Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian
In a conversation with Bishop Barry C. Knestout, it quickly becomes clear he likes to speak about and give credit to those who have influenced him and formed him rather than to speak about himself.
He readily mentions his parents, siblings, and the cardinals for whom he has worked. But rather than focus on himself, he speaks about the experiences and developments that have shaped his life and brought him to Dec. 5, 2017, when Pope Francis named him the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Richmond.
Born June 11, 1962, five minutes before his brother, Thomas, Bishop Knestout is one of the late-Deacon Thomas and Caroline’s nine children — three girls and six boys.
While the children received faith formation at their parish elementary school, St. Pius X in Bowie, Maryland, that was a complement to the catechesis they often received at dinner, served promptly at 5:30 p.m., when their father returned from Fort Meade, where he worked for the National Security Agency.
“Sometimes my dad would hold court; he would speak about issues of faith, talk about issues of the day,” the bishop said. “Almost every time there’d be a conversation, there’d be some kind of lesson in that, some reflection on God, our Lord.”
Bishop Knestout noted that while there was “catechesis,” there was also the usual family banter, e.g., what had happened during one’s day, where the family might go on vacation, etc.
There was also prayer.
“Family prayer was in the context of meals — prayer around the table at every meal, and outside of that it was all connected with the Church’s prayer, and my father’s personal prayer life,” the bishop said, adding, “The family context of prayer is very important and very impactful.”
Bishop Knestout attributed one aspect of his personal prayer life to his father.
“I have a devotion to the Holy Spirit that goes back to my father’s participation in the Charismatic Renewal and his transformation of his own spiritual life,” the bishop said. “It was dramatic and beautiful and had an effect on our family.”
While he does not consider his prayer style charismatic, Bishop Knestout said that seeing the influence of the Holy Spirit on his dad’s life also affected his life in that he has a devotion to the Holy Spirit.
“Every priest should have a devotion of prayer to the Holy Spirit and prayer to Our Lady; they go hand in hand,” the bishop said.
Path to priesthood
While the family was faith-centered, its members also participated in a variety of activities. The bishop’s dad was a Scout leader, and the bishop himself, as a Cub Scout, earned the Ad Altare Dei (“to the altar”) award in the early ‘70s.
In high school, the bishop played defensive back on the Bowie High School junior varsity football team and was a member of the wrestling team.
And he liked to draw. Following graduation from high school in 1980, he took that talent to the University of Maryland where, after his sophomore year, he applied and was accepted into the School of Architecture.
At the same time, he sought work in his chosen field, working first as an assistant to the chief estimator at Gardiner and Gardiner General Contractors in Crofton, Maryland.
“After a year there, and having the chance to work with a number of architects, my boss at Gardiner and Gardiner introduced me to Clyde Grimm and Steve Parker,” the bishop said. “I interviewed and was hired as a draftsman by Grimm and Parker Architects in Greenbelt, Maryland, and stayed with them through my years at the School of Architecture, until I started in the seminary, and returned to work for them again in the summer after my first year at Mount Saint Mary’s.”
It would be his final summer at the drafting table, for something had occurred during his sophomore year. He recognized the call to priesthood.
“My discernment went forward in fits and starts through college,” the bishop said. “When I completed my degree, it seemed the right time to fully test the call and I applied and was accepted into formation for the Archdiocese of Washington.”
Following four years in the seminary, the former architect was ordained a priest, and served at two parishes for a combined five years, but the archbishop, Cardinal James A. Hickey, chose him to be his secretary.
“That kind of put my life on a trajectory that was very different than I had ever anticipated in that I thought I’d be a parish priest,” he said. “I’d serve in a parish; that would be my life. That is what I was seeking to do.”
While he didn’t expect the assignment, he treasures the decade he spent with the cardinal.
“It was a beautiful experience, walking alongside a cardinal of the Church who has had such an impact on the Archdiocese of Washington,” he said.
Bishop Knestout served as secretary to Cardinal Hickey’s successor, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, in 2001, and 2003-2004.
In 2004, he became a parish priest again, this time as pastor of St. John the Evangelist, Silver Spring.
“What is most moving about the life of a priest is that we are welcomed and accepted by the people we encounter simply because we are priests,” he said. “We have the privilege of sharing with people the most joyful and sorrowful moments of their lives, the triumphs and the tragedies, and to bring to them the sacraments and a tangible experience that Christ accompanies them, and that his grace is available to them in all these moments.”
Facing a ‘significant challenge’
Bishop Knestout became secretary for the archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns in 2006. A year later, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl named him moderator of the curia (“chief of staff”) and vicar for administration of the archdiocese.
While honored to be chosen for the position, Bishop Knestout also saw it as a “significant challenge.”
“I say that because of my temperament and personality; it was a whole new kind of work, a whole new kind of experience,” he said. “I always thought my forté would be the opportunity to engage people, to have that pastoral care, do pastoral work.”
Over time, he learned to appreciate that administrative oversight — “all the letters and phone calls and policies and procedures and documents on finances and numbers and all those abstract and intangible things” — was integral to the work of the priests and parishes.
“I see the great value, the underpinnings, of what that oversight administration is able to do in terms of enabling and opening up an avenue for the Spirit at work,” he said. “We are a sacramental Church, we are a Church of outward sign, and (oversight administration) becomes a channel and avenue for grace.”
His administrative activities included co-chairing the committees that planned two papal visits to Washington — Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 and Pope Francis in 2015 — and chairing the preparatory commission for the archdiocese’s first synod in 2014.
‘Christ Our Hope’
When Pope Benedict named Bishop Knestout an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Washington, Nov. 18, 2008, the bishop, in recognition of Pope Benedict’s presence in the United States earlier that year, chose as his motto “Christ Our Hope” — the theme of the papal visit.
“Pope Emeritus Benedict, as was the case with his predecessor, St. John Paul II, and also with Pope Francis, have been witnesses to hope, a virtue which is especially needed in our present age,” Bishop Knestout said.
He continued, “In a world where secular materialism holds sway over the lives and attitudes of many people and cultures, there is little sense that there is Someone or something, beautiful and loving, beyond this life, to which we are called. Many don’t see anything beyond the cruel reality of decay and death, so hopelessness and despair often manifest.”
That hopelessness, according to the bishop, is expressed in “obsessive grasping” for material comforts, power, prestige or pleasure, as some people “try to stave off suffering associated with the conscious awareness of illness, weakness, vulnerability and eventually death.
“The answer to all of these mindsets or problems or states is Christ, his passion, death and his resurrection, which are the revelation and proof to us of the love of the Father,” Bishop Knestout said. “Christ, fully God and Man, reveals the dignity of each of us to us. He gives us the hope of, and shows us the way to, eternal life, beginning now and fulfilled according to God’s promise in the future. Christ is our hope!”