When Pope Francis named him the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Richmond on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, Bishop Barry C. Knestout’s familiarity with the diocese was based primarily on the briefing materials that had accompanied the appointment. But since his installation on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, he has learned firsthand about the diocese and what it means to be its “chief shepherd.”
After serving as a priest and auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington, which covers 2,100 square miles, one of the first lessons he learned in the Diocese of Richmond was just how vast a diocese of 33,000 square miles is.
“So much is affected by the geography and the expanse of the diocese, which presents unique challenges when it comes to both expressing and cultivating a sense of connection among the different faith communities, the different parishes and the different institutions,” he said.
The bigger revelation for the bishop was that the faith is expressed differently throughout the diocese.
“It’s not homogenous, it’s not just one expression of the faith. It’s both diverse and beautiful to see that within the diocese,” he said.
Bishop Knestout recalled Cardinal James A. Hickey speaking about the Archdiocese of Washington as a “mosaic of faith” when he served as archbishop from 1980 to 2000.
“That is a suitable expression of the faith here within the Commonwealth of Virginia in its growth and in so many aspects of parish and community life that I’ve seen,” he said.
Appreciates diocese’s diversity
In the western vicariate, he found what he described as an “independent, can-do spirit.”
“They are small communities who are primarily surrounded by people of other faith traditions, so there is a commitment and immersion in their own Catholic faith which is expressed in that environment,” he said. “There’s a very strong commitment to their own smaller faith communities that’s expressed in a ‘do it yourself’ kind of attitude.”
The bishop witnessed diversity in the eastern vicariate which he termed an “urban and working-class environment,” comparable to a northeastern industrial city where people are immersed in the military and ship building.
Bishop Knestout said the central vicariate, based upon its history, has “its own unique expression and manifestation of the faith,” whose variety is enhanced by the presence of the Byzantine Catholic Church and the Meronite Catholic Church, as well as by the black Catholic and the Hispanic Catholic communities.
The bishop was pleased to find the pace in the diocese different than that of Washington.“There is a familial comfort and informality that is very much a part of the diocese and its history, which I have found to be very pleasant,” he said. “Coming from an environment in Washington where things are kind of intense and fast-paced and sometimes kind of dizzying with a 24/7 news cycle, there’s a more human pace, an appreciation of the human person and life and culture that I found to be a welcome experience.”
Among the things Bishop Knestout learned during his first year leading the diocese is “the buck stopped with me.”
“As the ordinary (a bishop who is the head of the diocese), there are decisions that need to be made, direction given and a reflection on making sure that all the needs of this local Church are addressed — from its catechetical and instructional responsibilities, Catholic education, sacramental life, expression of faith and piety, all of its charitable works, every aspect of Catholic life and mission,” he said.
The bishop noted he has “a much more practical and deepening appreciation for the scope of that, the magnitude of it, a kind of a sobering awareness of that responsibility and wanting to do it well.”
“In the past, you could always defer to someone else who was making the decision, someone else who who would have to both answer for and account for whatever the decisions are,” Bishop Knestout said. “In this case, I kind of have that awareness that does weigh on you in some ways.”
He said that what has helped him address the needs of the diocese has been staff and board members, whom he described as “good and faithful and confident people” that assist him in carrying out his work.
“Even in realizing the weight of the responsibility, I realize I receive strength and support of staff and parishioners, and the challenges of that oversight are lightened because it’s being, in a sense, shared and carried by others as well,” Bishop Knestout said.
Building upon what he has learned
Bishop Knestout saw his first year of leading the diocese as one of learning “who’s who, what’s what and flying by the seat of your pants.” Everything was new.
“There’s no pattern; outside of previous experience as an auxiliary, there’s no point of comparison, at least with the history here and the practice here or the routine or the whole pastoral year,” he said.
The bishop plans to build upon the knowledge and experience he acquired throughout 2018.
“How do we move the Church forward in a good way to carry out its mission more effectively?” Bishop Knestout asked. “In other words, making that little bit of a shift in my mind and thinking not so much about reading circumstances and reacting to them, but now how do I assess the weaknesses and the strengths and all that’s really the full picture of what the diocese is like?”
That approach, the bishop said, will allow him to start making plans for addressing the challenges the Church in general and the diocese in particular are facing, and “enhance all the good things that are happening and the great work that’s taking place to more effectively carry out the mission.”
Bishop Knestout acknowledged that his second year will “present unique challenges” because of what the Church is experiencing nationally and internationally.
“Those are all new — though some people would argue that’s not all new, but certainly it’s all new to me,” he said. “For me, a challenge will be how best to guide the work of the Church.”
The bishop’s focus is also on 2020 — the diocese’s bicentennial year.
“I want to be able to start to focus not only on that, but how do we as a community recognize this significant milestone in the life of the church of Richmond and start then to plan for the future in both concrete and significant ways?” he said.
Ready to face challenges
Having lived at St. Bridget Parish, Richmond, during the year, he would try to run four miles on Grove Avenue on mornings when he was home. He likened those workouts to his inaugural year as Richmond’s bishop.
“After a good run, you feel both tired as well as maybe have a little bit of a sore muscle or two here and there,” he said. “That’s all good because that push and pull then gives you a greater focus and more energy for the next day as well.”
And as bishop?
“With that push and pull that I’ve experienced in this first year, with being stretched a bit in terms of energy and travels and new challenges that the Church has faced, I feel good about getting ready for the next things to come,” he said. “Like after a good run, I have that sense of relaxed readiness to engage in the next step, to go out there again the next day.”
Prayer integral to bishop’s life
Interviewed Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, the day after his appointment as bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, Bishop Barry C. Knestout said his prayer life involved a deep devotion to the Holy Spirit. It still does.
“I’ve been calling from the very beginning, and do that daily and regularly, upon the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, because I do see and recognize the great need, that I’m limited in what I can understand and see clearly, and in my ability to respond to all the needs,” he said, noting that he finds himself “praying all the time, more intently than I can ever remember.”
Bishop Knestout said that in praying for guidance, he recalls the words of St. Pope John XXIII, who is reported to have concluded his nightly prayers with, “It’s your Church, Lord. I’m going to bed.”
“It is the Lord’s Church and his community, and as the bishop I’m a steward of that. I need to be alert to that steward’s role and be a good steward who is aware of and takes responsibility for the decisions and the oversight, takes it all very seriously and is immersed in it,” he said.
Through prayer, the bishop said, he expresses his reliance on the Lord.
“I hope that there will be a growth in terms of my dependence on and my reliance on God’s providential care,” Bishop Knestout said.
‘Trust will develop over time’
While in the midst of conducting listening sessions and celebrating Masses of Atonement throughout the diocese, Bishop Barry C. Knestout wrote about trust in his Christ Our Hope column, (Catholic Virginian, Oct. 22). The following are excerpts from that column:
Why people are asking, “How do we know we can we trust bishops?” has been heightened by the revelations about Archbishop McCarrick and about how bishops in Pennsylvania did not do all they should have done in protecting children from being sexually abused by priests.
Thus, trust cannot be assumed, nor will it be immediate. It will develop over time as you not only get a sense of who I am, but see the impact of the actions I take, and see that I act with authenticity and consistency in addressing the pastoral concerns of our diocese — not only in protection of our children and youth, but in other matters as well.
I want you to trust that I am doing all I can in handing on our faith, while at the same time ensuring good order and practice in the celebration of the sacraments, and effectively facilitating not only the charitable works of the Church but providing competent administrative oversight.
Trust is a tenet of our faith. We trust that God loves us; we trust that there is grace in the sacraments we receive. Most importantly, trust is our “Amen” at Mass; it is the affirmation of our belief. We trust that what God has promised, he will fulfill.
As we continue to get to know each other, and as I continue to earn your trust as shepherd, I take inspiration in the words of St. Paul: “Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Now it is of course required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Cor 4:1-2).
I pray, and ask that you pray for me, that I will be that trustworthy steward.
Ministry to youth, young adults ‘significant outreach’
From 2001 to 2003, then Msgr. Barry C. Knestout served as executive director of the Office of Youth Ministry/CYO for the Archdiocese of Washington. That experience gave him an appreciation of the ministry to youth and young adults that he witnessed during his first year as bishop of the Diocese of Richmond.
Noting “some of the unique challenges of trying to draw together youth” he experienced then, he said, “Having a very strong and vibrant youth outreach and ministry here in the diocese, to see such strength here, was beautiful, encouraging and exciting.”
One of the first events he attended as the new bishop was the Diocesan Youth Conference in February.
“The number of young people, the excitement about their faith, the hunger to be able to be immersed in the faith and to live it and express it, to me, that was a ‘wow’ moment,” he said.
Bishop Knestout called the diocese’s commitment to campus ministry at 25 of the 68 colleges and universities located within its boundaries a “significant outreach.”
“These are young visitors to the diocese who may just be here for a few years, yet so many of them want to have both an experience of and a growth in their immersion in the life of the Church,” he said.
He explained the importance of campus ministry.
“(Students) are grappling with issues of faith and vocation as well as profession and life, and it can be a really critical moment where the Church can encounter young people, help strengthen their faith,” the bishop said. “We can help nourish them in such a way that they can, not only now but maybe later, contribute in a greater way to the life of the Church whether they stay here or they go back home.”
He added that the people of the diocese “have always made a real generous effort in responding to the presence of Catholics on our college campuses.”
– Brian T. Olszewski