On November 4, the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, America’s first cathedral, was reopened in a public ceremony that honored the vision of Archbishop John Carroll, first Catholic bishop of the United States, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the first Architect of the Capitol, in creating a living expression of the American commitment to religious freedom as the first of human rights. EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel was a member of the Executive Committee of the Baltimore Basilica restoration project, and delivered the following remarks at the reopening ceremony, which marked the successful conclusion of a two-and-a-half year, $32 million restoration of this historic structure:
Your Eminence, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Just about a half-century ago, when I was entering the caves of learning in the old Cathedral School at 7 West Mulberry Street, a hundred yards or so from here, the great English Catholic historian Christopher Dawson was thinking about his own school days, and what another venerable cathedral church had taught him. Here is what Dawson wrote:
“I learnt more during my school days from my visits to the Cathedral at Winchester than I did from the hours of religious instruction in school. That great church with its tombs of the Saxon kings and the medieval statesmen-bishops gave one a greater sense of the magnitude of the religious element in our culture and the depth of its roots in our national life than anything one could learn from books. Nor was it merely a question of widening one’s historical sense, it also deepened one’s spiritual sense of religion as an objective reality far transcending one’s private experience.” (Christopher Dawson, Understanding Europe, p. 245.)
As it was in Winchester, so it was in Baltimore. For that is what this great cathedral, its priests and its sisters, taught those of us who were privileged to attend its school and who made our first holy communions at its altar rail: the Baltimore cathedral gave us our first intuitions that we were the heirs of a culture, a civilization; it taught us that cultures and societies are only as great as their spiritual aspirations; and it suggested to us that what we usually call “the real world” is, in fact, the antechamber to our true home, which the Letter to the Hebrews memorably describes as “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12.22).
This magnificently restored cathedral, the most historic Catholic church in the United States, is a living reminder of these truths, which are not truths-for-Catholics-only, but universal truths, truths that bear on all Americans and truths that indeed bear on the entire world. At this challenging moment in the world’s history, the world needs to be reminded of the great public truth that is embodied here, in the work of Archbishop John Carroll and Benjamin Henry Latrobe: the truth that cultures and societies are only as great as their spiritual aspirations and ideals.
In that sense, this Baltimore Basilica is our Chartres, our Hagia Sophia, our Yorkminster or Durham, our Canterbury or Winchester, our Ravenna or Milan. The living stones of this building – the stones which make up its luminous fabric, and the “living stones” that are the countless lives transformed here by God’s grace – are a great, and perhaps the great, expression, in a cathedral church, of America’s noblest aspiration: to be a people who freely choose what is true and good and beautiful; to be a people who bind themselves to the true, the good, and the beautiful in acts of worship; to be a people who give public effect to that binding in the exercise of their citizenship; to be a people who know that the truth about man is disclosed in the truth about God, and God’s purposes in history.
Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s friend, Thomas Jefferson, began America’s birth certificate with the ringing affirmation of universal truths. Here, in stone and glass and light, we can ponder that birthright – that heritage of the truth about man disclosed in the truth about God. Here, in stone and glass and light, we can be reminded that the right of religious freedom is the first of human rights, even as it, like every other right, assumes the inalienable right-to-life. Here, in stone and glass and light, we can rededicate ourselves to securing the foundations of that house of freedom we call the United States of America, and to the defense of freedom’s cause in the world.
This great cathedral church is redolent with history. The history it teaches us is pregnant with meaning, and challenge, for the present and the future. May those of us who carry this history into its third century fulfill our responsibilities as well as those who gave us this noble temple and its living stones, which remind us that freedom is never free, and that a country is only as great as the spiritual ideals that animate it.