NORFOLK, Va. (CNS) — The first Catholics of Virginia 200 years ago were “a few shining stars” that eventually burst forth “into greater constellations of communities” bringing the light of Christ to all whom they encountered, said Bishop Barry C. Knestout in opening the Diocese of Richmond’s bicentennial celebration.


Along with 600 people at Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk for a Mass Jan. 18 marking the start of the yearlong observance, Bishop Knestout and 42 concelebrating priests commemorated the 1820 arrival in Virginia of Bishop Patrick Kelly, the diocese’s first bishop.

The Richmond Diocese is among the seven oldest U.S. Catholic dioceses, the others being: the Archdiocese of Baltimore in (1789); in 1808, the Archdioceses of Boston, Louisville, Kentucky, New York and Philadelphia; and, also in 1820, the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

In his homily, Bishop Knestout focused on the jubilee theme “Shine like stars in the world as you hold fast to the word of life” from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:15-16).

Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Va., delivers the homily during the opening Mass of the diocese’s bicentennial year Jan. 18 at Sacred Heart Church in Norfolk. The Mass commemorated the arrival of the first Catholic bishop in Virginia, Bishop Patrick Kelly. (Michael Mickle/CNS, via The Catholic Virginian)

The bishop said the “manifestation of faith” was accompanied by awe, wonder and acts of charity.

“Given the smallness of the Catholic community in Virginia, how few Catholics there were and still are in comparison to the rest of the population,” he said, “I have seen how ‘holding fast to the word’ results in a devotion and generous engagement of the faithful in parish life, where works of charity and justice grow and thrive.”

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, a German Redemptorist who worked as a missionary in the United States frontier, including the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, is pictured in this photo from circa 1855. (Public Domain)

Linking the present to the past, Bishop Knestout, the 13th bishop of the diocese, used the crosier that belonged to Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, who served as bishop of Richmond from 1974 to 2003, and the chalice that belonged to Bishop Augustine van de Vyer, who led the diocese from 1889 to 1911.

Also on display was a first-class relic of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, a Redemptorist priest from Germany who briefly ministered in the diocese. During the Civil War, he was one of several priests who cared for ailing Union soldiers and who celebrated Mass and heard confessions at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Fort Monroe.

The diversity of the diocese’s eastern region was evident during the Mass in the proclamation of Scripture readings in English, Spanish and Tagalog, representing Filipino Catholics, and in music provided by choirs from Sacred Heart Church, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk and St. Gregory the Great Church in Virginia Beach.

Bel Jaring, a member of the Fil-Am Ministry Choir at St. Gregory the Great, said she was thankful the parish’s choir was able to participate, noting she has seen the diocese increasingly embrace diversity over the years.

Members of the Fil-Am Choir from St. Gregory the Great Parish, Virginia Beach, Va., sing the offertory hymn during the opening Mass for the Diocese of Richmond’s bicentennial celebration Jan. 18 at Sacred Heart Church in Norfolk. (Vy Barto/CNS, via The Catholic Virginian)

Anticipating that a yearlong celebration can be rejuvenating, Fr. Mike Joly, pastor at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Yorktown, said: “It’s important to unfold such a momentous milestone over time with a variety of opportunities for spirituality.”

He said looking at the last 200 years of the diocese “gives us the opportunity to see the big picture.” The priest likened God’s relationship with people to marriage vows in which God pledges to be faithful to believers in good times and bad.

Sue Kassel, a parishioner at St. Mark Church in Virginia Beach, called the bicentennial celebration “an outward sign that the Catholic Church is alive and welcoming.”

She told The Catholic Virginian, Richmond’s diocesan newspaper, she hoped the yearlong celebration would bring back Catholics who have fallen away from the Church and attract others to the faith as they see the Church’s “unity and perseverance over the years.”

The celebration concluded with the singing of the diocese’s bicentennial hymn, “We Shine Like Stars in the World.”

The inauguration of the bicentennial was evident throughout the diocese the weekend of Jan. 18-19 as parishes celebrated the Mass for the Particular Church, proclaiming the same Scripture readings that were used during the Mass in Norfolk.

As part of the celebration, Bishop Knestout plans to lead a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore May 9. The Richmond Diocese was erected from the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Additional bicentennial Masses will be celebrated at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond July 11 and at St. Andrew Parish in Roanoke Sept. 26.

The diocese also plans to celebrate its first Eucharistic Congress Nov. 6-7 in the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

— By Brian T. Olszewski, Catholic News Service. Olszewski is the editor of THE CATHOLIC VIRGINIAN, newspaper of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia.