11 July 1820 was the date Pope Pius VII established the Diocese of Richmond by decree and sent Bishop Patrick Kelly from County Kilkenny, Ireland to be the very first shepherd of a culturally diverse flock scattered across a far-flung swath of the American wilderness. Today we look back on 200 years of Catholic life and engagement woven into the fabric of Virginia history. That’s quite a lot of water under the bridge. Some of you may have been around for as much as a quarter of that story. I’ve only been around for an eighth. But few can claim their own participation in that story has been with full awareness and freedom. And as with any given garment, very little might stand out or catch notice at first. Then a discerning eye might notice the cut or style, the cuffs, the delicate lacework, the intricate beadwork, the pockets, the buttons, and eventually the knots and burrs, the thin patches smooth and discolored from wear, and the tearing, stretching, and fraying at the edges and seams. Most every square inch of any garment will have interesting stories to tell if only we are willing to pause and ponder.
Yet even more so for the stretch of 33 244 square miles of lush fertile territory extending from the Eastern Shore and the Tidewater on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay west to the Blue Ridge and Cumberland mountains. Of course Virginia history doesn’t begin just when European settlers arrived. For more than 500 years, this land has been home to the native Algonquin, Nottoway, and Meherrin people, well over three generations prior to the founding of the Jamestown settlement.
When the bishop came to Sacred Heart Parish, Prince George, circa 1920, to administer the sacrament of confirmation, he was met by the village brass band on Baxter Road. (Photo/Diocese of Richmond Archives)
Although the Richmond Diocese officially dates back 200 years, records show that Spanish Jesuits arrived near present-day Williamsburg some 300 years before that. The native inhabitants dispatched them quickly, so it wasn’t much of a real beginning. The years that followed also saw many challenges, from religious and secular hostility, to geographic isolation, economic deprivation, and a chronic lack of priests. The small Catholic population grew with the development of canals, railroads, trolley lines, and automobiles, along with the influx of immigrants from French, Irish, German, Lebanese, Filipino, Latin-American, Vietnamese, Korean, and African background, and the expansion of the federal government and military a hundred years ago in Northern Virginia and Tidewater. Catholics are still small in number as larger parishes are found in mainly urban centers. But with diminished religious practice made worse by the loss of credibility from the clergy abuse scandal, we are largely still mission territory. In 200 years we have been led by 13 bishops. And today 200 000 Catholics make up 5% of the total population. We have 193 priests, 162 deacons, 139 parishes, and 30 schools.
Planted in Virginia soil some 200 years ago the Catholic faith grows slowly and steadily. And we reflect on where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re headed. Sacred scripture invites us to think today in terms of planting and harvesting. I know very little about either, but many of you know a great deal more, I’m sure. I have two tomato plants this year, and two passionfruit plants for over 5 years on the back porch. A half a dozen tomatoes are ripening on the vine, but not one single passionfruit.
I remember a lesson on the water cycle in grade school, so I get the passage from Isaiah. And I know water falls on my tomatoes and my passionfruit plants from rain or snow or from my watering can. Now the quality of the soil demands some attention. We may be familiar with the red clay around these parts, but the Virginia Department of Agriculture has identified 5 major soil types variably suited to growing crops. Farmers will study soil quality and weather patterns to help produce the best crops and the highest yield. But I wonder why we who work for the kingdom don’t pay more attention to the quality of soil that is the human heart and the weather patterns of the spirit when we sow the seed of the faith and seek to reap a bountiful harvest. Farmers have always tried to familiarize themselves with the local climate, the smart ones anyway, but the sowing of seed employed in the gospel passage is clearly haphazard and wasteful, not at all efficient and productive. Farmers can teach us what works for their crops and their fields. Where do we learn what works for the faith?
We might benefit from studying 200 years of wisdom and experience in the way we plant the seed of God’s Word so to reap a bountiful harvest of authentic Christian living. Now while Catholics in Virginia still only make up 5% of the state population, we should welcome more creative and fresh thinking instead of just relying blindly on the old playbook. We need to pay closer attention to our daily intentional witness of the faith, in the understanding and practice of our rich traditions, and in our living of the gospel with joy and conviction. Do we genuinely love our Catholic faith and our way of life? Can we willingly and gladly point out to others what we like about it specifically? Is our joy evident and infective? Sometimes a purely academic or cerebral exposition of our faith can engage an audience. But an intentional and convincing joyful witness will reach more people and require less preparation. Do we welcome the opportunity to proclaim the Good News of God’s presence and action in our lives or do we prefer our faith to remain stagnant and be displayed in a museum? Do we fear the implications of embracing the radical gospel, to love our neighbor without distinction, to serve them without applause or recompense, to extend God’s kindness, mercy, and reconciliation as we have known and experienced it personally?
Perhaps 33 244 square miles of Virginia and its 8.5 million people are more than we can adequately attend to. Certainly, we could better manage our finite energies and resources here in Waynesboro and surrounding communities among 2000 parishioners made up of young people and seniors and married couples and families and singles and the homebound. We should renew our efforts to give joyful and convincing witness to our Catholic faith with our own families, our friends and neighbors, and with complete strangers. I believe what will make a big difference is our willingness to take ownership of the mission Jesus entrusted to the universal church, to the Diocese of Richmond, and to our community of St. John the Evangelist Church. It is not somebody else’s church. It is our church. It is not somebody else’s work. It is our work. It is not somebody else’s faith. It is our faith. It is not somebody else’s life. It is our life. And if we are not familiar and convinced of its beauty and value, we will fail miserably to convince anyone else.
A sower went out to sow. And seed fell everywhere. The seed of God’s Word still falls on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and on good fertile earth across Virginia. And it does not return to God without achieving the end for which it is sent.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020