American Bishops Return 'Home' to Restored Basilica before Meeting

By George P. Matysek Jr. and Paula Glover
Catholic Online
November 13, 2006

Baltimore (CNS) Two by two, all the bishops of the United States returned to their spiritual home Nov. 12 when they solemnly processed into Baltimore's radiantly restored Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for a special Mass celebrating the old cathedral's $32 million restoration.

Recreating a similar procession from when the first Catholic cathedral in the United States opened in the early 19th century, 243 bishops marched from the Enoch Pratt Free Library across the street from the basilica -- making their way through two long lines of 130 Knights of Columbus festooned in brightly colored capes and feathered hats.

U.S. BISHOPS CELEBRATE MASS BEFORE START OF ANNUAL MEETING - U.S. bishops celebrate Mass Nov. 12 before the start of their annual fall meeting in Baltimore. The service was held at the newly restored Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is marking its 200th anniversa ry this year.
Photo by The CNS

A triumphant hymn accompanied by a newly refurbished pipe organ greeted the singing bishops, some of whom glanced upward as they entered the church and marveled at the richly illuminated interior dome which features a depiction of a white dove symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

It was the first time all of the country's bishops gathered in the basilica since 1989 when the archdiocese marked its bicentennial. The American prelates had often met in the nation's first diocese, the premier see, during the 19th century at seven provincial and three plenary councils of the U.S. Catholic Church.

Just as their predecessors assembled in Baltimore to discuss pressing issues of the time, today's bishops were gathered in Charm City to debate a variety of matters during the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 13-16.

Using a walker after suffering a broken ankle in a car crash in Italy, Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore was saluted with warm applause by worshippers who recognized him as the driving force behind the basilica's ambitious two-year restoration. The cardinal smiled and nodded as he inched his way across a new gleaming white marble floor.

The church has been restored to the original vision of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the 19th-century master architect who also designed the U.S. Capitol. With the return of 24 large skylights in the basilica's grand dome and the reintroduction of plain glass windows throughout the structure, an otherworldly light again floods the church's interior and serves as a symbol of religious freedom.

"In its original design, the interior was bathed with a natural light from windows in the dome, and the church itself was, and is, a testament to a golden age when an ancient faith and a newfound freedom met," said Cardinal Keeler in his homily.

The cardinal, wearing the same pectoral cross worn by Bishop John Carroll, the nation's first bishop, noted that it was during meetings in the basilica that earlier bishops developed mandates for parish schools, devised pastoral plans to reach out to African-American Catholics in the wake of the Civil War and commissioned the famous Baltimore Catechism.

"Being together again in this basilica, newly returned to an ancient glory, we are mindful of the responsibilities facing us as we too seek to chart a course for the future of our church," he said.

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, a Baltimore native and special envoy of Pope Benedict XVI, was the main celebrant for the Mass. The former auxiliary bishop of Baltimore is head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience.

Cardinal Stafford commended Cardinal Keeler for leading the restoration effort. He extended a plenary indulgence on behalf of the pope to those who visit the basilica through Feb. 2 and who go to confession and receive holy Communion there. He said pilgrims will be "dazzled" when they come to the basilica to worship and he conveyed the pope's best wishes.

"This place will draw pilgrims out of themselves in ecstasy," said Cardinal Stafford. He carried the same pastoral staff Baltimore Archbishop Ambrose Marechal used when he dedicated the basilica in 1821, the year construction was completed. It began in 1806.

Cardinal Stafford said the basilica is a place where all beg for mercy and look for holiness.

Jim Nicholson, U.S. secretary for veterans' affairs and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, read a statement from President George W. Bush commending Cardinal Keeler and benefactors for the basilica's restoration.

"This milestone is a tribute to your dedication and service," he said.

The liturgy featured readings in English and Spanish and included prayers in Ibo, Tagalog, French, Polish, Korean, English and Spanish that reflected the diversity of the church in America.

The main concelebrants were Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, Cardinal Adam J. Maida of Detroit, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, Cardinal Avery Dulles, and Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington; Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States; and Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., USCCB president.

Before the 15-minute procession began outside, small groups of protesters carried signs in support of victims of clergy sexual abuse and the ordination of women. Others called for the bishops to deal more forcefully with Catholic politicians who support keep abortion legal.

Following the liturgy, many visiting bishops told The Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan newspaper, they were overwhelmed by the beauty of the restored basilica -- especially by the grandeur of the light that permeates what had turned into a dark space in the 20th century when the original skylights were closed.


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