Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien, speaking Sunday at a Mass of Thanksgiving in Baltimore after his recent elevation ceremony in Rome, alluded to political battles in Maryland as he said the church must always stand up for its values.
Noting that Pope Benedict XVI exhorted religious leaders to defend the idea that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, he told about 1,000 parishioners: "We are doing our best, Holy Father, and we will not give up."
O'Brien was active in the push to keep the Maryland General Assembly from voting to legalize same-sex marriage. The measure — signed into law last week — is expected to come before voters as a referendum in November and could be overturned.
In an essay in The Baltimore Sun Friday, he wrote that Marylanders "should be able to vote their consciences in November without fear of being labeled 'intolerant bigots.'"
Sunday, O'Brien also mentioned fights over abortion and "government interference" into matters of religious conscience — the latter a reference to a federal mandate about covering contraception in health-care plans.
"There are great pressures against us in many parts of the country, but we have to hold true to our principles," he said in an interview afterward.
The gathering Sunday was a Mass of Thanksgiving that celebrated his elevation to cardinal after four years as archbishop of Baltimore. Held at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore, the event drew people from beyond the city. Families lined up afterward to shake O'Brien's hand and get their picture taken with him.
"It was beautiful and very much a blessing to be here," Marian Kortisses of Westminster said after meeting him for the first time.
Judith Cole, a member of the New All Saints Choir of Baltimore, which sang during the Mass, said it felt like being "a part of history." O'Brien, who remains apostolic administrator in Baltimore until the pope names a successor, is the fourth archbishop from the archdiocese to rise to cardinal.
He told worshipers that he had expected his assignment in Baltimore would be his last, "a permanent marriage."
Monsignor Robert Hartnett, the archdiocese's director of research and planning, said after the Mass that O'Brien's elevation was "a bittersweet experience" for the region's Catholics, an honor that means losing him to Rome.
He faced tough decisions since arriving in 2007. Declining school enrollment prompted the closure of a dozen Catholic elementaries and Cardinal Gibbons High School in 2010, a move that angered parents and students. Hartnett said the shutdowns were the most "painful issue" tackled by O'Brien and other church leaders.
"I have enjoyed working with him immensely, even in difficult circumstances," said Hartnett, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Essex.
O'Brien, thanking parishioners for their role in his elevation, shared a snippet from the ceremony in Rome. As a native New Yorker and Yankees fan, he confessed the red socks he was expected to don did not sit well with him.
"I have two pairs which I will never wear again," he said to appreciative laughter.