clergy and religious in the United States, serving a U.S. Catholic population that now exceeds 70 million people.

As for the Baltimore Basilica itself, it has a great legacy, too. The first cathedral constructed in the U.S. by any Christian denomination, it was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the famed architect who also designed the U.S. Capitol. Restored ahead of the 2006 bicentennial of its commissioning, the neoclassical basilica is widely considered to be Latrobe’s greatest architectural masterpiece, ranking ahead even of the Capitol, and has been designated as a national landmark.

During the course of the 19th century, it hosted the seminal gatherings of the Catholic Church in the U.S., including seven provincial councils that laid the groundwork for the Church’s American structure and three subsequent plenary councils that extended that framework across the nation. The third of those plenary councils also commissioned the Baltimore Catechism, which served as the sure guide for the formation of several subsequent generations of U.S. Catholics.

First and foremost, however, the nation’s first mother church has always been a place of prayer. So it’s highly fitting that, on the same day that it will commemorate the bicentennial of its opening, the Baltimore Basilica will also institute the first perpetual adoration of the Eucharist within the city.

For Catholics, this anniversary is a cause for celebrating the rich history of the Church in America. It’s also an apt moment to reflect on the ways we are increasingly confronted with new threats to religious freedom akin to those experienced more than 200 years ago. 

Just as at the time of the basilica’s beginnings, critics of the Church still are trying to stifle her voice. Faithful Catholics are despised for their devotion to the teachings of the Church, by political progressive elites in the media and in government, and Catholic views are deemed politically unacceptable in the face of the “woke” cultural revolution. Old bigotries are reviving, but with new names and new faces.

And while today Catholics are better educated and better positioned than in the past, in large part because of the foundation that was laid two centuries ago in Baltimore, prosperity has sometimes proven a mixed blessing. 

Catholics currently may have achieved once unimaginable success in terms of holding some of the nation’s highest offices, but in the case of too many, position and power have come at the cost of fidelity to the faith. President Joe Biden and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are baptized Catholics, but this fact has not kept them from championing causes such as so-called abortion rights, the redefinition of marriage and the family, and transgenderism — even though these causes directly contradict Church teachings and profoundly harm the common good of the nation. 

And, sadly, these prominent Catholic politicians are completely fine with compromising religious liberty through executive orders and legislation that would force their co-religionists to be complicit in matters like taxpayer-funded abortion and “gender reassignment” procedures for minors. 

Despite that, the Baltimore Basilica’s bicentennial can point us in the right direction. As Bishop Carroll set about the daunting task assigned to him in Baltimore, he knew that a reliable foundation was crucial for building the young Church in the U.S. And his work has proven resilient. 

Following in his footsteps, we need to recommit ourselves to a comprehensive renewal of the groundwork he laid through vital Catholic institutions. And with bold confidence, we can bear witness to the same timeless clarity of the magisterium and the inspiration of the communion of saints that guide us toward authentically living out our faith in Christ.

God bless you!