The nation's oldest archdiocese welcomes Archbishop Edwin O'Brien as its 15th leader this afternoon, a Bronx native and former military chaplain who has led seminaries and guided Catholics in the military all over the world.
Last night, the future archbishop of Baltimore began the festivities for his installation by praying for those who came before him and with those who will go forward with him. Early in a prayer service for the archdiocese's priests, nuns, deacons and seminarians, he knelt in front of the tomb of John Carroll, the first archbishop of Baltimore, in the Basilica of the Assumption's crypt.
He has called his new position "a unique privilege," given the history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the first diocese created after the American Revolution.
"I cannot imagine a better place to inaugurate my ministry among you than at his tomb and in this historic basilica, where so many of the decisions that shaped the lives of generations of Catholics were ratified," the archbishop said in a homily last night.
O'Brien invoked the help of the religious men and women who were present for vocation recruitment, Catholic education and evangelism and renewal of neighborhoods.
"I look to you to be the spiritual `reactor core' of Catholic life in this archdiocese," he said.
The archbishop, who led the Archdiocese of Military Services for a decade, will oversee more than 500,000 Catholics in nine Maryland counties and Baltimore, with about 200 priests, 151 parishes and numerous hospitals, schools, charities and institutions.
The archbishop, 68, is not expected to hold the position as long as his predecessor, Cardinal William H. Keeler.
Like all bishops, Keeler was required under canon law to submit his resignation letter on his 75th birthday last year, ending an 18-year tenure as Baltimore's archbishop. Pope Benedict XVI accepted Keeler's resignation in July.
More than 1,800 people are expected to attend O'Brien's installation. The list includes about 70 archbishops and bishops, as well as eight cardinals, including Keeler and Baltimore native Cardinal Francis Stafford, which Vatican watchers say is an impressive turnout.
For some, Baltimore will be the second stop on an installation "tour," which started with the installation of new Bishop David A. Zubik in Pittsburgh on Friday and continues tomorrow with Bishop Robert J. Baker in Birmingham, Ala.
"The traveling circuit is used to these every couple of years, not three in four days," said Rocco Palmo, a U.S. correspondent for The Tablet, an international Catholic weekly based in London, and author of the blog Whispers in the Loggia.
All U.S. bishops are invited to installations of other American prelates, "but they don't show up for them in force unless they have a personal tie to the bishop being installed," he said.
The number of bishops who have committed to attending the Baltimore installation is impressive because O'Brien will be host to a meeting of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops later this fall.
"It's really like a big family reunion, even though there's a bishops' meeting in November," Palmo said. "With everyone coming back six weeks later, this really, really is something."
O'Brien has held several high-profile posts that allowed him to interact with many members of the Catholic hierarchy. Before the former military chaplain was appointed to the Archdiocese of Military Services a decade ago, O'Brien served as vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of New York and later as an auxiliary bishop there.
"For many of the cardinals and many of the bishops, he's literally a longtime friend," Palmo said. "Many of them go way back."
The new archbishop said he has spent his last days in the military archdiocese "distractedly" - trying to keep in touch with Baltimore officials while maintaining his other responsibilities. He came to Baltimore on Saturday. "I think I left a clean desk," he said after last night's service.
On Wednesday, O'Brien led the dedication of the new facilities for the Archdiocese of Military Services, near the campus of Catholic University of America in Washington.
In addition to a few trips up north to celebrate Mass at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Upper Fells Point, for example, or to meet Baltimore priests at their annual day of enrichment, he has fit in some preparation time for research and prayer.
"I've been doing some reading on the history of the church there, and I've been doing a lot of praying, serious praying," O'Brien said in a recent interview. "This work is God's work, it's not mine, and I can't lose sight of that."
Several people noted O'Brien's service in the military last night. As a Vietnam War veteran who later traveled to Iraq and other battle zones, "he's going to be coming with a lot of compassion," said Sister Mary Valeria Wagner of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, an assistant art teacher at St. Pius X School in Rodgers Forge.