Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Man of Faith, Man of Vision

He became the first American-born Catholic bishop
He became the first American archbishop

John Carroll was born on January 8, 1736, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, the fourth of seven children born to Daniel and Eleanor Darnall Carroll. His father was a merchant and planter, engaging in the profitable tobacco trade of the era.

John was first educated at home by his mother, who had been educated in a convent school in France. When he was 11, John would be sent to a Jesuit school, then a year later he was sent to the Jesuit school of St. Omer in French Flanders. He would stay overseas for the next 26 years, mostly in France. John pursued his education and sought the priesthood, taking his final vows in 1771. Upon this achievement he became a chaperone for a young baron, toured Europe, with a goal of visiting Rome. John wanted to visit Rome because the pope was on the verge of suppressing the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He arrived there – incognito - in the fall of 1772, and soon after received word of the suppression of a group that had been his mentor and teacher for a quarter of a century. John wrote to his mother:
"The greatest blessing which in my estimation I could receive from God, would be
immediate death."

He returned to America in 1774 – and a revolution. He would go back to Maryland, living with his mother in Maryland. As a result of laws discriminating against Catholics, there was then no public Catholic Church in Maryland, so John began the life of a missionary in Maryland and Virginia. He would found St. John the Evangelist Parish at Forest Glen, holding mass on a regular basis. In 1776 the Continental Congress would ask John to accompany Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and his cousin Charles Carroll to Quebec to try to persuade the French Catholics to join in the Revolution. While he questioned the propriety of a priest joining the committee, he also saw it as his duty as a patriot. The local Catholic bishop in Quebec tried to block his influence, and he would return to the colonies with an ailing Franklin in 1777.

His sympathies were with the revolutionary cause, which he saw as favorable to the future of the Church in the new nation. With independence ratified by treaty in 1783, he wrote jubilantly to an official in Rome that… "our Religious system has undergone a revolution, if possible, more extraordinary, than our political one." Also in 1783, he – and five other priests – began a series of meetings that established the Catholic Church in the United States. John worked hard toward establishing Catholicism in the face of discrimination. Only 4 of the original thirteen states included equality of religion in their constitutions – Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland – with all but Pennsylvania having been regularly visited by John as a missionary.

In 1784 – based on a recommendation from Benjamin Franklin – John was appointed the Superior of Missions in the United States of North America, establishing the first Catholic hierarchy in the new nation. In 1789, Baltimore would be made the first diocese in the United States, and John Carroll was made its bishop.

He represented to Congress the need of a constitutional provision for the protection and maintenance of religious liberty, and doubtless to him, in part, is due the provision in Article Sixth, Section 3, of the Constitution, which declares that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States", and also the first amendment, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..” To a Catholic critic in 1790, John wrote:
"Their blood flowed as freely (in proportion to their numbers) to cement the fabric of independence as that of any of their fellow-citizens. They concurred with perhaps greater unanimity than any other body of men in recommending and promoting that government from whose influence America anticipates all the blessings of justice, peace, plenty, good order, and civil and religious liberty"

In 1806, he oversaw the construction of America's first Catholic Cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Maryland The Basilica was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe – who had been the architect of the United States Capitol. He became the first Catholic archbishop in the United States in 1808 when Baltimore was elevated to an archdiocese.

He died on December 3, 1815, almost reaching his eightieth birthday. His remains are interred in the crypt of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which can be visited by the public.

One man can have a profound influence on a nation’s history. He took a religion that was discriminated against, and made it a part of the American fabric. His influence in protecting all religions – in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – is still felt today. His support of separation of church and state – in the intent and understanding of the founding fathers – was crucial to establishing that concept. The original intent was that there was to be no ‘state’ religion (as existed in most if not all parts of the world in the 18th century), which could discriminate and persecute against other religions as being ‘false’. The original founders never thought of a total rejection of religion by a government – or of a government controlled by (or controlling) a religion. His dedication to education as a great equalizer is still carried on today: he was part of the founding of Georgetown University, and has a Jesuit university (John Carroll University) named after him. He was a phenomenal man in a revolutionary era.

Web Resources:
America’s First Cathedral
Catholic Encyclopedia

Local Library Resources:
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