Our Third Century

Opening Mass of the Richmond Bicentennial

On 11 July 1820, Pope Pius VII chose Fr. Patrick Kelly, president of St. John’s College in Birchfield, County Kilkenny, Ireland to be bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Richmond in the American colonies. It was carved out of the Archdiocese of Baltimore which encompassed the entire new Republic when it was established in 1789. Richmond is the 6th diocese formed in the colonies along with Charleston, 12 years after the formation of the dioceses of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Bardstown (now Louisville). At the time of its creation Richmond included most of what is today Virginia and West Virginia, while Charleston included Georgia and the Carolinas.

200 years sounds like a significant achievement. Perhaps that’s because none of our national institutions in North America come anywhere close to how long many in Europe and Asia have been around. So the Bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1976 was a big deal. People lit the expensive cigars, popped the expensive champagne, and poured the classic single malt scotch. Commemorative stamps were printed. Commemorative coins were minted. The American Freedom Train launched a 21-month tour of the 48 contiguous states, and a large international fleet of tall-masted sailing ships gathered in New York City, and later in Boston.

Vice President Rockefeller led the Bicentennial Parade down Constitution Ave., and Johnny Cash was the Grand Marshall. Elaborate fireworks displays lit up the skies over major American cities. In Philadelphia, Queen Elizabeth presented the Bicentennial Bell, a replica of the Liberty Bell cast at the same foundry, on behalf of the British people. Locally, people painted mailboxes and fire hydrants red, white, and blue. A wave of patriotism and nostalgia swept the nation and there was a general feeling that we had gotten over the tumultuous era of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate crisis.[1] In short, 200 years is a big deal indeed.

We hear today from the prophet Isaiah words to encourage the returning exiles of Israel, weary of their poverty, their labors, and their wanderings. Resettled in their own land, they looked forward to an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity, to raising their children and growing their crops, and directing their thanksgiving to God. They possessed no credible guarantees of a bright future. Nobody ever does. But they did possess a tremendous faith in God. It is a unique trait of the severely humbled and downtrodden to put great hope in an eventual change of fortunes. But historically for the children of Israel and for disciples of Jesus Christ, karma has nothing to do with it. It’s not about the universe restoring its natural equilibrium. Rather, it’s entirely about a fundamental personal connection with the Almighty and merciful God whose Fatherly care will always and forever assure our ultimate good.

When Bishop Patrick Kelly arrived in Baltimore in early January 1821 and in Norfolk the following day, he received no warm welcome. Although he had been duly informed of the volatile situation he was walking into and assured of every imaginable support from the highest levels of the Vatican, he was sorely unprepared for what awaited him. The details were tedious and difficult to follow, but there were definitely challenges that his presence and efforts were unable to resolve. In June 1822, Bishop Kelly left to become bishop of the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore in Ireland, having never once set foot in Richmond. And for the next 20 years, the newly formed Diocese of Richmond was without a bishop.

To mark a 200-year anniversary is simply to acknowledge the passage of time, that we are around to actually observe it, and we are glad to do it. For obvious reasons we don’t mark the 4300th Anniversary of the founding of Babylon or the 701st Anniversary of the Ottoman Empire. But some people will observe the 503rd Anniversary of the Reformation. We don’t, but other people will. And when we look back upon any significant chunk of time, we can take the opportunity to pause and consider our struggles, our decisions, our triumphs, and our failures, and perhaps learn some very important lessons for the future. We can call to mind the wisdom of our forebears and consider redirecting our efforts to pursue the ideals that inspired them. We can also acknowledge the challenges and limitations they did not foresee; and building on the foundation they laid, we can forge a new, a better, and a brighter future.

The Acts of the Apostles tells about life in the time immediately after Pentecost. Some scripture scholars believe the sacred author tried to paint a more idealized and romanticized picture of those early years. Now we do not doubt there is some truth in these accounts, but we might hesitate when we hear words like “always” and “never” and “everyone” thrown around when describing a diverse group of people who claim free and independent thought. A significant majority perhaps were of the same mind, and tried to live in peace with one another, and “ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.”[2]

Now 200 years of the Diocese of Richmond has not been all roses, rainbows, and unicorns. But we are grateful to be here to mark a significant chunk of time, to affirm our unity of faith and our common purpose, and to lift our hearts to God in praise and thanksgiving. And we continue to look forward with hope despite our shortcomings, and to work eagerly and joyfully to build a better and brighter future. The gospel of Matthew offers some practical advice for our life together in community. But what appears to be a calculated process that somehow permits excommunication or shunning of a member is actually an admonition to never give up trying to solve a dispute or misunderstanding. The goal is always reconciliation. And that is the price Jesus demanded of us when he instructed us to love God above all things, and our neighbor as ourselves. And then he stretched out his arms on the cross and brought about our reconciliation with God and with one another. Now that wasn’t giving up. When Jesus tells us to treat a neighbor as we would a Gentile or a tax collector, we need to remember how he treated Gentiles and tax collectors. That is exactly what he means.

Marking 200 years can be about looking back on where we have been. But it is also about looking forward to where we are headed. We may have just completed our second century of Catholic presence in Virginia. But we have also begun our third. This is the year of our new church building. I don’t suppose any of us will be around in a hundred years. But who we are today and what we do still matters. It is no one person’s job alone. The Holy Spirit guides the church. And we are co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord. Welcome to our third century.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Bicentennial

[2] Acts of the Apostles 2: 46-47

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