Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Maryland Catholic Tradition: Ahead of its Time

Bishop John Carroll
I have made several entries on the style of Catholicism in colonial and early Republican Maryland and how much it has in common with modern Catholic practice.  Churches were plain and without much decoration—the Cathedral in Baltimore not even having statues.  While the Mass was in Latin (despite Bishop Carroll’s desire for it to be in the vernacular), Carroll and other clergy had translated much of the sacramental ritual from Latin into English.  Despite Roman prohibitions on ecumenism, American Catholics were used to cooperating with their Protestant countrymen and even worshipping with them on occasion. Churches usually had lay trustees—something that would cause Carroll and other bishops enough headaches that they would eventually do away with them.  (Bishop John England of Charleston, on the other hand, wrote a Constitution for his diocese and had an annual convention of lay and clergy to help in the decision making.)  Carroll had been elected bishop by the clergy and he hoped that Rome would permit future bishops to be elected as well.  (Rome did not permit.)  Carroll and other clergy routinely wore lay clothing, albeit in dark colors, while on the street.  When Carroll brought the first religious women to the United States—four Carmelite cloistered nuns from the Netherlands (three of whom were Maryland natives) they arrived in secular dress and resumed their habit only when they were ensconced in their monastery at Port Tobacco.  Several years later when he asked Elizabeth Ann Seton, a widowed convert from Episcopalianism, to organize an American religious sisterhood based on Vincent dePaul’s Daughters of Charity, it was decided that they would wear the plain black dress and bonnet of widows rather than the cornettes of their French counterparts or the more traditional wimple and veil of nuns.    Carroll, his priests, and the American faithful had no qualms of “fitting in”—indeed that was their goal.  They saw no reason why they had to stand aside from their countrymen believing that Americanism and Catholicism were perfectly compatible. The Catholic faith was to be packaged in American homespun rather than European brocade. 
     Maryland Catholics would never have worked their way into the untenable position of the Leesburg Knights of Columbus who insisted on a religious display on the Courthouse lawn only to find that their campaign opened the door to atheist displays that mocked not only Catholicism but faith itself.  In Carroll’s day Catholicism was known for what it stood for; today Catholicism is too often better known for what it is against.  Evangelism doesn’t work when the message is what we are against.  

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