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Bishop Knestout’s Homily from the Bicentennial Mass in the Western Vicariate

**Mass was celebrated at St. Andrew Catholic Church, Roanoke, on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. 

I want to begin by first highlighting the statue of St. Vincent de Paul and his relics that we have here near the sanctuary, as we celebrate this Mass and the feast of St. Vincent de Paul in anticipation today. Certainly tomorrow would normally be the feast, and we are asking all the parishes during the weekend to say this Mass as a recognition of his patronage, his prayers for us as a diocese, as a local church, and the importance of our charitable efforts – reaching out to those who are poor and vulnerable in our midst as an expression of our life as Catholics. And that’s been consistent through the history of this local Church.

That statue, I am told, may have been from an orphanage that was named in honor of St. Vincent de Paul in the area. That’s an earlier occasion. I’m hoping that’s correct, but I am getting some word from one of our historians about that.

I’m grateful, as I said at the beginning, for the priests who have joined us here, certainly Father Kevin as the episcopal vicar for the western region, Western Vicariate, as well as Father Mike Boehling, our vicar general, and Father Tony Marques, who is the rector of our cathedral. Priests, deacons, brothers and sisters, those in consecrated life.

“Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!…The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love…”

This reading that we hear today on this feast, “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!” that we care within our hearts. Joy, as we express love for one another, and that joy comes from our union, communion with Christ, and is inspiring our mission to carry out the mission. Among those aspects of our mission is charity.

Today we celebrate not only the third of our regional bicentennial Masses, this one for the Western Vicariate, but we do so in conjunction with the feast of St. Vincent De Paul.

Today we celebrate the feast of our patron because of his own concern for the poor. He was certainly aware in his life, was interested in forming priests and those who would serve the Church, and very much had a deep love for all the poor and wanted to find ways to encourage men and women in the Church to care for the poor.

How Vincent de Paul became the patron saint of the diocese is not fully known.

So I’ll reflect a little bit on the history there as we also reflect on our charitable efforts in this diocese.

The earliest mention of his patronage is back in 1843, during the tenure of Richard Vincent Whelan, who was the second bishop of Richmond, who in some ways was kind of the refounding bishop, after about 20 years, from 1821-1841, where there was not a local bishop. We were still reverted back to the care of the metropolitan there in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

So when Bishop Whelan was named, it is sometime during his tenure that St. Vincent de Paul became the patron of the diocese, was named such.

So it is likely that Bishop Whelan is the one that named him, or at least pointed that out.

Bishop Whelan’s formation for the priesthood occurred first at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, which also happens to be my alma mater. There, Bishop Whelan encountered the Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg, who I believe also served here in the Western region as well as in the rest of the diocese, these Daughters of Charity.

And the Daughters of Charity were under the guidance of St. Elizabeth Anne Seton. As many know, the Daughters were originally founded by St. Vincent DePaul and St. Louise de Marillac. Later, Whelan studied at St. Sulpice in France and was ordained as a priest in 1831, just a few years before he became bishop here. In 1831, he was ordained as a priest in France in Versailles.

His ordination year coincided with the founding of the St. Vincent De Paul Society in France. So with these experiences in Whelan’s own background, he may have been aware, studying in France and being ordained there, may have been aware of the newly formed St. Vincent DePaul Society. If not, he certainly would have been familiar with the French schools of spirituality and with French saints. That awareness was brought to Mount Saint Mary’s and to the mountain regions of the Eastern U.S. in the 1790s by expatriates from France who were escaping the French Revolution, some of the persecutions that were occurring there against clergy. And among them was Father John DuBois, who was the founder of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary. So Bishop Whelan, studying there, would have encountered this spirituality and had a sense and a connection with the Church in France.

In the 1830s, well before he was named bishop of Richmond, Father Whelan was working in mission territories of the mountains from the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania through the Cotoctins of Maryland and to the Appalachians of West Virginia and western Virginia, here, our own regions of this diocese where we celebrate this Mass. So, he was very familiar with the situation of the Catholic Church in Virginia, and especially in its western regions. In fact, he had a great love for that, Bishop Whalen did, for the Church here.

The first mention of the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul for the diocese  occurs during Bishop Whelan’s tenure when the saint’s patronage was referred to indirectly as already recognized.

In 1843, Bishop Whelan asked Propaganda Fide, that’s the department, the office, in Rome responsible for the oversight of mission territories. And the Church in the U.S. was mission territory for many years, I think even up until around WWII. And he asked which readings should be used in the Breviary for the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, who he indicated was patron of the Diocese of Richmond. So that’s our first indication.

In 1853, Pope Pius IX, in response to a request from Whelan’s successor, Bishop John McGill, declared that Vincent de Paul remained as the patron of the Diocese of Richmond even after the Diocese of Wheeling had sprung forth from the Diocese of Richmond and was newly formed. And, of course, Bishop Whelan was named the first bishop there to govern that local Church. So there we hear early on as Bishop Whelan was transferred that St. Vincent was very much understood and recognized as the patron of this diocese.

Now, it was the middle name of Bishop Whelan, his familiarity with French spirituality, knowing well of St. Vincent de Paul’s legacy of caring for the poor and disenfranchised, it was clear that because of his own personal devotion, his practical experience and recognizing what at the time was the poverty, the real challenges faced by the Church in Virginia and especially in the west. Knowing of the poverty of the people here in terms of our Church and experience, it seems very appropriate and understandable that St. Vincent de Paul would be named our patron. Because of his care for the poor and his interest in spreading the Gospel, the Good News.

An example of St. Vincent’s inspiration is the presence and activity to this day of the St. Vincent de Paul Society throughout the diocese. It actually was formed here back in 1865, right after the Civil War. It formed in Virginia. And immediately in the years that followed, up to the 1920s, early 1920s, that St. Vincent de Paul Society gave rise to Catholic Charities and was actually the precursor to Catholic Charities in the diocese and all the legacies of charitable works that continue on.

The Vincent de Paul Society strengthens the holiness of its members by encouraging and supporting them in a life of charity, taking place in the context of practical aid to the poor.

And it seems to me that so many examples can be found of this local Church of how that practical aid to the poor is carried out and expressed and carries forward the mission of the Church in a beautiful way here.

We hear in the Scriptures today, “Brothers (and sisters)…Not many of you are wise…not many are influential….not many are wellborn. God…chose the worlds lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something; so that mankind can do no boasting before God.”

So we see here the preference of sense that our mindset and our hearts should be with those who are poor and in need.

The characteristics of the Catholic Church in Virginia from the 1820s to the 1840s was rural, missionary and poor — as much of it is even today in the west and throughout the diocese – there is that rural aspect to our diocese. And these demographics closely align with the ministry and legacy of Vincent de Paul.

At the time of Bishop Whelan’s arrival as bishop in Richmond in 1841, there were only 9,000 Catholics through the diocese, about eight churches, six priests scattered through this whole territory that reached from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Ohio Valley in terms of West Virginia and Virginia today – a huge amount of territory which would be daunting under the best of circumstances and certainly at that time with the limits of transportation was a great challenge.

Most of the parishes were composed at the time of Irish, French and German immigrants, who were poor and most of these, those who were gathered in ways outside of Richmond, Norfolk and Alexandria, they resided in these western regions of the diocese. And they were here because they were building infrastructure – canals, roads, and later the trains that came through, the railroads, to help in the building and the connecting of East and the West and access to that, and so very important in that legacy.

We hear in the Scriptures, “Jesus toured all the towns and villages. He taught in their synagogues, he proclaimed the good news of God’s reign, and he cured every sickness and disease. At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity…”

Over time, several institutions in the diocese were named after St. Vincent de Paul: schools; orphanages, as I mentioned earlier; the first Catholic hospital in Virginia, in Norfolk in 1855, which is today DePaul Medical Center; a parish church in Newport News in 1891.

Now, this diocese in our own present day, even without the territory of West Virginia, has 142 parishes, almost 25 schools, nursing and elderly care facilities, two regional Catholic Charities organizations, dozens of charitable ministries – soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters and Haitian ministries, just to name a few – that are carried out by our parishes and our people every day to recognize this need to be present to, care for and reach out to the poor. And to do so is integral to our mission, integral to who we are as Catholics.

It seems especially suitable that the theme we emphasize today is a part of our theme for the bicentennial year – communion and mission. In a particular way, we lift up and recognize this charitable mission of the Church and the call we each receive as disciples to be instruments of charity.

The Church in Richmond has always been characterized by a significant participation of lay men and women in the life and mission of the Church, especially in the area of charitable works. It was in the past and it is so now.

I say that charity exercised by an active, devoted, faith-filled laity of this diocese, under the spiritual care of devoted religious and clergy, is not only the past historic legacy of the diocese, it is the aspect of the mission that has flourished the most and continues, vibrant and effective, today.

So, it is especially appropriate that in commemoration of St. Vincent de Paul’s feast and his patronage, this year will not only mark this jubilee Mass, but also include an Octave of Service, even with the limits of COVID-19. An Octave of Service throughout the diocese, starting tomorrow, September 27, and going until October 4.

During this eight-day period, parishes, campus ministries and schools are organizing to carry out service projects, to build within our hearts the virtue of charity, to care for the poor who are our midst, and to benefit our wider communities.

Teaching the faith, celebrating the sacraments and doing works of charity is the mission of the Church.

Many times in our history, we have struggled with expansive geography, with scattered numbers of Catholics, being a small minority within the commonwealth, a small percentage of the population. And we’ve struggled with the lack of enough clergy and religious to minister to the spiritual needs of God’s people here.

But despite these historic struggles and challenges, as we mark 200 years, we are blessed with the generosity of clergy from all over the world, our international clergy who serve in our parishes, as well as local clergy and local vocations. We are blessed with 23 men studying for the priesthood here within the diocese, as well as the many priests who have gone before, been ordained, who serve here.

So also, we are blessed with a dedicated, generous faith-filled laity. Active lay participation and large numbers of vocations, these are sure signs of devotion, spiritual maturity, in the diocese among the people of our local Church. And that gives us great hope for the future as a local Church.

With gratitude today for all that has been accomplished in 200 years in works of charity in this diocese, we echo the words of the Gospel today as well. Not only do we point out and express gratitude to God for this legacy of mission, carrying out the mission of charity, but we also look to the future with hope and joy, but also anticipation of much more work yet to be done. So we repeat these words, “The harvest is good, but laborers are scarce. Beg the harvest master to send out laborers to gather his harvest.”

So we do that today in our prayer in the eucharist. We do that each day as we gather, ask the Lord by his grace to assist us to carry forward that mission, that legacy we reflect on and celebrate today but also that is expressed in the present and that we’re called to carry out in the future.

We ask for the intercession of St. Vincent de Paul to carry out that mission effectively with gratitude in our hearts, always with hope and with joy.

**A story about the Bicentennial Regional Mass in the Western Vicariate will appear in the Oct. 5 issue of The Catholic Virginian.