Homily for Bicentennial Sunday

(written 1/17/2020)


Who founded our Church? Right. The Lord Jesus Christ, eternally begotten of the eternal Father, Who became man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, and Who rose from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion. [Spanish]

He founded His Church on the twelve… Apostles. And the original Apostles saw to it that the Church continued, by consecrating successors for themselves. We call the successors of the Apostles… bishops.

Among the original Apostles, one held pre-eminent authority. Namely, Saint… Peter. How many successors in office has St. Peter had? Right: 265. Pope Francis is the 266th pope.

Who was the 251st pope?

Father, why do we need to know that?

Well, that particular successor of St. Peter did something highly significant for us. He erected our diocese. That is, he sent a brother bishop of his, a fellow successor of the original Apostles, to preside over the Church here in the state of Virginia. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson still lived, 77 years old. That year, Pope Pius VII made the state of Virginia a diocese in the Roman Catholic Church and appointed the first Catholic Bishop of Richmond.

Now, that bishop was not the first priest in the diocese. Catholics first came to what is now Virginia in 1570, to try to evangelize the Native Americans. The first missionaries suffered terrible martyrdom here. Then the laws of British colonial rule prohibited Catholicism in Virginia from 1607 to 1786.

In 1820, Virginia became the seventh diocese in the still pretty-new United States. Anyone know which American city had the first American bishop? Correct. Baltimore.

The Catholic Diocese of Richmond had it rough in the early years. One of the first bishops wrote to a seminary in Ireland, trying to recruit men to come to Virginia to serve as priests. But the Richmond bishop warned the candidates:

If you come to Virginia to serve, you must expect a life of great labor and fatigue, much exposure to cold, heat, and rain, bad roads, very indifferent diet and lodging, and but little respect for your dignity. You will find few Catholics, little of society, and compensation barely adequate to support you in the plainest and most economical manner. There are places much more desirable elsewhere. If you choose my diocese, I will regard your character and honor as compromised if afterwards you flinch. You must come fully prepared, certain that your recompense is not to be expected here, but hereafter.

In those early years, our local church experienced not just material hardship, but also some serious moral confusion. The pope stood against slavery, as did pretty much all of Catholic and Protestant Europe, especially Ireland. But here in Virginia, our Catholic leaders did not have the courage to take a stand against the overwhelming social pressure in favor of slavery. To the contrary, our leaders knuckled under completely.

Pius VII
Pope Pius VII

In 1834, in the cathedral of our diocese, a preacher lashed out against “wicked would-be philanthropists,” with whom, “only madmen and traitors” would co-operate. “The Catholic in Virginia will shrink from the shaking the polluted hand” of such people. What wickedness was he condemning? The anti-slavery movement. Our cathedral preacher declared in 1834, “Abolitionism is a profanation of the Gospel.”

Actually, that sermon was a profanation. And there were plenty of other sermons like it, given by many Catholic priests and prelates in the South. But we learned our lesson, thank God, in time to take a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement.

Our forebears among Richmond-diocese Catholics conscientiously broke Virginia segregation laws. In 1947 we had non-segregated Masses and church meals, with black and white Catholics receiving Communion together, then eating together.

Yes, that was illegal in Virginia in 1947. But the pastor of St. Paul’s in Richmond declared, “No true American can defend the barriers imposed by legal segregation.” The priest referred to our soldiers in World War II, which had ended just a couple years before: “Black and white have fought together to defend a common flag. All have the right to the liberties symbolized by that flag.” The words of a Richmond-diocese priest, years before Martin Luther King, Jr., began his work.

I could go on with anecdotes, but let’s leave it like this for now. We have had shameful moments and proud moments, over two interesting centuries of Catholic history here. May God have mercy on us for the failures. And may He continue to inspire us to acts of genuine Christian heroism.

There’s only one way, that we know of, to keep a vital connection with Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of the world. You cannot do it by phone or over the internet. You have to participate in the sacramental life of a local parish church in communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Thanks to the generosity and self-sacrifice of those who have gone before us, we find that vital connection with Christ open to us, right here, right now. Praised be God. May He give us many graces during this bicentennial anniversary year.

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