Editor's Report

Bicentennial History Lesson Applies Today

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When the Archdiocese of New York celebrated its bicentennial in 2008, Cardinal Dolan was a year late for the occasion, as he was not appointed Archbishop of New York until the following year when he succeeded Cardinal Edward Egan.

Over the weekend, the cardinal helped the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., celebrate its own bicentennial. The July 11 anniversary Mass and the reception at which he spoke were pushed back exactly a year due to Covid-19 crisis.

The cardinal’s “homework” assignment, he told those gathered at The Mills House, was to speak about Bishop John England, Charleston’s founding bishop. The cardinal admitted to being fascinated by Bishop England since his graduate school days at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned a doctorate in American Church history.

His mentor there, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, had observed, “If we had a Mount Rushmore of American bishops, John England of Charleston would certainly be on it.”

High praise, indeed, and well deserved, beginning with Bishop England’s early days as a seminarian and priest in the Diocese of Cork, when he promoted “Irish freedom from the ugly penal laws which choked and tried, unsuccessfully, to suffocate the Catholic faith on the Emerald Isle.” Father England would claim that, in his defense of religious freedom for Catholics, he was “vindicating the political rights of my countrymen by assisting the liberty of conscience.”

Time assuredly passed at a slower pace in the early 19th century, or at least changes took longer to enact. Consider that Bishop England’s letter of appointment to Charleston was dated July 11, 1820. His installation took place at the cathedral in Cork on September 21 that year, and his arrival in Charleston did not take place until Dec. 30, after the Atlantic crossing.

The new bishop had charge of Catholics in three states—South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. Catholics were bunched in small groups. (By 1832, a dozen years after his arrival, the number of Catholics in the Diocese of Charleston was a meager 11,000, according to the bishop’s own estimate.)

Bishop England immediately set about communicating with and visiting his widely dispersed flock. A day after his arrival, the cardinal said, the bishop issued a pastoral letter and embarked on his first visitation of his new diocese.

“No bishop could be more regular and constant in these visitations, as he went wherever he heard there was a Catholic,” Cardinal Dolan said.

Bishop England loved the United States, and yet recognized “that his beloved new country was viciously hostile to his faith, but he was convinced that, once Americans learned the truth of Catholicism, they would…recognize its values as friendly to America.”

“Bishop England met head on the challenge every committed Catholic confronts—accommodation,” said Cardinal Dolan. “How are we as Catholics to hold tenaciously to the substance of our timeless faith, while accommodating to the demands of a culture less than understanding and friendly?”

Bishop England was not meek and pious, in the manner of many of the French bishops who had come to serve in America, nor was he confrontational in attacking all the dangers of American society and huddling defensively with his tiny flock, the cardinal said.

The new bishop forged another path, boldly proclaiming, “Wait a minute, fellow citizens! We are allies! We cherish this great land! We want to flourish here! Do not prejudge us! When you get to know us, you will look at us as partners in this grand and noble experiment of ordered democracy, not as enemies!”

The cardinal outlined the ways Bishop England forged ahead in his new responsibilities.

He was friendly, approachable, a splendid writer and on the spot nearly everywhere. This approach won him friends and plaudits from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

He promulgated a Constitution of the Diocese of Charleston, “giving proper responsibility to the lay faithful, while protecting the necessary authority of bishops.” It came down against the excesses of trusteeism by the laity, instead inviting trustees “to form commissions with the pastor and even the bishop to oversee church finances and properties,” the cardinal said.

Bishop England also established the first regular Catholic newspaper in the United States, the U.S. Catholic Miscellany, in 1822, which he “used to teach and defend the faith, to respond to anti-Catholic barbs and to defend Irish emancipation,” an important matter given that Irish immigrants were becoming the majority of his flock.

He also became the first bishop ever to address the U.S. Congress on Jan. 8, 1826, after insisting on the forum to address the “ugly, anti-Catholic views” of President John Quincy Adams. In his three-hour oration, Bishop England “effectively displayed his central theme that, not only should the Catholic Church be tolerated in America, it should be welcomed and appreciated,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal Dolan continued, “Bishop John England believed that the Catholic faith in the United States should be visible, not hidden; public, not private; bold, not embarrassed or shy; ready to explain, argue and demonstrate that it was not only an unthreatening new kid on the block, but a good neighbor.”

The approach was “fresh and daring,” not only to non-Catholics “who were antagonistic by nature to the Church, but even to Catholics,” the cardinal said.

Bishop England was a missionary to America. He was convinced that American culture was “fertile soil for the seed of the Catholic faith,” but also realistic enough to know that our culture had deep flaws that couldn’t be glossed over.

Cardinal Dolan, as you may know, is now serving as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty. He has given major addresses on the topic in recent weeks, this one being among them.

We have been fortunate to have the cardinal here in New York for 12 years. We should also be very proud and supportive of the work he does beyond our archdiocesan borders to advance understanding of the Church and its important role in our society at large.

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