Nanette Levin, Special to The Catholic Virginian

The Barrones and Petrizzos have enjoyed hosting dinners with a special guest at least annually since he was assigned as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2004. When they started getting together, he was Msgr. Barry C. Knestout who became Bishop Knestout during the 10-plus years they’ve gathered.

Joseph and Anna Barrone.

Their most recent dinner was Sunday, Dec. 3 — two days before Pope Francis appointed their friend as the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Richmond.

Joe and Mary Petrizzo were active members of the parish when then-Msgr. Knestout became their pastor. Joe was in the choir and devoted to the liturgy program; Mary was developing ministries.

“He came in with a very different spirit, equally as great as the one who had come before him,” said Mary. “What’s interesting about Bishop Knestout is . . . he’s so down-to-earth, so calm, so easy to talk to.”

Joseph and Anna Barone’s children were in the elementary school when the future bishop became their pastor. He was a parish Cub Scout/Boy Scout leader and she was involved in children’s liturgy.

Joseph was immediately impressed by the pastor’s frequent attendance at Catholic school kids’ events. He recalls the reaction the priest had — “a look that expressed shock” — as little kids ran up and gave him big hugs.

“He was really liked as a pastor here at St. John’s,” said Joseph.

Both families cited the bishop’s talent as an administrator and pastoral influencer.

Mary said Bishop Knestout “inherited a horrible financial disaster” at St. John’s.

“He handled it with such calm and grace and he did a beautiful job and it wasn’t easy,” she said, adding she told him, “I don’t envy you,” and his response was, “I don’t envy me either.”

“We really got to know him a lot more after he left the parish,” Joseph said.

The dinners the couples hosted became a setting for invigorating conversations. Mary remembered Bishop Knestout’s frank response to her gerontology concerns about priests’ training on end-of-life issues, and that he commented, “They desperately need more training.”

“We can talk about anything with him,” Mary said. “He’s humble, doesn’t have an agenda, knows the truth and is going to be very honest with you whether things are going right or not so right – where the Church needs improvement.”

Both couples recount the bishop’s aversion to the cold — and how they relished teasing him about appointments to Alaska: “Did you get your pilot’s license yet?” and other ribbing was common conversation.

Joe said he was impressed with the bishop’s deep knowledge of local history, including the Carroll family dating back to John, the first Roman Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States.

“Having him here is always a good influence,” Joseph said. “It also keeps me grounded, reminding me about my faith and what I need to do and not to do.”

In 2010, Anna’s mother, 86, and was dying of cancer in her daughter’s house. Bishop Knestout visited the night before she died.

“My mom was out of it at this point,” Anna recalled.

“She could not talk but I knew she could hear and knew she could sense what was going on,” Anna said. “As soon as he walked in the bedroom she had this burst of energy and wanted to receive Communion. She was very religious; I felt like she was waiting for him to come and was at peace after he came.”

Joe is in the permanent diaconate program. He said Bishop Knestout’s example influenced this decision. Mary recalled a powerful presentation given during her husband’s training in which the bishop shared his experience as the son of a deacon. Bishop Knestout’s father was not only a permanent deacon, but he headed the permanent diaconate office in the Archdiocese of Washington.

“He talked as the son of a deacon, very openly, very humbling that as a teenager how embarrassing it was that his dad was a deacon and the growing up through the eyes of him looking at the diaconate . . . it was very beautiful how he observed his father,” she said.

Humble, down-to-earth, caring, pastoral, gentle, kind, smart and loved were terms used repeatedly as the couples described Bishop Knestout.

“I think the people of Richmond are going to be lucky and be blessed to have a man like Bishop Knestout out there,” said Joseph.