The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore

John Francis Maguire

The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore—Protestant Tribute to the Catholic Church—Progress of Catholicity—Instances of its Progress—The Past and the Present—The Church in Chicago and New York—Catholicity in Boston—Anticipations not realised—Number of Catholics in the States—Circumstances of Protestant and Catholic Emigrant different—Loss of Faith, and Indifferentism

IN the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore the Catholic Church of America presented a singularly grand and imposing spectacle. Rarely has Rome herself witnessed a more august assembly, and, more rarely still, one so remarkable in its character. Even in numbers—according to Archbishop Spalding, its venerable President—it was the largest ever held in Christendom since the Council of Trent, with the exception of two or three held at Rome under the Sovereign Pontiff. But though this assemblage of the Spiritual Chiefs of this young and vigorous branch of the Universal Church consisted of seven Archbishops, thirty-eight Bishops, and three Mitred Abbots—in all, forty-nine Mitred Prelates—it was more remarkable for the wisdom and dignity, and weight of character, of the learned and able men of whom it was composed; and still more so for the unbroken unity which it presented in so brief a period after the termination of the deadliest struggle that ever convulsed a country or rent a people asunder. The wonderful progress of the Church, which this majestic assembly made manifest even to the dull or the unbelieving, was a subject of surprise to friends as to enemies; but its unbroken unity, while a cause of confusion to some, who contrasted with it the severed branches of their own distracted churches, was regarded without astonishment by those who either understood the principles of Catholicity, or watched the conduct of the Church during the war.

Fourteen years before, the First Plenary Council of Baltimore was held; since then there had been added to the Catholic hierarchy one Archbishop and fourteen Bishops; and now, from the Second Plenary Council, there goes forth an appeal to Rome for the creation of fourteen additional Bishops! In the Pastoral Letter they say: 'We have also recommended to the Holy See the erection of several additional Episcopal Sees, and Vicariates Apostolic, which are made necessary by our rapidly increasing Catholic population, and the great territorial extent of many of our present Dioceses.'

In the same Pastoral, the progress of the Church is thus indicated: 'We continue to have great consolation in witnessing the advance of Religion throughout the various dioceses, as shown in the multiplication and improved architectural character of our churches, the increase of piety in the various congregations, and the numerous conversions of so many who have sacrificed early prejudices and every consideration of their temporal interests and human feelings at the shrine of Catholic Truth.'

The constitution of this august assembly of wise and learned men is not without interest, even as affording a further illustration of the universality of the Catholic Church. In the division into nationalities we find the Irish element stronger than would at first appear. Of the forty-nine Mitred Prelates who, with the clergy, composed the Council, sixteen are set down as American, nine Irish, twelve French, two Flemish, three Spanish, two Swiss, one Austrian, and two German. But of the sixteen American Prelates, about one half are of Irish blood—nearly all of these the sons of Irish-born parents. Thus fully two-thirds of the English-speaking Bishops of the American Church owe their origin to that country which is now, as it was in remote ages, the most successful propagandist of Catholicity.(49) Sprung from different branches of the human family, representing different races, speaking in different tongues, gathered together from States and territories separated by thousands of miles, they were animated but by one motive and feeling. When replying to the address presented to him by Archbishop Purcell in the name of the assembled Prelates and Clergy, Archbishop Spalding put this point prominently forward:—

'Here we have venerable Prelates from all parts of this great and vast republic, some of whom have come five or six thousand miles; have come at my voice, because in my voice they recognised the voice of Peter and of Christ.... We came together to devise ways and means to carry out the purpose for which Christ died on the Cross, to save men, to bind them together in unity and charity, and to make them lead holy lives. Absorbed in this great object, we have soared far above the regions of storms and clouds into the pure atmosphere of God, where there is no controversy or contention stirred up by human passion; and men sprung from various nations, in this Council, have lost sight of all differences of nationality and temperament, and have blended in that beautiful unity and harmony which the Catholic Church can alone exhibit.'

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America