Two hundred twenty years ago, not long after being ordained the first Catholic bishop of the United States, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore wrote a now-famous prayer for the nation, to be recited in all his parishes. 

Reading it today, it sounds quaint, not just for the language used but also for the ideals it expresses. 

Here is the passage dedicated to our nation’s lawmakers: “Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.” 

Midway through 2011, we are awash with news of an unemployment rate hovering under double digits, a military mired in at least three conflicts around the world, dire economic warnings of another dip into recession, a housing market that appears to have no bottom, a national debt that seems to be spiralling out of control, continued legislative and judicial threats against human dignity and the institution of marriage, the ever-present threat of terrorist attacks and a season of destructive and deadly natural disasters (accompanied, no less, by prophecies of the apocalypse). 

Worse, our public servants at the federal level — those tasked with guiding our nation toward peace, happiness, industry, sobriety and liberty — have been hit with a series of scandals among their peers that puts their vocation in a pretty poor light. Even discounting the extreme examples of philanderers and pathological narcissists, our civic leaders as a whole seem mired in partisanship, cowing to the pressures of special-interest groups, and largely unmindful of the concerns and priorities of those outside the Washington, D.C., beltway. 

The pessimists among us might be forgiven for thinking that America irrevocably has lost its way. 

No doubt the occasion of Independence Day 2011 is cause less for full-throated celebration than somber reflection. 

In that spirit, though, it is worth recalling that Bishop Carroll’s prayer was marked by an audacity and optimism for which he and his fellow new Americans of the time had very little cause. The country was, in 1791, by no means a sure bet to succeed. It was still riven by partisanship, foreign interference, philosophical and ideological differences, and governed by men who counted among their number not just extraordinarily talented visionaries but also adulterers, blackmailers and petty egotists — sometimes combined in the same man. 

The point is not to indulge in cynicism about the human condition or the effect of power on political leaders, or worse yet, to sink into despair about the direction of our country. The point is to reflect on the audacity and hopefulness of prayerful people who trust God’s goodness and providence, and work without discouragement to elect the leaders most likely to promote common good. And then firmly hold them accountable in that task.  

The prayer of America’s first Catholic bishop remains as valid today as it was 220 years ago. 

May God bless America. On this Independence Day, may he shine his wisdom on our leaders and their work, “that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.”

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.