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A Petition for the First Bishop in the United States

The following is the text of a letter sent to Pius VI on March 12, 1788 by John Carroll, S.J. and two other priests. It would result in the election of John Carroll as the first Roman Catholic bishop for the United States:

Most Holy Father:

We, the undersigned, petitioners approaching the Apostolic See, with all due veneration, and prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, humbly set forth the following: That we are priests who have been specially deputed by our fellow-priests exercising with us the religious ministry in the United States of America, in order that we may, in the first place, return unbounded thanks to your Holiness for the truly paternal care, which you have deigned to extend to this remote part of the Lord’s vineyard: and in the next place, to manifest that we all, had been stimulated by this great care, to continue and increase our labors to preserve and extend the faith of Christ our Lord, in these States, which are filled with the errors of all the sects. In doing so, we are convinced, that we not only render meet service to God, but also render a pleasing and acceptable homage to the common Father of the faithful. Moreover to correspond to this great solicitude, we believe it our duty to expose to your Holiness, whatever from our long experience in these States, seems necessary to be known, in order that your pastoral providence may be most usefully administered in our regard.

Therefore, inasmuch as his Eminence Cardinal Antonelli intimated to one of your petitioners, in a letter dated July 23, 1785, that it was the design of the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide to appoint a Bishop Vicar-Apostolic, for these States as soon as possible, whenever the said Sacred Congregation understood that this would be seasonable, and desired to be informed as to the suitable time for that appointment, by the priest to whom the said letter was addressed, we declare, not he only but we in the common name of all the priests labouring here, Most Holy Father, that in our opinion the time has now come when the Episcopal dignity and authority arc very greatly to be desired. To omit other very grave reasons, we experience more and more in the constitution of this very free republic, that if there are even among the ministers of the sanctuary, any men of indocile mind, and chafing under ecclesiastical discipline, they allege as an excuse for their license and disobedience, that they are bound to obey bishops exercising their own authority and not a mere priest exercising any vicarious jurisdiction. This was the boast of the men who recently at New York sought to throw off the yoke of authority, and alleged this pretext, which seemed most likely to catch the favour of Protestants, in that more than in any other State, contending forsooth that the authority of the ecclesiastical superior whom the Sacred Congregation has appointed for us, was forbidden by law, because it not only emanates from a foreign tribunal, but is also dependent on it for its duration and exercise. We refrain from setting out all this more at length to your Holiness, inasmuch as we have learned that certain original documents have been transmitted to Rome, from which it can be more clearly seen, with what powers the person should be invested, to whom the ecclesiastical government of these States is confided.

With this view, we represent to the Supreme Pastor of the faithful on earth, that all the grounds on which the authority of the Superior as now constituted may be rendered odious, will have equal weight against a bishop, to whom the powers of a vicar, and not of an ordinary, are granted.

Therefore, Most Holy Father, we express in the name and by the wish of all, our opinion that the political and religious condition of these States requires that form of ecclesiastical government by which provision may be most efficaciously made in the first place for the integrity of faith and morals, and consequently for perpetual union with the Apostolic See, and due respect and obedience toward the same, and in the next place, that if any bishop is assigned to us, his appointment and authority may be rendered as free as possible from suspicion and odium to those among whom we live. Two points, it seems to us, will contribute greatly to this end; first, that the Most Holy Father, by his authority in the Church of Christ, erect a new episcopal see in these United States, immediately subject to the Holy See; in the next place, that the election of the bishop, at least for the first time, be permitted to the priests, who now duly exercise the religious ministry here and have the cure of souls. This being established, your most vigilant wisdom, Most Holy Father, after hearing the opinions of our priests of approved life and experience, and considering the character of our government, will adopt some course, by which future elections may be permanently conducted.

These are, Most Holy Father, what we have deemed it proper to submit with the utmost devotion of our hearts to your Holiness’s pastoral care, declaring, as though we were about to give an account of our sentiments to Jesus Christ, the divine bishop of souls, that we have nothing in view, except the increase of our holy Faith, growth of piety, vigour of ecclesiastical discipline, and the complete refutation of false opinions in regard to the Catholic religion, which have imbued the minds of Protestants.

May Almighty God long preserve you, Most Holy Father, to Christian people, that you not only benignly foster this American church, as you have already done, but also guard it with all spiritual protection, and establish it thoroughly, and finally that you will vouchsafe to bestow on us prostrate at your feet your Apostolical and fatherly blessing.

This is the prayer of

Your Holiness’s

Most devoted and obedient Servants and Sons,

John Carroll
Robert Molyneux
John Ashton


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