Two hundred years ago, on November 6, 1789, Pope Pius VI erected Baltimore as the first diocese of the United States, and appointed Father John Carroll as its first Bishop. It was an event that almost didn't happen.
Sentiment among many if not the majority of the clergy and laity was not favorable to having a Bishop. While a Bishop's pastoral presence and ministry were recognized and missed, Catholics had become sensitive to and some even shared the deep-seated suspicions that the Church in America might become or already was a puppet of a foreign ruler, the Pope.
Jesuit Father Ferdinand Farmer discouraged Quebec Bishop Briand from promoting the appointment of a Bishop for the U.S. "It is incredible how hateful to non-Catholics in all parts of America is the very name of Bishop, even to such as should be members of the Church which is called Anglican" (1773).
But American independence from Great Britain that began in 1776 proved to be a turning point in American Catholic history. Anti-Catholic sentiment abated a little when Americans noted the wholehearted participation of Catholics in the common struggle and war for independence.
Once independence was achieved, the mode of Church governance until then would no longer do. Clergy in the English colonies of America had previously been subject to the Vicar Apostolic in London. To continue this arrangement, or to put the new country under the Roman Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, would only confirm American suspicions about the loyalty of American Catholics. American Catholics wanted an independent spiritual leader.
On June 9, 1784, Rome appointed John Carroll as Prefect-Apostolic of the Catholic missions in America. Rome made this decision in part because it wanted to please Benjamin Franklin, who had warmly recommended John Carroll for the position. The two were good friends ever since their unsuccessful effort to win Canada to the American cause in 1776.
"Prefect" rather than "Bishop" seemed to Rome a good compromise response to the American anti-prelacy sentiment. John Carroll was less than pleased. A Prefect had limited powers and depended upon the Roman Congregation of the Propaganda of the Faith which claimed jurisdiction over the Catholic "missions" in America. This ran the risk of confirming American suspicions. But when the clergy persuaded him that this less-than-perfect solution was at least a first step, he accepted the position in a letter dated February 27, 1785.
Three subsequent events convinced the clergy and laity that American Catholics needed and would not suffer any harm from having a Bishop. Serious problems arose with some laity in New York which Carroll's limited powers as Prefect could not handle; religious freedom became more general and more real in State legislation and ultimately in the Federal Constitution; and Episcopalians consecrated a Bishop for their Church in November, 1784, with no untoward results.
In March, 1788, the priests drew up a petition to Pope Pius VI in which they recognized the need for a Bishop with full independent jurisdiction and they asked for permission, at least for the first time, to choose him themselves.
The Pope concurred. "For the first time only, and by special grace," the Pope allowed the priests in America to decide the town in which the diocese should be located and to elect the Bishop from their number.
On May 18, 1788, the priests selected Baltimore as the diocese because most priests and Catholic laity resided in the region, and it was geographically well situated for communication with the other colonies. Twenty-four of the twenty-six priests assembled voted for Carroll as Bishop. The Pope sent his approval in his letter of November 6, 1789, but noted that future Bishops would be chosen by the Pope "in all future vacancies."
As Maryland and United States Catholics celebrate this bicentennial year, it is opportune to reflect upon these beginnings of American Catholicism. America has contributed distinctive features to Catholicism and fosters distinctive spiritualities in keeping with the culture.
Vatican II noted: "Faithful to her own tradition and at the same time conscious of her universal mission, [the Church] can enter into communion with various cultural modes, to her own enrichment and theirs too" (Church in the Modern World, #58). Our history has much to teach us.
Jesuit Historian Father James Hennesey observed that John Carroll, America's first Bishop, "was a child of the American Revolution, and nothing was clearer to him than that it was his task to incarnate the church in a world that was distinctively new."
A review of the life and legacy of John Carroll helps highlight the impact this "distinctively new" country and culture made on the European Catholicism brought here by immigrants.
More than any one else, Carroll shaped the structural foundations of Catholicism in the United States, rising to meet the challenge of incorporating democratic ideals into Church government insofar as this was possible.
Born on January 8, 1735, John Carroll was the son of Daniel, an Irish immigrant and planter in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and Eleanor Darnall, a European-educated member of an old and distinguished English Maryland family.
Young John went to Europe in 1748 and stayed about 27 years. He completed his studies in French Flanders, entered the English Jesuit novitiate in Watten, studied and was ordained at Liege, Belgium, and was prefect of the Sodality at Bruges, Belgium, when the Conventual Franciscan Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits as a religious community in 1773. Carroll returned to Maryland in 1774, on the eve of the nation's move toward independence from Great Britain.
Three important factors for understanding John Carroll stand out in
this brief sketch: his American heritage; his Jesuit formation and experience;
and his participation in the American Revolution.
He understood this culture well.
In one of many letters to his English Jesuit friend, Charles Plowden, Bishop Carroll wrote in 1791: "...our Clergy will soon be neither Europeans, nor have European connections. There will be the danger of a propensity to a schismatical separation from the center of unity."
It was to fend off this latter possibility that Carroll worked hard
at developing a national church in communion with Rome, a church that would
incorporate the best elements of the new culture in which it had been planted
and was growing. It was urgent to promote an American born and American
trained clergy as quickly as feasible.
The suppression of the Society of Jesus was a painful experience for Carroll who suspected the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith of being responsible for this decision.
These two factors help appreciate Carroll's intellectual gifts as well
as his insistence on autonomy for a Bishop, especially in America.
In 1776, John Carroll himself accompanied Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and his cousin Charles on a failed mission to Canada as a delegation from Congress for the purpose of winning Canada over to the American side.
Carroll was irritated in 1784 when European-based discussions between the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, the Papal nuncio at Versailles, and America's representative to King Louis XVI of France, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, laid plans for church government in the U.S. Though Carroll knew of the plans from Cardinal Antonelli, he felt the American Catholic clergy and laity should be consulted as well.
American Clergy, autonomous Bishops, lay involvement in Church matters -- how would Carroll assess the contemporary Catholic Church in America in the light of his concerns two hundred years ago?
"The church is not a democracy." We hear this repeated often today.
Two hundred years ago, Bishop John Carroll had to explore the extent to which democratic ideas could or should be incorporated into the Catholic church.
Many early settlers in America fled the oppression of an established church in Europe and resolved not to duplicate that situation in the New World. These settlers suspected the Pope was a foreign ruler whose meddling in the American church would render it difficult for Catholics to be fully loyal to this country and to enjoy their full democratic rights.
Aware of this strong-anti Catholic spirit, Bishop Carroll took great pains to prove that Catholics were subject to Rome and the Pope in spiritual matters only.
Though he was opposed to "ecclesiastical democracy," Carroll urged that "Bishops may be elected, at this distance from Rome, by a select body of clergy constituting as it were a Cathedral Chapter. Otherwise we shall never be viewed kindly by our government here, and discontent, even amongst our own clergy, will break out."
Rome's approval of such a process "for the first time only" resulted in Carroll's election as Bishop. But in 1793, Carroll succeeded in obtaining the right to consult the clergy and to propose a candidate, Father Lawrence Graessel as his co-adjustor Bishop with the right of succession. After Graessel's premature death, Carroll repeated the procedure in 1800 and proposed Father Lawrence Neale as his new co-adjutor.
In the consecration ceremony of a Bishop, Carroll saw yet another problem for the young church. He asked and received from Rome permission to delete that portion the new Bishop's oath which stated: "I will to the utmost of my power seek out and oppose schismatics, heretics, and the enemies of our Sovereign Lord and his successors."
Protestant Americans in particular, Carroll feared, would view this sentence as a violation of that same religious liberty which Catholics themselves enjoyed here. Rome agreed to the deletion, which was already allowed in Ireland and in Mohilow, Russia.
Finally, in 1806 Carroll petitioned and in 1808 Rome approved the partition of the Diocese of Baltimore and the erection of four new sees: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, KY. He also sent a list of Bishops for all but New York which Rome approved. At the same time, Rome itself appointed Father Luke Concanen, an Irish Dominican living in Rome, as New York's Bishop.
Carroll knew and respected Concanen, but it is surprising he did not voice an objection to Rome's one-sided nomination. In 1814 when Rome appointed Concanen's successor without consulting the American hierarchy, Carroll complained to a friend: "I wish this may not become a very dangerous precedent, fruitful of mischief by drawing censure upon our religion, and a false opinion of the servility of our principles."
In 1814-1815, when foreign prelates attempted to influence Rome's choice of a new Bishop for Philadelphia, Bishop Cheverus of Boston complained to Carroll: "It is certainly astonishing that Prelates in France or Ireland should recommend subjects for the Mission here and be listened to rather than you and those here you are pleased to consult."
Carroll died in 1815. For the quarter century of his tenure as Bishop, he had experimented in joining democratic ideals to the practices of church governance. Though personally successful more than once, he was unable to establish a permanent policy or process of democratic involvement as a legacy to the new American Church. The Pope claimed the sole right to fill, on his own authority, all episcopal vacancies in America. Sadly, foreign prelates tried more than once to influence that selection.
Vatican II noted that the Church "is not bound exclusively and indissolubly to any race or nation, nor to any particular way of life or any customary pattern of living, ancient or recent. Faithful to her own tradition and at the same time conscious of her universal mission, she can enter into communion with various cultural modes, to her own enrichment and theirs too" (Church in the Modern World, #58).
John Carroll could have written this paragraph. Its challenge was his dream, still not fully realized. No, the Church is not a democracy, but it can enter into still closer communion with democracy to the enrichment of both parties.
During his years as Mission Superior and then as Bishop, John Carroll was bedeviled by a "medley of clerical characters," as he called them, secular and religious clergy who came to America mainly to try their fortune.
Carroll was determined to develop a national clergy that would be well-educated and would be able to preach well. Protestant Churches were attracting Catholics not only because the laity had a voice in selecting the clergy and managing the temporal affairs. Protestant Churches also featured excellent orators.
Above all, then, John Carroll wanted priests whose native tongue was English. But mastery of the language alone was not enough. The Bishop and the laity desired that the priest be learned and eloquent. St. Mary's Congregation in Albany wrote to Carroll of their embarrassment at Father Cornelius Mahoney, their pastor, who was neither learned nor eloquent.
What was meant by "learned?" Carroll urged Cardinal Antonelli to be sure that the two Americans studying for the priesthood in Rome "cultivate acquaintance with the approved authors." In his published reply to criticisms by fellow kinsman and former-Jesuit Charles Wharton who became an Anglican priest, Carroll demonstrates a wide-ranging acquaintance not only with patristic and medieval sources, but also with contemporary theologians both Catholic and Protestant.
"Eloquence" described the ability of a preacher to use language so as to move the audience by sheer power of words. While most American homiletics teachers in the late eighteenth century favored a plain and natural style, Irish preachers were popular because they were emotional in delivery and relied heavily on imagery and metaphors.
Three styles of preaching prevailed at the time: reading a prepared sermon (Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Unitarians); reciting a memorized sermon (Dutch reformed); and extemporaneous preaching (Methodists and Baptists). Presbyterians used all three approaches.
Bishop Carroll had the practice of writing out his sermons long-hand. It is presumed that he read them from the pulpit.
Catholic congregations were universal in their call for distinguished preachers. The Germans of Philadelphia volunteered to build their own church as long as the talented and eloquent German preacher Father John Charles Helbron would be named pastor. Boston Bishop Cheverus' sermons were admired by all of the city because his eloquence was "brilliant, agreeable, full of unction, and captivating."
Carroll did his best to answer the requests for good preachers that poured in to him from so many Catholic congregations. He recognized that a good preacher, trained and expert in the "American style," would satisfy and edify the faithful, stimulate conversions among non-Catholics, and enhance the prestige of the Church in America.
Two hundred years later, Bishop John Carroll would still face this same challenge but with new dimensions. In recent years, America has experienced an influx of foreign priests (Polish, Korean, Indian, Mexican, and Filipino among others) with a varied mastery of English and a theology and spirituality not well suited to America
At the same time, the predominantly immigrant and simple Catholic population of his day has been replaced by a more literate, discriminating, and highly mobile Catholic population.
During a visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II heard Milwaukee Archbishop Weakland say: "The Church in the United States can boast of having the largest number of educated faithful in the world..." Donna Hanson underscored the same point in her remarks: "I expect to be treated as a mature, educated, and responsible adult... Lay members are the best educated and most highly theologically trained in the world."
Catholics participants at the grass-roots level of the 1987 Milwaukee Archdiocesan Synod listed improved preaching as their top priority in Prayer and Worship. "We recommend ... a program of ongoing enrichment and evaluation for all those with preaching faculties. Establish a formation program to prepare qualified laity to share and exercise the preaching ministry (Canon 766)."
Across this country Catholics already have learned enough to know what suits them and what is deficient. Catholics have also learned to vote with their hands (by applauding good preachers), with their feet (by walking out or not attending), and with their wallets and pocketbooks (by contributing generously or refusing to contribute).
Preaching is one area in which the Catholic Church and American culture
appear to have learned much from one another.