Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In 1806, construction began on the first Catholic cathedral in the United States of America. Now known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, this beautiful church in Baltimore was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the first architect to practice in the United States and the designer of the US Capitol. The first American bishop, John Carroll, a cousin of the only Catholic signatory to the Declaration of Independence Charles Carroll, wanted to celebrate the newly acquired right of Catholics to worship publicly. Indeed, prior to the Revolutionary War, Catholics were an oft-persecuted minority. The Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty allowed Catholics to live their faith more openly and to celebrate this freedom, Archbishop Carroll undertook construction of a cathedral that would be both distinctively Catholic and authentically American.
Though he was not a Catholic, Benjamin Henry Latrobe volunteered his services for this effort. He sought a design that would be acceptable for Catholic worship, but also acceptable to his social and professional circles, which were often tinted by a deeply-rooted anti-Catholicism. He settled on a symbol of the Enlightenment that Catholics and anti-Catholics alike could embrace – light. The Basilica is filled with light – natural light through beautiful, clear glass windows; light colors in the stone floor and light creamy walls; man-made light, through beautiful chandeliers and candles. The pervasive light, for Catholics, would be a reminder of the light of Christ that shines in darkness and shows the way to God the Father. For non-Catholics, it would be a reminder that light leads to truth and reason. The Basilica became the most advanced architectural feat of its day and is considered one of the best examples of 19th century architecture in the country. To see photos of this amazing church, visit www.americasfirstcathedral.org.
Today, we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord – Jesus’ manifestation to the nations. The Wise Men are brought to Jesus by the light of a star. That light begins to shine in them after their encounter with the Lord, changing them in such a way that they return to their countries transformed. So for us, the light of Christ ought to begin to shine more deeply in our hearts each time we encounter Him in prayer, in the Eucharist, in our service to others. Though our church was built nearly 150 years after construction began on the Basilica in Baltimore, the colonial, classical style of the architecture continues to bear witness to the power of light. Not only the light that streams through our windows, or reflects off our floors and walls, but most especially of the light that comes to us through the Gospel. Jesus Christ is our light and it is His Name we proclaim. Next week, we will rededicate this church to the Light of the World. I hope you will attend as Bishop Frank J. Caggiano celebrates the Mass of Dedication on Saturday, January 11, at 5:15 PM.