Basilica of the Assumption
Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D.
May 15, 2012
Together with Cardinal O’Brien, moments ago, I stood in reverence before the tombs of the Archbishops of Baltimore, beginning with Archbishop John Carroll, our nation’s first bishop.
With architect Benjamin Latrobe, he envisioned this, the nation’s first cathedral, as a place of great beauty that would embody the Catholic Tradition while reflecting the distinctiveness of the American experiment of limited government, designed to recognize and protect religious freedom.
We paused before the resting place of Francis Patrick Kenrick, a man of great scholarship and refinement, remembered for translating the Bible into English and for launching the first of three Plenary Councils of Baltimore.
With Cardinal O’Brien, I stood before the tomb of Martin John Spalding, who belonged to a family with deep Maryland roots but who, like myself, came from Louisville to Baltimore.
We stood also in the shadow of the great James Cardinal Gibbons, arguably the most influential Catholic leader in the United States for forty years and one of the great architects in the ongoing project of true faithful citizenship. There also, we looked upon the tomb of Archbishop Michael Curley, both the tenth Archbishop of Baltimore and First Archbishop of Washington.
In my day, it was said that Archbishop Curley was not enamored of the federal city and even less enamored of the proposal to separate Washington from Baltimore. Be that as it may, what we should remember about Archbishop Curley is that he loved the poor, African Americans, immigrants, and the elderly – at his death in 1947 he was penniless.
In this very place the contours of the church in the United States began to take shape: the parish system, Catholic schools, the Baltimore Catechism, the founding of The Catholic University of America, laws of fast and abstinence, a spirited defense of the Church against the anti-Catholic bigotry of the day, and more.
It is a rich legacy, stretching from 1634 to the present, which author Thomas W. Spalding captured with three words: The Premier See. It is a legacy of which we are proud but also a legacy which can weigh heavily upon us.
I can well imagine myself some sleepless night tiptoeing by the imposing portraits of my predecessors on my way to the kitchen to get a glass of warm milk!
But how should we think about this legacy?
Is it like a grand castle in the English country-side which the landed gentry can no longer afford to maintain?
Is it a mere distraction amid the very real problems and challenges which the Church of Baltimore is facing as we look to the future?
Or is it a living legacy, more than a collection of historical facts, which continues to provide us with fresh strength and hope in our times?
As this very basilica attests, we are more than the sum of our history even as we are indelibly part of a culture. The leaders who went before us, bishops, priests and religious, countless families, those who have Maryland roots and the newly arrived, indeed all those who went before us in faith…they have all put us in touch not just with a legacy, but with the Tradition, not just with a set of ideas, but with a faith that gives us access to a Person, to the Person of Jesus Christ who knows us better than we know ourselves and who loves us in ways that exceed our every expectation.
The Tradition of which our particular legacy is a part is much larger than we are. It is deeper, richer, more beautiful and coherent than anything any of us could conjure.
As we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 95), “Sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others.”
Rather, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, all three, each in its own way, contributes effectively to the salvation of souls (cf. ibid).
Enlivened by the Spirit, the Tradition of which we are a part is ‘a living dynamic reality’ as Pope Benedict XVI teaches in his exhortation Verbum Domini. And, as he said elsewhere, [Tradition] is not a collection of things or words, like a box of dead things. Tradition is the river of new life that flows from the origins, from Christ down to us and make us participate in God’s history with humanity.”
Somewhere in the pages of Theological Investigations, theologian Father Karl Rahner warns us not to imagine that our particular grasp of the Tradition, our small pool of knowledge, is exhaustive. He included himself in his own warning, as I include myself, standing before you.
Similarly, theologian Avery Dulles, who famously wrote on the models of the Church, urged us in his scholarly way not to imagine that any one of them stands on its own.
It is not as though we can go into a restaurant and order the “ecclesiology du jour”!
Rather, it is because we take a stance of wonder and awe before the Mystery, the hidden plan of salvation that God the Father revealed and accomplished in Christ, . . . it is because of this that we can open our minds and hearts to a confluence of complementary Scriptural images which converge in our understanding of the Church as a communion of truth and love, modeled on and sharing in the life of the Triune God.
Right about now you might be thinking, “O, brother!” – what does all this have to do with the very real challenges we face?
What do these thoughts about Tradition have to do with the question of how the Church will remain a vital and compassionate presence from the City of Baltimore to Oakland?
What do they have to do with the urgent task of building a greater sense of trust and collaboration for sake of the Gospel we are to hand on?
How can our openness to the breadth, length, height, and depth of the Tradition assist us in raising up vocations to priesthood and consecrated life?
In defending marriage and fostering family life in a time of cultural confusion?
What can the Tradition tell us about defending religious liberty for ourselves and for oppressed people around the world in a time when our nation is in the throes of partisan gridlock?
I would submit this living Tradition has everything to do with what lies before us, with so many of those things you have already been kind enough to share with me. To be sure, the Tradition is not like a box of dead things and neither is it a storehouse of ready-made answers.
But this I know and this I want to learn all over again, with you and for you: If we are willing with the grace of the Holy Spirit to listen to the voice of the Tradition as it comes to us in Scripture, Church teaching, worship, and the wisdom of the saints, including those who have served in this Archdiocese, . . . if we are willing to listen to the voice of the Lord through daily assiduous prayer, through lectio divina, through spiritual reading, academic study, and discernment, . . . then we are all much more likely to be willing to listen to one another.
When we drink deeply of this River of Life which flows from God through Christ onto us in the Church, then we are continually refreshed and renewed at every stage in our lives to live our vocations to priesthood and consecrated life with fidelity and to engage anew each day in the multiple tasks of ministry . . . a work which is really not our own but rather the work of God in us and through us.
After all, our task as described this evening by the First Letter of Peter, is to “let ourselves be built into a spiritual house” of which Christ is ‘the sure foundation’.
Dear friends, tonight I stand before you as one who has some ties with the unique legacy of this local church.
Not only do I originally hail from Louisville like Martin John Spalding but like Archbishop Borders I have Indiana roots as well. I can also point to the fact that fully 50 percent of the bishops of Bridgeport have become archbishops of Baltimore. Of course, for some 24 years I was a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington and, for much of that time, a resident of the Free State.
For all that, however, let me assure you that I have no illusions about how steep my learning curve will be.
I thank those who of you who have sent me your reflections on the Archdiocese, letters which I have carefully read more than once and in the days ahead I look forward to meeting in small groups with the priests of the Archdiocese, just as I look forward in the fall to opportunities to meet similarly in smaller groups with those of you in consecrated life, with deacons, and with lay leaders as well.
For now, let me thank you, Cardinal O’Brien, for the warmth of your welcome, and for giving this great Archdiocese a shepherd’s care, and for strengthening the foundations upon which we shall build.
Let us also thank Cardinal Keeler who loved this Archdiocese and its heritage so deeply and remember him in our prayers and in our affections.
Sisters and brothers, dear friends: let us be at peace and filled with joy, as aided by the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we offer our evening sacrifice of praise.
Together may we sing the praises of the One who has called us out of darkness into his own wonderful light.