An ecumenicist before his time

Second Reading

INFLUENTIAL Cardinal James Gibbons pictured in 1920. Pic: Creative Commons/CC0

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

The past year has been noteworthy for the publishing of several informative books on Mayo history. Among them is Brigid Clesham’s ‘Tourmakeady: History and Society’. It is a comprehensive account of the life of the parish in the last 200 years. The book is an all-Mayo production. Beautifully designed by Sinéad Mallee, it is printed by KPS Colour Print LTD in Knock.
Among the significant figures associated with Tourmakeady is Cardinal James Gibbons, who was the most influential Catholic leader in the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was born in Baltimore in 1834 to Tourmakeady parents.
When he was three his parents brought the family back to Ireland, where they settled in Ballinrobe. He spent his formative years there and recalled them vividly throughout his life.
As Cardinal, he made a private visit to the town, staying with the parish priest. The holiday had its tensions. The parish priest, who detested tobacco, was an early advocate of the smoking ban. So the Cardinal, who was addicted to cigars, had to resort to smoking in his bedroom.
As a child in Ballinrobe he attended a local hedge school where he acquired a love of the classics. The famed Archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale confirmed him. He witnessed the horror of the famine, during which his father died of fever.
The Gibbons family returned to the US in 1856, and James found employment in a shop in New Orleans. In the following year, he began his studies for the priesthood and was ordained for the diocese of Baltimore in 1862.
He rose rapidly through the Church ranks. After a spell as secretary to the Archbishop of Baltimore, he was appointed Bishop of North Carolina. At the age of 34, he was the youngest bishop in the US and the second youngest in the world.
He was transferred to Richmond in Virginia in 1872. Five years later, he returned to Baltimore as Archbishop. It was a prestigious appointment as the diocese then contained Washington DC, the national capital. In 1886 he became a cardinal, the second American to achieve this status.
Why is Gibbons a significant figure in American history? Why did former US president Theodore Roosevelt describe him in 1917 as ‘the most respected and venerated citizen of our country’?
The late 19th century was a critical time in the history of the American Catholic Church. By 1880, there were more than 6 million Catholics in the country. Forty years earlier there was only one tenth as many.
This phenomenal growth, due mainly to emigration from Europe, brought great challenges for the Church leadership. They had to provide churches and schools for the rapidly expanding congregations. There were ethnic tensions between Irish and German Catholics.
How would the Catholic Church associate itself with the American system of democratic governance and with other religious groups in a pluralist society?
What social policies would the Church evolve to take account of industrial life and emerging trade union movement?
Conservative Catholic leaders were suspicious of the American constitution and the American way of life. They saw the growth of trade unions as a threat to their authority. They wanted Catholics to withdraw from the public forum and consolidate their strength in a religious-type ghetto free from engagement with the impulses of American society.
Cardinal Gibbons had a more enlightened view. He was a man of principle and a diplomat. He was an ecumenist before his time.
Rejoicing in the vision of the American constitution, he wanted Catholics to take part in the political system. He believed in the separation of Church and State, holding that it gave both institutions the freedom to pursue their ideals.
He encouraged Catholics to participate in public life and believed their involvement in the trade union movement was a positive example of such discourse.
After much controversy, his view prevailed. He explained Catholicism to America and America to Catholicism. As an American historian has written, ‘he kept the door open to the future’. As a policy expressed in a pithy sentence, it should have relevance for Church leaders today.