Mary’s Assumption body and soul into heaven might seem far removed from people’s everyday lives today, but her life offers a roadmap for reaching heaven, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said at an Aug. 15 Mass for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Rather than being “a miracle out of the blue,” Mary’s Assumption is “the completion of a life always lifted up, always directed to the Lord,” Baltimore’s archbishop said in his homily at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The holy day Mass had added poignance, because for nearly two centuries – from the early years of the United States to the digital age – the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been celebrated at the downtown Baltimore cathedral named for Mary’s Assumption, which is the first Catholic cathedral built in the United States.
With that Mass, Lori continued a tradition of revering Mary and her Assumption that dates to the vision of his predecessor, Baltimore Bishop John Carroll – who in 1789 became the first bishop of the United States, heading the Diocese of Baltimore, which then included all 13 original states.
Carroll laid the cornerstone of Baltimore’s cathedral in 1806, and it was dedicated in 1821 by Baltimore’s third archbishop, Ambrose Maréchal, under the title of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Baltimore’s cathedral honoring Mary’s Assumption was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, and some consider it his masterpiece. The neoclassical building includes a dome with skylights bathing its interior in natural light, and Roman columns at its entrance-way and behind its altar are reminiscent of those in Washington, D.C.’s landmarks.
A brochure for Baltimore’s basilica notes that Carroll sought a cathedral that would stand as a symbol of the religious freedom that was a central part of the new nation, and would be a “shining citadel set up in their midst,” serving a Catholic community that in the century prior to the establishment of the United States, had faced religious discrimination.
In recent years, Lori has celebrated the opening Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom at the basilica, kicking off that national commemoration of the Catholic Church in the United States to pray for religious liberty and reflect on growing threats to that freedom.
Now the historic church serves as a co-cathedral for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, along with the larger Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, where Lori was installed as Baltimore’s archbishop in 2012. The nation’s first cathedral was raised to the rank of a minor basilica in 1937 and was designated as a national shrine in 1993.
In 2006, the Archdiocese of Baltimore commemorated the basilica’s 200th anniversary with a reopening celebration that followed a 30-month restoration effort that included the creation of a chapel in the undercroft that fulfilled the original intention of Carroll and Latrobe.
Now 7:30 a.m. Masses are celebrated there that chapel, in an intimate space marked by brick archways.
The basilica’s crypt level is also the place where some of the most important leaders in U.S. Catholic history are entombed, including Carroll, whose title changed to archbishop when Baltimore became an archdiocese in 1808. He died seven years later.
A champion of religious freedom in the newly formed United States, Carroll was a friend of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and in 1789 founded Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic university.
Also entombed in the basilica’s crypt level is Cardinal James Gibbons, a native of Baltimore who was baptized in the cathedral and buried from there. Gibbons served as Baltimore’s archbishop from 1877 until his death in 1921, and he was a champion of the rights of working people during the Industrial Age and was a vocal defender of American democracy and a good friend of President Theodore Roosevelt.
But it is the main level of the historic cathedral that, besides being an architectural jewel, has been a crossroads for many key events in U.S. Catholic history.
Baltimore’s Cathedral of the Assumption was the site where councils of U.S. bishops during the 1800s helped devise the parish and Catholic school systems in the United States, charted outreach to the nation’s native, African-American and immigrant communities, and formulated the famous Baltimore Catechism, which offered a primer of Church teaching for generations of Catholics in this country.
Father Michael McGivney, the priest who founded the Knights of Columbus and who’s now a candidate for sainthood, was ordained there in 1877.
Pope John Paul II during his papal visit to Baltimore in 1995 prayed at the basilica, and the next year, Mother Teresa attended the renewal of vows for 35 of her Missionaries of Charity there. Now on opposite sides of the cathedral, visitors can see a bronze statue of Saint John Paul II offering a blessing, and a statue of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta smiling and touching a child’s face.
George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II and a noted Catholic commentator who now serves as a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, once wrote, “No other Catholic edifice in America can claim to have seen so much history made inside its walls.”
At this year’s patronal feast day, the focus was not on the basilica’s history, but on Mary and her Assumption. A dramatic painting on the basilica’s ceiling depicts Mary in heaven with her arms raised, surrounded by angels, illustrating a doctrine that was celebrated as a feast from the seventh century and solemnly defined as a dogma of faith by Pope Pius XII in 1950.
Worshipers at this year’s Mass at Baltimore’s basilica sang traditional hymns like “Hail Holy Queen” and “Immaculate Mary.”
Baltimore’s archbishop noted that Mary’s life proclaimed God’s mercy, and she brought Jesus, God’s mercy incarnate, into the world.
“Mary was assumed into heaven but she is not far from us,” Lori said. “…Her role is to lead you and me to Jesus to free us from the burden of our sins and to help us bear our sufferings with generosity towards others in their need. With Mary’s help let us truly lift up our hearts to the Lord…”
Massgoers included Kathy Fuchsluger from Towson, Maryland, who came to the holy day liturgy with her husband Steve and three of their seven children. She said they especially wanted to enter the cathedral’s Holy Door of Mercy in this Year of Mercy, on that feast day at the historic church named for Mary’s Assumption into heaven.
“We gain hope from that,” she said, speaking of Mary’s Assumption. “We can follow in her footsteps and attain heaven like she did. With her intercession and God’s grace in our life, that’s the only way we can do this… It’s God working in our life that helps us strive for heaven.”
In an interview with Crux after the Mass, Baltimore’s archbishop reflected on the mystery and importance of Mary’s Assumption.
He noted that at every Mass, Catholics profess their belief in the resurrection of the body, “a belief it is our destiny to share in the face to face vision of God’s glory in heaven. We don’t understand what this will be like. Mary, the first disciple of Jesus, sets the pattern by being the first one to share in God’s glory in this way, body and soul assumed into heaven.”
“She’s there to encourage us, pray for us and lead us to Jesus and his glory,” Lori said.
Celebrating the patronal feast of Mary’s Assumption in the historic church also served as a reminder of “the beautiful heritage of this basilica,” he said, noting that in the past two centuries, Massgoers included some of America’s first citizens, waves of immigrants, and today, millennials who join other Baltimore residents in worshiping there.
Even though the feast day fell on a Monday this year, meaning it was not a holy day of obligation, still about 400 people attended the mid-day Mass there, including workers on their lunch break, families with children, senior citizens, seminarians, and a group of novices making a pilgrimage there that day.
On a back table was a sign-up sheet for Adoration under the basilica, and a sign inviting people to fill a wicker basket with donated food items for the poor.
“It’s also a joy to celebrate this feast day with a living community of faith in the heart of downtown Baltimore,” Lori said. “We’re still here, and the flame of faith is still burning brightly.”