"Churchman and Citizen": Lessons of the "People's Prince"
Gibbons once compared the Basilica of the Assumption to St Peter's in Rome and the Temple of Jerusalem, often saying that he "love[d] every stone of" the boyhood parish that became his ministry's seat. Even now, nobody's known the place better. But while the early period's "Founding Johns" -- Charm City's Carroll, Boston's Cheverus, and New York's Hughes -- likewise left an indelible impact on the local churches they each brought to life and prominence, none who came before enjoyed the length of days nor breadth of clout that belonged to Gibbons: the first titanic figure of an increasingly national church and, arguably, still the most overpowering of all.
Aided by his era's circumstances -- and, indeed, a lifelong inclination to vanity -- Gibbons' one-man empire saw him function as a mix of de facto papal delegate to America and unelected leader of its bishops, shepherd of the nation's capital, teacher of his epoch, adviser to (and occasional emissary of) the government, the Vatican's first Stateside "heavy" and first of his countrymen to elect a Pope, all while juggling various other tasks of church and state, and all while being -- as one of the nine Commanders-in-Chief who sought the cardinal's counsel dubbed him -- "the most respected and venerated and useful citizen of our country."
As the Irish ecclesial culture overtook much of the rest of the growing American fold, its fortress-friendly ways only fanning the flames of wider suspicion, the first-generation citizen whose boyhood witnessed the bigotry of the mobs up close worked less to enable the emigres' tendency toward the comfortable, inward-looking ghetto than to resurrect the languished approach of his first predecessor, its design set not on the faithful's domination of a pluralistic society, but the church's most constructive and loyal contribution to it.
For Gibbons, as for Carroll, the church's optimal place in America was the "friend of the people," its 2,000 years of wisdom and experience confidently given as a light to aid the journey, never standing solely for the good of her own, but the benefit of all. And just as hordes of callers from every race, standing and creed poured daily into his salon seeking a word or a favor, or his hat could barely return to his head before being lifted for another salute as he walked the streets every afternoon, when his Golden Jubilee as a priest came, another President would come to lead the public homage as, among others, a Rabbi blessed the nation's senior prelate as "holy unto the Lord."
Made a bishop at 33 and a cardinal at 51, Gibbons' 86 years had more than their share of shining moments. Yet of them all, four prophetic pillars of his legacy -- all in the realm of learning and teaching -- remain paramount.
Two of these contributions were domestic, but distinctly Catholic, strengthening the church's identity and voice on the national stage. The other two were quintessentially American, but ecclesiastically global, impacting the life and emphasis of the church universal, even into the present.
At home, taking on resistance from within his own hierarchy, through the 1880s the cardinal undertook a decade-long drive to found an institute of higher studies in Washington (part of the Baltimore church until 1947), which became the Catholic University of America, currently enjoying the greatest prestige and regard of its 122-year history. Beyond the "bishops' academy," Gibbons became a presence in every American Catholic classroom for nearly a century -- the National Catechism crafted under his leadership in 1884 can still be quoted verbatim by generations of students and even, in some quarters, remains in use today.
Beyond these shores, shortly after his 1886 elevation to the "papal senate," the new cardinal -- "alarmed," he wrote, "at the prospect of the church being presented before our age as the friend of the powerful rich and the enemy of the helpless poor" -- penned an extensive protest of the Holy See's condemnation of the Knights of Labor, an early labor union.
Of his motivation, Gibbons later said that "the one body in the world which had been the protector of the poor and the weak for nearly 1800 years, could not possibly desert these same classes in their hour of need." Thanks to his intervention, not only did the Baltimorean win an unprecedented reversal of Rome's judgment, but four years later, the church's support for unions was enshrined in Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum -- the foundational text of Catholic social teaching -- and, more recently, underscored anew in Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate.
Yet for all that, the tableau's final piece might just be its most significant.
A century after the French Revolution and two decades after the seizure of the Papal States, the Popes well into their 60 years of self-imposed exile as the "Prisoner of the Vatican," late 19th century Rome remained a place suspicious of religious freedom and democratic government -- especially in America, from which reports of negligence or advocacy for changes to church teaching aroused considerable upset echoing across the reigns of multiple pontiffs.
While a decade earlier, the continent's first cardinal quietly accepted a red hat that owed itself more to his predecessor's attributes than his own, John Carroll's eighth successor seldom shared John McCloskey's ways of meekness. And so, egged on by his agent in the Eternal City, Gibbons aimed to defend the American experiment on the Pope's turf days after being placed in the perch opened by McCloskey's death.
Already a provocative move, the second Transatlantic cleric ever elevated to the College of Cardinals upped the stakes by choosing the possession of his titular church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, as the scene of his "heroic" stand for what, today, the Roman pontiff embraces as "positive secularism."
Arguably Stateside Catholicism's equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, here's a transcript (emphases original) of Gibbons' remarks -- now known simply as the "Trastevere Speech" -- given in English on Annunciation Day, 25 March 1887:
The assignment to me by the Holy Father of this beautiful basilica as my titular church fills me with feelings of joy and gratitude which any words of mine are inadequate to express. For, as here in Rome I stand within the first temple raised in honor of the ever-blessed Virgin Mary, so in my far-off home, my own Cathedral Church, the oldest in the United States, is also dedicated to the Mother of God. This venerable edifice in which we are gathered leads us back in contemplation to the days of the catacombs. Its foundation was laid by Pope Calixtus in the year of our Lord, 224. It was restored by Pope Julius in the fourth century, and renovated by another Supreme Pontiff in the twelfth.-30-
That never-ceasing solicitude which the Sovereign Pontiffs have exhibited in erecting these material temples, which are the glory of this city, they have also manifested on a larger scale in rearing spiritual walls to Zion throughout Christendom in every age. Scarcely were the United States formed into an independent government, when Pope Pius VII established a Catholic hierarchy and appointed the illustrious John Carroll the first Bishop of Baltimore. Our Catholic community in those days numbered a few thousand souls, and they were scattered chiefly through the States of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. They were served by a mere handful of priests. But now, thanks to the fructifying grace of God, the grain of mustard seed then planted has grown to a large tree, spreading its branches through the length and breadth of our fair land. Where only one bishop was found in the beginning of this century, there are now seventy-five exercising spiritual jurisdiction. For this great progress we are indebted, under God and the fostering vigilance of the Holy See, to the civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic.
Our Holy Father, Leo XIII, in his luminous encyclical on the constitution of Christian states, declares that the Church is not committed to any form of civil government. She adapts herself to all. She leavens all with the sacred leaven of the Gospel. She has lived under absolute monarchies, under constitutional monarchies, in free republics, and everywhere she grows and expands. She has often, indeed, been hampered in her Divine mission. She has even been forced to struggle for her existence wherever despotism has cast its dark shadow, like a plant shut out from the blessed light of heaven. But in the genial atmosphere of liberty she blossoms like a rose.
For myself, as a citizen of the United States, and without closing my eyes to our shortcomings as a nation, I say, with a deep sense of pride and gratitude, that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection, without interfering with us in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Christ. Our country has liberty without license, and authority without despotism. She rears no wall to exclude the stranger from among us. She has few frowning fortifications to repel the invader, for she is at peace with all the world. She rests secure in the consciousness of her stength and her good will toward all. Her harbors are open to welcome the honest emigrant who comes to advance his temporal interests and find a peaceful home.
But, while we are acknowledged to have a free government, perhaps we do not receive the credit that belongs to us for having, also, a strong government. Yes, our nation is strong, and her strength lies, under the overruling guidance of Providence, in the majesty and supremacy of the law, in the loyalty of her citizens and in the affection of her people for her free institutions. There are, indeed, grave social problems now employing the earnest attention of the citizens of the United States, but I have no doubt that, with God's blessing, these problems will be solved by the calm judgment and sound sense of the American people, without violence or revolution, or any injury to individual right.
As an evidence of his good will for the great republic in the West, as a mark of his appreciation of the venerable hierarchy of the United States, and as an expression of his kind consideration for the ancient See of Baltimore, our Holy Father has been graciously pleased to elevate its present incumbent, in my humble person, to the dignity of the purple. For this mark of his exalted favor I beg to tender the Holy Father my profound thanks in my own name and in the name of the clergy and faithful. I venture to thank him also in the name of my venerable colleagues, the bishops, as well as the clergy and Catholic laity of the United States. I presume also to thank him in the name of our separated brethren in America, who, though not sharing our faith, have shown that they are not insensible—indeed, that they are deeply sensible—of the honor conferred upon our common country, and have again and again expressed their admiration for the enlightened statesmanship and apostolic virtues and benevolent character of the illustrious Pontiff who now sits in the Chair of St. Peter.