Bishop’s Column

 His Excellency, the Most Rev. Barry C. Knestout is Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond.

‘Through troubles of our earthly pilgrimage we find God’

October 7, 2019

It’s bound to happen. You sign up for a pilgrimage anticipating a peaceful, prayerful and enjoyable time when something goes wrong. Transportation breaks down, accommodations are not the quality you expected, you don’t get to see what you had anticipated, weather doesn’t cooperate, etc.

I write from experience. Years ago I was part of a pilgrimage to Lourdes. One look at our chartered plane had me concerned. All of the seats were mismatched, sections of carpet were mismatched, a panel was missing from the door. The whole plane spoke to being dangerous, unsafe. While we were planning to pray at Lourdes, we started praying before we took off in hopes we would make it there.

This coming Saturday, I will travel with more than 200 people from our diocese to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington for a day of prayer, reflection and Mass.

I anticipate that in the logistics of trying to get there we might encounter some snafus. For instance, it is possible there will be a backup on northbound I-95. Although we often get stuck in traffic on I-95, it might bother us even more on that day because we are trying to get some place for a scheduled event.

While our view of pilgrimage might be that of a clear, hazard-free path much like a walk in a park on a beautiful day, in fact, pilgrimage is associated with sacrifice. Oftentimes in the course of our pilgrimage, our Lord is asking us to trust more deeply in him and to be aware of his providential care.

We might need to be more patient with those around us, to be willing to bear whatever small crosses come our way. Those occasions are opportunities to grow in the spiritual life which is what a pilgrimage is meant to be.

Throughout our pilgrimage, our Lord, in a small way, is prompting us to enter into a deeper relationship with him, to a deeper love for those around us and a deeper expression of the fruits of the Spirit — patience, kindness and gentleness.

We know that the Evil One, in the midst of those opportunities for grace, is going to try and disrupt them. He will prod us to be impatient, to not be so gentle with those around us, to not bear with joy some of the difficulties that come our way. Our response is to employ that patience, kindness and gentleness and to call upon the Spirit to guide us.

Should we encounter trouble, i.e., challenges, setbacks and inconveniences, during our pilgrimage, we can consider the words of St. Augustine: “Trouble should not really be thought of as this thing or that in particular, for our whole life on earth involves trouble; and through the troubles of our earthly pilgrimage we find God.”

Something to pray about if we’re stuck in traffic on I-95.

Generosity toward parishes, diocese greatly appreciated

September 23, 2019

As you read on the front page, our Annual Diocesan Appeal exceeded its goal. I am pleased, but not surprised. In the 20 months I have been with you, one thing that has been evident is your generosity — your willingness to support your parishes and our diocese.

It is a reflection of your love for the Church and your commitment to providing the resources it needs to serve the needs of the faithful and, through its various programs and ministries, proclaim the Good News that we have heard and which we live.

The word diocesan is critical in describing and understanding the appeal. The appeal is not about the bishop; it’s about the works of the diocese that extend beyond individual parishes. These works encompass the whole Church and support vocations, youth and young adult ministries, campus ministries, prison ministry and formation of lay leaders so they can contribute to the life of our parishes and diocesan Church community.

Another aspect of parish support for the Church is what is known as the “cathedradicum.” In Church law, this is an assessment a bishop may require of its parishes in order to finance the administrative operation of the diocese. This assessment funds the business side of a diocese, e.g., the marriage tribunal, communications, education, human resources and other diocesan offices that provide support, resources and communicate best practices to assist in the many catechetical, sacramental and charitable works of the parish.

The Annual Diocesan Appeal is not about operating costs. Rather, it allows the Church — the faithful working together — to do what individual parishes cannot do on their own. The appeal is an example of how we are united in faith as we continue to build up the kingdom of God on earth.

While the appeal makes it possible for us to “put out into the deep” (Lk 5:4) with our outreach, parishes benefit directly from it, too. We have already returned nearly $1 million from this year’s appeal to the parishes with which they support ministries specific to the needs of their communities or fund capital projects.

The challenges our Church faced this past year had a negative impact on participation in our annual appeal. However, even in the face of those challenges, there was widespread recognition and appreciation among you of the excellent work that is made possible by the appeal.

While we as a community acknowledged that some Church leaders had exercised poor judgment in addressing sexual abuse of minors by clergy and, as we have heard more recently, in the financial and administrative oversight of their diocese, those steeped in faith have embraced the Church and want it to heal and to continue its Christ-centered work.

In times of crisis, it is important that we keep in the forefront of our minds and hearts the mission of Church to proclaim Good News, to teach, to celebrate sacraments and to live in charity. Through the appeal we carry out that mission.

I am grateful to the Pastors’ Advisory Committee for developing the appeal’s case statement and to all of our pastors who take seriously the need to present that case to you. But I am equally grateful to you for recognizing and supporting the ministries and outreach highlighted in the Annual Diocesan Appeal.

May God continue to bless you for your generosity.

Knights’ generosity exemplary for all Catholics

September 9, 2019

As I’ve done since becoming bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, I concluded my summer break by taking part in the annual Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus.

Please put aside any stereotypical ideas of this being a gathering of people running around with funny hats and partying the entire time. While there were opportunities for fellowship and recreation among attendees, the heart of the convention focused as it always does on matters related to the four principles that undergird the Knights of Columbus — charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism.

The Knights of Columbus are not just another fraternal organization. Evident throughout those principles and their application is the Knights’ commitment to grow in the Catholic faith and to live it. As I witnessed at the convention, prayer and worship are integral to the faith formation of these men and their families.

The Knights of Columbus contributed more than $185 million to charity in 2018. While that is an impressive amount, what is equally impressive is that the Knights donated more than 76 million hours of service during that same year.

In addition, the charitable works done by the Knights are seen in the relief they provide to those affected by natural disasters and in their outreach to the homeless. They are also among the major supporters of the Special Olympics.

Pope Francis has praised the Knights for their ongoing support for the Catholic Church in the Middle East. Thanks to them, many in those Catholic communities have much needed support to practice their faith in the midst of the violence that engulfs them.

Parishes and communities in our diocese are often the beneficiaries of the Knights’ charity. When many parish events require financial support and volunteers, both regularly come from your local Knights of Columbus council. Their generosity with their resources and time is exemplary for all Catholics.

The Knights are also at the forefront of protecting human life. Councils throughout our diocese are not only represented at the annual March for Life in Washington, but the Knights sponsor buses to the march so that others in our diocese can participate.

Another example of the Knights’ pro-life commitment is their willingness to raise money for the purchase of ultrasound machines for crisis pregnancy centers that provide women with images of their unborn children. These ultrasound images have proven to be a factor in women choosing to give birth to children instead of aborting them.

Throughout their history, the Knights of Columbus have promoted vocations with their prayers and grants for seminarians and religious aspirants. We are blessed that councils in our diocese have made support of our seminarians a priority.

Less than three months before he died in 1978, St. Pope Paul VI, in a message to the Knights of Columbus, said, “We rely on you … to bring holiness to the world, to live the Gospel values in your families, to transmit them to your children with the infectious conviction of joyful faith. Christ needs you to bring fraternal concern to your neighborhoods, to exemplify justice in your communities, to spread peace and truth in the world.”

Forty-one years later, we express our gratitude for the Knights of Columbus being true to the pope’s words, and for continuing to put them into practice.

Be witness to Gospel in your ‘vocation to work’

August 26, 2019

As the end of my freshman year in the seminary approached, I asked our diocesan vocations director if I was going to be assigned to a parish for the summer. His reply was straightforward; I would not have a summer parish assignment until after my second year of theological formation. He added that I should, “Go and get a job.” Thus, I returned to the architecture firm for which I had worked after college.

Unlike today in the Diocese of Richmond, seminarians in Washington were not routinely assigned to parishes during their seminary years in the late 1980s. That they now spend more summers in parishes and that we add a full pastoral year in addition to their years in the seminary has become an important part of their formation — one that provides them with a realistic idea of what is required of a parish priest well before they approach ordination.

You may have heard the phrase, “Nice work if you can get it.” It is usually spoken by people who feel someone has a cushy job that takes little effort, but which pays well.

Sometimes people have that view of priests. Some think the only thing priests do is celebrate Mass on Sunday. They might say, “Must be nice to only have to work on Sunday” or “What do you do with the rest of your time?”

Yes, the priest’s primary duty is to celebrate Mass, especially the Sunday liturgy, but day in and day out he is engaged in pastoral work — service to parishioners, for example, a variety of catechetical classes and talks, sacramental preparation along with the celebration of sacraments, visiting the sick in nursing homes and those who are homebound, as well as chaplaincies to Catholic groups or organizations. This is in addition to the many administrative duties that come with every parish. That is what our seminarians see and experience during their summer assignments. By the time they are ordained, they should have a good understanding of what to expect as parish priests.

As we transition from the summer in which we had the opportunity to step away from our work and to renew ourselves before returning to our daily work routines, consider what Pope Francis stated in his encyclical “Laudato Si’”: We “were created with a vocation to work.”

The Church, particularly through papal encyclicals, has always placed a high value on work and has consistently emphasized the dignity of the worker. It sees work as more than a means by which we support ourselves and our families.

With Labor Day approaching, please take time to reflect upon the work with which you have been entrusted. As Pope Francis notes in that same encyclical, work should provide us with opportunities for “creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God… Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment.”

There might be times when work doesn’t seem like any of those things. When it doesn’t, these words from one of the many prayers to St. Joseph the Worker might provide you with guidance and encouragement:

Grant me to look upon work with the eyes of faith, so that I shall recognize in it my share in God’s own creative activity and in Christ’s work of our redemption, and so take pride in it. When it is pleasant and productive, remind me to give thanks to God for it. And when it is burdensome, teach me to offer it to God, in reparation for my sins and the sins of the world.

(from “Devotions to Saint Joseph” by Jesuit Father Brian Moore)

May the work you do be fruitful and fulfilling, and an opportunity for you to be a witness to the Gospel.

Rest — and don’t feel guilty about it!

July 1, 2019

For a host of reasons, more than half of American workers do not use all of their vacation days. Even when they do take a vacation, it is not uncommon for them — two-thirds, according to one study — to be “plugged into” their work.

During the years I worked for Cardinal James A. Hickey, I never knew him to take a day off. Even when he took a vacation, he always seemed to be working. He was totally dedicated to his work as a bishop and served as a great example for me.

Yet, as hard and as much as he worked, after a busy day or week he would say to me, “Barry, you should take time and visit with your family.”

The cardinal always made sure that even while he was holding himself to a standard of working all the time, rest was important. He made it possible for those around him to have and to enjoy that rest.

It is important that all of us find time for rest, for those days when we step away from our work and renew our bodies, minds and souls — and not feel guilty about it or ashamed of it!

Rest is something we are called to do; it’s a necessity if we are going to be at our best the rest of the year.

God himself rested on the seventh day. The jubilee year for the Israelites emphasized the need for rest. They would let their fields lie fallow and spend time with God and with their families. It was a time of rejuvenation.

There is validity in being commanded to do these things. Clergy are required to take time off for an annual retreat. It’s not a vacation, but it does offer us the opportunity to step away from our work and to renew our spiritual lives.

Pausing from our work does not detract from the job we are called to do, but we pause and take time be immersed in other things we enjoy, sustain our relationships with God, family and friends and ensure we are restored in body, mind and spirit when we resume our work. It will still be there when we return.

When Pope Francis addressed families in Manilla, Philippines, in 2015, he highlighted the value of rest: “Rest is so necessary for the health of our minds and bodies, and often so difficult to achieve due to the many demands placed on us. But rest is also essential for our spiritual health, so that we can hear God’s voice and understand what he asks of us.”

In other words, we should have a healthy regard for rest. It’s as important as nutrition and exercise. Just as we work hard at our jobs, we should take seriously the time we have for rest and relaxation.

If we’re still uncomfortable with the idea of being away from our job, of wondering if something will go wrong if we’re not there, we woulddo well to recall the words of St. John XXIII who, after his nightly prayers, would say, “It’s your Church, Lord. I’m going to bed.”

May we approach rest with that same trust and attitude. Have an enjoyable summer!

Celebrating ‘oil of gladness’ on anniversary

June 17, 2019

Next week I will celebrate my 30th anniversary as a priest. In “priesthood years” one might say that I am still a “young adult” — well beyond experiencing the “firsts” of those in the early years of priesthood, e.g., first wedding, first assignment, first pastorate, etc., but not yet looking back at a long career with retirement close by.

While not a milestone anniversary like a 25th or 50th, it is — as are all anniversaries — a time to reflect on the vocation to which I have been called. This reflection is important when working through the middle years of priesthood, years that bring new challenges and significant responsibilities with different assignments and the changing needs of the faithful, to look back at the roots of my vocation and the beginning of my priesthood.

Just as a married couple attending weddings often reflect on their own wedding day, so too does a priest attending ordinations reflect on his ordination day. We are able to reflect upon all the hope, all the anticipation, all the fears, all the questions that were there as we knelt before the bishop; we were untested but excited about the opportunities yet to come.

Over time, after a difficult assignment or a challenging pastoral experience, we might feel a little worn out or, from time to time, a bit bruised — spiritually or emotionally — by the circumstances of life and responsibilities of our ministry. But each anniversary is an opportunity to reflect again on the commitment we made on our ordination day and to begin again.

We had such an opportunity on June 1 when our diocese had its largest priesthood ordination class in 30 years as I ordained five men. As you read in The Catholic Virginian during May, each is excited to be a priest, looking forward to serving the faithful of our diocese. They want to share their love of God with all to whom they minister.

Just as the newly ordained approach priesthood with excitement and anticipation, so should all priests, no matter how many years they have been ordained, through an intentional prayer life that may include particular devotions to the Holy Spirit or to our Blessed Mother. In prayer and through closeness to the sacraments, a priest can restore the vitality to his vocation that he experienced the day he was ordained. In doing so he can welcome whatever challenges he may encounter in his priestly life.

At the 2014 Chrism Mass in Rome, Pope Francis told the priests, “The Lord anointed us in Christ with the oil of gladness, and this anointing invites us to accept and appreciate this great gift: the gladness, the joy of being a priest.”

He continued, “Priestly joy is a priceless treasure, not only for the priest himself but for the entire faithful people of God: that faithful people from which he is called to be anointed and which he, in turn, is sent to anoint.”

That joy is what every priest hopes and seeks for himself and for those he serves. No matter how long we have been ordained, “the oil of gladness” is something we should celebrate with every anniversary of ordination, and which should be evident to all whom we minister.

Approach Church’s birthday with joy, hope

June 3, 2019

As people age, they often have mixed feelings about birthdays, but children and youth welcome them. When I was growing up, I looked forward to my June birthday because it meant that every six months at Christmas and on the birthday I would receive presents. Since school let out for the summer around the time of my birthday, I considered that a gift, too!

When we’re young, we anticipate birthdays as they are marks of maturity. They’re occasions of joy as they denote stages in life, e.g., turning 13 or 14 and knowing you’re going to be in high school, or when you turn 16 you’ll be able to get a driver’s license.

This coming Sunday we celebrate Pentecost — the birthday of our Church. Because of the difficult year the Church has had locally and universally since its last birthday, we might not be in the mood for celebrating. Unlike the children who look forward to their birthdays with joyful anticipation, we might think the Church has little to celebrate and that maybe it would be better to not emphasize the day.

But as a Church and as disciples we have much to celebrate! Pentecost reminds us of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit – a presence and power we receive through his gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.

Their purpose, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, is to “complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations” (CCC #1831).

These gifts are for everyone; they are spiritual nourishment upon which we can draw whenever there is a need, knowing that we will be fed by the Holy Spirit.

Given all that has transpired in the Church during the past year, we are grateful in particular for the fortitude and encouragement the Spirit has given to us. They have sustained us during this challenging and painful time and they will sustain us in the future.

As we listen to this Sunday’s first reading (Acts 2:1-11), we will hear about “a strong driving wind” and “tongues of fire.” These images are a vivid reminder of how the Holy Spirit works. The fire burns away all that is impure, and the wind renews and restores us.

Individually and as a faith community, we experience new life when we open our hearts to that Spirit, when we are willing to accept those “divine inspirations.”

We need to celebrate the birthday of our Church. We need to recognize and accept the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and to use them, i.e., to call upon the Spirit for help and guidance in our lives.

Just as the Spirit provided the apostles with joyful hope as they looked to the future, he provides us with that joyful hope — much like the joy and hope we had on the birthdays of our youth.

Visits have deepened my appreciation for parishes’ work

May 20, 2019

In my formative years as a child, an important part of my life was the connection my family and I had with our home parish, St. Pius X in Bowie, Md. The faith formation I received in the parish reinforced the faith formation and Christian witness which took place in our home. The parish and all that it provided was also an integral element in the nurturing of my vocation to the priesthood.

As you have seen from my calendar, published in each edition of The Catholic Virginian, I have been doing visitations to parishes of the diocese over the last few months. The “Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops” notes that diocesan bishops are to make parish visits at least once every five years as “an occasion to rejuvenate the energies of those engaged in evangelization, to praise, encourage and reassure them. It is also an opportunity to invite the faithful to a renewal of Christian life and to an ever more intense apostolic activity.”

These visits are in addition to the occasions when the bishop comes to a parish to administer the sacrament of confirmation or to celebrate Mass for a special event such as a church dedication.

That activity, along with strong, comprehensive catechetical programs and beautiful, prayerful liturgical and sacramental celebrations, provides the vibrancy that expresses and manifests the mission of the Church.

The parish is a linchpin in the Church. Along with the family, it passes on the faith from one generation to the next. It needs to be nurtured by its members and by the diocese.

The directory emphasizes that these are pastoral visits carried out in pastoral charity.

Because our diocese is only as healthy as our parishes, it is important for me to visit and to meet with parish leadership and staff. During these meetings I listen to their experiences of parish life — what is effective and what needs improvement. They share with me how the diocese and I can best support them in their ministries.

One of the things with which these visits has provided me is a deepening appreciation and understanding of how pastors, staff and parishioners use their time, talent, energy and resources to enhance the life of the parish and its members. I am hearing firsthand how they go out to the world and proclaim the Good News with joy and hope.

I recognize that no two parishes are identical in how they carry out the mission. Some have the financial wherewithal to offer multiple programs and avenues of outreach. Others have modest resources.

Something I have noticed during my visits is the exemplary stewardship parishes practice in doing as much as they can with sometimes limited resources in savings and personnel. This is especially evident in how they carry out works of charity for those in need.

Another aspect of parish life are small groups, associations or ecclesial communities, e.g., Bible studies, Knights of Columbus councils and St. Vincent de Paul conferences, Charismatic prayer groups, etc. While these communities can be a source of spiritual renewal for their members, they are not intended to be an alternative to a parish, but rather a complement and support for it. They provide much needed spiritual nourishment for the faith community.

While a bishop is required to visit his parishes, for me the visits are more than fulfillment of an obligation. I welcome these opportunities to hear how the faith is proclaimed through words and actions in our parishes.

 It is my hope that what I learn will help me become a better shepherd for our entire diocese and, as the “Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops” indicates, that each visit is an “event of grace, reflecting in some measure that great visit with which the ‘chief shepherd’ (1 Pt 5:4) and Guardian of our souls (1 Pt 2:25), Jesus Christ, has visited and redeemed his people (Lk 1:68).”

What that image teaches us about our Mother, our mothers

May 6, 2019

As we watched the flames engulf the Cathedral of Notre Dame on Monday, April 15, we were stunned and saddened as the structure and some of the art it housed was being destroyed. Both the building and its contents are part of the patrimony of Western civilization. They provide us with an appreciation of our past and they remind us that our cultural histories are important. Those histories are part of our identity and they guide us into the future.

It is fitting that in a church named for Our Lady — Notre Dame — that one of the treasures that survived was a statue of the Pieta above which was a shining cross. Amid the rubble from the fire, this sculpture stood out, as though to say, “We’re going to survive this.”

During Holy Week, some who saw that image were moved to reflect upon the need for renewal, restoration and resurrection even — especially — after tragedy.

Easter and spring are seasons of new life — an excellent time to celebrate the new life received by our parishes’ first Communicants as they are nourished by the body and blood of Christ. Since first Communion focuses our attention on children, it is also an appropriate season for the celebration of Mother’s Day, an annual opportunity for us to remember and thank our mothers, who gave us life.

Our mothers personify the signs and expressions of renewal and life that we celebrate. As we consider the challenges and tragedies of our day, such as the fire at Notre Dame and the bombing of churches in Sri Lanka, consider that Pieta with the shining cross above it standing in the midst of the destroyed cathedral.

That was more than symbolism; that is a clear reminder of the prominence of our mothers and our Mother, Mary, being there for us through the most difficult of times. They are sources of joy and, more importantly, hope. They were there to educate, support and nourish us.

If your mother is deceased, use this Mother’s Day as an opportunity, through the intercession of Our Lady, to express the gratitude you have in your heart for her and the gifts she shared with you. If your relationship with your mother was difficult, strained or painful, share that with Our Blessed Mother and ask for help in healing whatever wounds you and your mother experienced.

If you are fortunate to have your mother with you, express your gratitude for her through your words and deeds. It is not uncommon that when older mothers are asked what they would like for Mother’s Day, they reply, “I would just like to be with my kids or get phone calls from them!”

I will be praying for all moms this Sunday, and I will be praying that their children take time to thank them for the gift of life and for the gifts that sustained their lives.


Open your heart to God’s personal message 

April 22, 2019

As people of faith, we believe in divine providence. We know that God is active in our lives and that he speaks to us and guides us in prayer and through Scripture. We know, too, that his words touch us when we are most in need.

Early in the morning of Holy Saturday, 1997, I received a call from my brother that my dad had been hospitalized. He had a heart attack, had stopped breathing, but was resuscitated. Our family was with him during the final days of his journey until he died in the afternoon on April 5 — the day before Divine Mercy Sunday.

We went to Mass as a family that Sunday, my mother mourning the loss of her husband, my siblings and I dealing with the loss of our dad. With his death, each of our lives experienced turmoil as we dealt with the emotions of loss and grief.  

The Gospel for Divine Mercy Sunday every year is John 20:19-31 in which Jesus appears to the apostles and empowers them to forgive sins, to be merciful. It is the story of St. Thomas, “doubting” Thomas, who is encouraged by Christ to stop his disbelieving and to believe in him and his resurrection. 

Given the grief we were experiencing, it was difficult to comprehend God’s mercy that day and as we prepared for my dad’s funeral. It is very hard to express a sense of hope and joy in the promise of resurrected life when one is weighed down by the experience of grief and loss. 

But in the Gospel passage that spoke of St. Thomas on Mercy Sunday, I couldn’t help but to be reassured and confident that my dad, also named Thomas, was before the Lord and living in the vivid realization of the Resurrection.   

That same week in 1997, as priest secretary to Cardinal James A. Hickey, I was scheduled to be with him in Rome that weekend after Easter. Due to my dad’s hospitalization, I didn’t make the trip. However, Cardinal Hickey made the trip and during that week had an audience with Pope John Paul II. The cardinal later told me that during his meeting with our Holy Father he mentioned that his priest secretary’s father had died and asked the pope to pray for our family. 

As Cardinal Hickey told me, Pope John Paul took a copy of his book, “Gift and Mystery,” which he wrote for the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest, and said, “Give this to your priest secretary.” It was signed by the pope and dated April 8, 1997 — the date of my dad’s funeral.

Exactly eight years later, Pope John Paul II passed away on Saturday, April 2 — the day before Divine Mercy Sunday. His funeral fell on April 8, 2005, the eighth anniversary of my father’s burial.

I believe God spoke to me tangibly as I experienced the death of my dad and through the encouragement he gave to St. Thomas to not be lost in grief and doubt but rather to believe in the resurrection. The Divine Mercy Sunday Gospel, though difficult to digest at that moment, reminded me that Divine Mercy flows freely from the heart of Jesus into our hearts. 

The prayers of Pope John Paul II and his gift of the book, simple and common gestures of support and sympathy that we often offer to those who experience loss, with prayer and reflection, were indications to me that God was speaking.

There are no coincidences with God; he is in charge. As Pope Francis has said, “God’s providence is always one step ahead of us.” When God speaks, it is personal; it is an individual message for each person. 

There is only one condition for receiving that message: We must open our hearts to what he is saying in order to hear it. We do that through prayer, through deepening our faith, so that when God speaks we can hear his words. 

We are familiar with the words of the psalmist, repeated in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not harden your hearts.” That is imperative if we are to hear God’s words.

As we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, use this opportunity to open your heart to what God is telling you and giving you. Experience the support and reassurance that are the result of his resurrection and of his infinite love and mercy.

Paschal Mystery is alive, ongoing in our live

April 8, 2019

Our Church intentionally refers to Lent as a journey. In addition to reminding us to move toward Jesus, to enter into a deeper relationship with him, journey emphasizes that the Triduum — Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — is more than a historical observance. It is not a romanticized remembrance of what occurred; it is not theatre. The Paschal Mystery is alive, ongoing, a part of our being and present experience.

The Exsultet (the Easter proclamation) chanted at the Easter Vigil speaks of past events in the present, e.g., “This is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from world vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.”

Liturgically we call to mind what happened to Jesus, but our commemoration is about the present: “This is the night that even now…” The external action of the liturgy should serve as our interior transformation — a transformation that has been occurring within us throughout Lent. 

As we recall the history, we renew our awareness of the Christ who suffered, died and rose for us, but that is not the end of the story.  The Paschal Mystery is present among us.

Consider those who experience it in tangible ways. There are thousands of Christians in the Middle East who are persecuted for their beliefs. The Paschal Mystery is ongoing for them as they suffer for their beliefs, many martyred as they hold on to their belief in our Risen Lord.

Consider the Catholic nominees for judgeships in our federal courts whose fitness for the bench is questioned not based upon their knowledge of and competency in the law, but because they proclaim and live the Gospel. They embrace their faith even as they face professional consequences for doing so.

Consider those who attempt to live their faith in a secular environment and who find themselves the subjects of ridicule, disparagement, ostracization and even legal action. They experience the Paschal Mystery on a daily basis.

Consider all those who experience the grief of the loss of a loved one. In this loss, faith in the resurrection can be challenged. This too is an experience of the Paschal Mystery. Yet, hope is planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit when we cling to Christ in the assurance of his resurrection witnessed and proclaimed by the Apostles and the whole Church in every generation. 

As we transition into the Sacred Triduum remember that our journey with Christ we began on Ash Wednesday continues. On Holy Thursday, we place ourselves at the Last Supper as he gives himself to us in the form of bread and wine — then, now and forever. 

On Good Friday, we are there when he is abducted by the soldiers and led to the tortuous final hours of his life on earth. We’re with him on his death walk to Calvary and then standing at the foot of the cross with Mary and the apostle John as he dies for our redemption.

After that darkness, on Easter Sunday we see the light from the empty tomb and our faith assures us that God has fulfilled his promise, that his son has risen from the dead!

This part of our journey culminates in what the conclusion of the Exsultet proclaims:

“May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever.”

May you continue to be transformed as you journey into the Easter season.

Consider Pope Francis’ approach to fasting, prayer, almsgiving

March 25, 2019

I hope you are experiencing the spiritual renewal that Lent offers. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving remain the source of this renewal which, we pray, continues long after this season.

If you are struggling with those practices, Pope Francis’ approach might provide you with a way to jumpstart your Lent. In his annual Lenten message, issued Tuesday, Feb. 26, the pope sees fasting as changing “our attitude towards others and all of creation, turning away from the temptation to ‘devour’ everything…”

That form of fasting is unlike the “I’m giving up” type that is a common practice. There is nothing wrong with that, but what our Holy Father proposes is indicative of the need for our actions to transform our community, our culture and ourselves.

When it comes to prayer, many of us make a conscientious effort during Lent to improve our prayer life. Through spiritual reading or participation in services such as Stations of the Cross, we deepen our relationship with Christ.

Pope Francis also sees prayer as teaching us “to abandon idolatry and the self-sufficiency of our ego, and to acknowledge our need of the Lord and his mercy.” Again, he makes it clear that our Lenten practices are to be about more than ourselves. In this case, they are about our Lord.

Recently I drove by a business that rents storage units. Its flashing sign read, “Hoarders welcome!” What came to mind were the pope’s words about almsgiving: “…we escape from the insanity of hoarding everything for ourselves in the illusory belief that we can secure a future that does not belong to us.”

Once more, it’s not just about us.

Pope Francis reminds us that these practices are not acts unto themselves but are connected in a concrete way to our creative order in general and to the Body of Christ in particular. Our prayer, fasting and almsgiving not only transform us, but it can — and should — transform those around us.

Our Holy Father writes of the “rupture of communion with God” that was caused by original sin. It disrupted the whole creative order, creating division between humanity and all that God had created. God intended for us to have a peaceful relationship with all of nature, but original sin fractured our environment.

Every day we see what happens when God’s law is broken. Sin ensnares hearts that become saturated with greed, self-interest and a will to destroy anyone and anything in our environment in order to satisfy that greed and self-interest.

During the remainder of Lent, continue to experience conversion through your fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Let them be the avenue by which you are able to, in the words of Pope Francis, “embody the paschal mystery more deeply and concretely in (your) personal, family and social lives…”

Celebrate loved one’s passage into eternal life

March 11, 2019

On Feb. 11, I presided at the funeral Mass for my older brother, Tim, who died unexpectedly at the age of 57.

Oftentimes, it is difficult for Catholics to think of a funeral as a celebration when we lose a loved one, especially when we lose someone as suddenly as we did Tim. The sadness is normal. The void we feel is painful. 

Tim was an over-the-road truck driver, a “Knight of the Road!” he always liked to say. He was a gentle, hard-working guy who worked long hours to provide for his family — a family that meant everything to him.

Tim and Michelle married in their late 20s. Her first husband died while they were expecting their first child, Andrew. When Andrew was 6 years old, Tim and Michelle married, and Tim adopted him. They have two other children, one of whom has special needs.   

At an early age, Andrew was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He underwent multiple surgeries and chemotherapy; he would recover, but the tumors would return, necessitating more surgeries.

In his early 20s, while in the hospital recovering from another surgery, Andrew got out of bed, stood and collapsed in front of his mother. A blood clot had gone to his lung; efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

As we mourned Tim’s loss, we also celebrated the goodness my brother shared in the midst of all that occurred in his family. He was a man with a quiet, unassuming faith, a devoted husband and loving father. He struggled with the vagaries and challenges of life, but, in faith, he persevered.

That we celebrated Tim’s funeral on Feb. 11 is significant. That is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Thousands of people visit Lourdes annually to seek healing. Often, they are people who have received no medical answer for their illness, they have lost hope and, desperately seeking a remedy, they turn to God in prayer. 

They might not receive the “miraculous” recovery they sought, but our loving, merciful God answers them according to his plan. Their faith is renewed, their connection to God — our source of true hope — is re-established or fortified.

As a parish priest, I celebrated dozens of funeral Masses. As I grieved with families at their loss, I would encourage them — as difficult as it might be then and even in years to follow — to look at the gift the deceased was to them, what they contributed to life on earth and how they served as an example for others. Those things were on our minds and in our hearts as we said good-bye to Tim.  

Yes, we are grieving his loss. We miss what he meant to our family as son and brother, as a spouse, father and grandfather and sibling. It hurts not to have him with us.

Yet, we celebrate. We celebrate the good that benefited so many because of Tim’s perseverance and patience — virtues he exemplified in the midst of very difficult circumstances. We celebrate how he fulfilled his vocation as husband and father.

Moreover, we celebrate that he is enjoying the eternal life won for us through the Paschal Mystery. Tim, as St. Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy (4:7), kept the faith.

In mourning the death of a loved one, let your faith inspire you to celebrate their passage into eternal life, rejoice in their hearing from God the words we all hope to hear from the Master: “Well done, my good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master” (Mt 25:21, 23). 

We will always seek healing, reconciliation

February 25, 2019

Editor’s note: The following is the letter that accompanied the release of names of clergy that have a credible and substantiated claim of sexual abuse against a minor. It was dated Feb. 13, 2019.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Today, consistent with my promises of transparency and accountability, I am publishing a list of clergy that have a credible and substantiated claim of sexual abuse against a minor.

I express my deep gratitude to the victims and survivors that have come forward and for your patience as we prepared this list. As your bishop, I am called to be a good shepherd, attentive to the care and needs of all our people, especially the most vulnerable. Therefore, I asked for an independent and comprehensive review of clergy personnel files, and the files from the Diocesan Safe Environment Office and the Diocesan Review Board.

By publishing this list, we can help bring about healing to those who have experienced abuse in the Church and heighten the awareness of this tragic situation.

To those who experienced abuse from clergy, I am truly, deeply sorry. I regret that you have to bear the burden of the damage you suffered at the hands of those you trusted. I am also sorry that you must carry the memory of that experience with you. Moreover, I apologize to family members and friends of the abused, and to all members of the Catholic Church.

This crisis calls us to be immersed in three aspects of reconciliation. We need to bring to light the damage that has been done by child sexual abuse in the Church in order for healing to take place. We must express our sorrow and contrition publicly and clearly to acknowledge what we have done and what we have failed to do. We must continue to demonstrate our commitment to never let this happen again. In doing so, we make known — and support with actions — our commitment to repair the damage that has been done.

To the victims and to all affected by the pain of abuse, our response will always be about what we are doing, not simply what we have done. We will seek not just to be healed but will always be seeking healing. We will seek not just to be reconciled but will always be seeking reconciliation.

Together, let our prayers guide us with God’s grace. I ask you to pray for the healing of the victims and their families. I ask you to pray for the Church. Be assured I will do all in my power to restore your trust and to make our Church an authentic witness to the Gospel now and throughout our journey to eternal life.

Sincerely in Christ,

Most Reverend Barry C. Knestout
Bishop of Richmond

Marriage preparation Church’s great gift to engaged couples

February 11, 2019

With the observance of Valentine’s Day many turn their attention to relationships that involve romantic love. Holidays like tis also provide occasion for some to propose  marriage and make preparations for the couple’s wedding day. Most couples remember all or part of their wedding day, even though some parts of it might be a blur due to all the activity. 

As a parish priest, I celebrated dozens of wedding Masses, but the first one remains a vivid memory not because of the sacramental beauty that should be at the heart of every marriage celebration but because of where the emphasis was placed. As a newly minted priest, I did not yet have the perspective of experience and so did not anticipate the possibility that some couples might have a challenge in focusing on the true significance and sacred nature of the sacrament.  

I should have known this was going off track when the flower designer and the wedding planner came to prepare the church for the wedding. First came the flowers, literally thousands of them. There were live flowers encircling an arch around a crucifix, at every window and accompanying the candelabras at the end of each pew. 

There was also a flower-adorned canopy that extended from the front of the church to the limousines — one for the bride and groom and one for each couple in the bridal party. They easily spent $10,000 on the flowers. They were beautiful, no doubt, but as the Italians say, it was all a bit “un po tropo,” that is, a bit too much!   

This created such a disruption to the church on a weekend before Sunday Masses that afterward, the pastor sat down with me to give some good fatherly advice on how best to guide a couple to a soberer understanding of the sacrament.

Guests wore evening gowns and tuxedoes. An operatic singer performed the “Ave Maria.” The prelude was done by an orchestral ensemble. It’s an understatement to say this was over the top. One lesson I took from this experience was to let engaged couples know that the stipend to the parish for the wedding should be equal to the amount spent on flowers. 

For this couple, the wedding seemed to be more about “the show” and photos that might look like a magazine spread rather than the sacramental journey on which they were embarking. In the years since, I think from time to time about that wedding and pray that the grace of the sacrament permeated their lives and has nourished them throughout their marriage.

Another lesson I learned from that experience was that priests and others who prepare couples for marriage need to help couples put the wedding in perspective. The day is a significant celebration; it should be a memorable occasion. But it is a day.

That wedding elevated in me the importance of doing thorough marriage preparation with couples, providing them solid formation in order that they would have the spiritual foundation necessary in order to fulfill their marriage commitment. 

Aided by information each individual provided through completion of a pre-marital inventory, when I would meet with them, I would emphasize the importance of their communication with each other. I would also encourage them to have an appreciation for and patience with the unique personality of the other. 

Often people are complementary to one another. They see something in the other that they might not see in their own lives, and they value and treasure that in the other. That also means there will be potential for conflicts and clashes. 

How do you deal with both of those which are part of healthy relationships — seeing the good in the other but dealing with the differences and conflicts? There is awareness and value in communication that is honest and sincere, always speaking the truth with love to one another.

Our Church provides a great gift and service to engaged couples through the marriage preparation we provide. At the parish level, there is the Prepare-Enrich or the FOCCUS pre-marital inventory. 

This is fortified at the diocesan level by Unveiled and Engaged Encounter. Each provides another opportunity for the couple to examine their relationship and communication in the light of faith. (Additional information about these programs is available by contacting the diocese’s Center for Marriage, Family & Life at 804-622-5109).  

During an address to engaged couples on Valentine’s Day in 2014, Pope Francis emphasized three phrases that are critical to the “forever” in marriage. All couples would do well to reflect upon them.

One is “Can I?” or “May I?” Paraphrasing St. Francis of Assisi, the pope said courtesy kindles love — love that is critical to the couple’s marriage and to the family they will raise.

The second is “Thank you.” Pope Francis said, “It is important to keep alive the awareness that the other person is a gift from God — and for the gifts of God we say thank you! — we must always give thanks for them.” He added that one spouse must give thanks to the other, too.

The third is “I’m sorry.”  Pope Francis told the couples, “If we learn to say sorry and ask one another for forgiveness, the marriage will last and move forward.”

As couples announce their engagements and plan their weddings, pray that they will see value in the preparation the Church provides for their lives beyond that day. May their faith in God be the foundation of a loving, sacramental journey for them and their families. 

Gratitude for Catholic schools, faith formation programs

January 28, 2019

When it comes to the faith formation they received as children, youth and young adults, most people will respond, “I went to a Catholic school” or “I went to CCD.” I did both. As a public school student for first grade and all of high school, I went to catechism classes; from second to eighth grade I attended St. Pius X School in Bowie, Md.

In fact, when I look over my entire educational experience, exactly half of the time was in a Catholic setting and half in the public or secular setting. I value the faith formation I received from both.

I remember with affectionate gratitude the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia who taught at St. Pius X. They were competent, charitable, serious teachers. They were a great witness of the faith who encouraged the living and practice of faith. I am grateful that one of my eighth-grade teachers, Sister Jude, was able to be present at my priesthood ordination.

I attended elementary school in the 1970s. When I started, the Sisters of St. Joseph wore full habits; by the time I graduated, they wore an abbreviated veil. During that same time, catechesis underwent a transition, too. We moved away from the rote method of formation rooted in the Baltimore Catechism to what some have termed the “collage Catholicism” that was sparse in Catholic fundamentals.

Nonetheless, at St. Pius X our Catholic faith saturated the environment. The sisters helped us understand faith was integral to all aspects of our lives, i.e., educational, developmental and spiritual. It touched everything and affected how we viewed family life, social activities and civic activities.

I experienced culture shock when I entered ninth grade in the public school. Not only did I go from a class of 80 to a school with nearly a thousand students, but I went from an environment where the most serious offense was smoking to one where drug deals were being made and alcoholism was rampant. I realized what a gift my Catholic school education had been and how much I appreciated it — especially its emphasis on knowing right from wrong.

During high school, like some other Catholic teens of the time, I attended catechism classes. Despite the transition that was taking place in catechetics, it was critical for young adults of that era to receive faith formation from catechists who were witnesses to the faith.

While my education in public schools did not provide me with the faith-filled environment I enjoyed at St. Pius X, the instruction I received in those weekly classes in the homes of what I experienced as devoted and faith-filled parishioners, coupled with weekly Mass attendance with my family, gave me what I needed to navigate the cultural changes of that time.

The most important part of my faith formation, however, came not in the Catholic school nor in religious education classes, but at home. The example and perspective of my parents, who were very committed Catholics deeply immersed in the life of our parish, taught me — showed me — how to live a Catholic life.

In making our family what the Second Vatican Council called a “domestic sanctuary of the Church,” my parents’ faith and devotion to the Church made up for the gaps and flaws in other areas of my religious education. Our home was imbued with faith; the Catholic school and catechism classes fortified it.

The value of Catholic perspective one receives from Catholic schools and catechetical formation programs is priceless. Our schools remain Christ-centered communities and our parish-based faith formation programs, having regained the catechetical focus that we were missing from the ‘70s through the ‘90s, are vital to bringing our children, youth and young adults closer to Christ.

As a result of what I experienced growing up, I appreciate both Catholic school education and faith formation programs. Each emphasizes the importance of Catholic faith in day-to-day life. We do well for the present and future Church when we tend to all aspects of Catholic education, whether it is in a school or in a faith formation program.

At the same time, parents must remember that they are the first and most important people in forming their children in the faith. They provide, as my parents did, the faith foundation for their children.

Thanks to dedicated teachers and catechists, our Catholic schools and faith formation programs build upon that foundation and help children, youth and young adults to grow in their faith and provide them with the tools they will need to live it.

Sacrifice necessary to cooperate with will of God

December 31, 2018

Ten years ago, I was distracted during Christmas week. It was hard to immerse myself in the festivities that were part of the season. Instead, I was making lists and checking them twice as I was in the midst of preparations for my ordination as a bishop. Preoccupied with the details of liturgy, accommodations for guests, dinner and other elements, it was a different kind of Christmas. 

We don’t typically think of the week between Christmas and New Years Day as an occasion to think about Lenten things like sacrifice and even martyrdom, but the Church calendar helps us keep that in mind. Within the Octave of Christmas we commemorate martyrs three times — St. Stephen, Dec. 26; the Holy Innocents, Dec. 28; and St. Thomas Becket, Dec. 29 — the date of my episcopal ordination.

We might wonder, “Why would the Church spoil the joy of the Christmas season by commemorating martyrs?” The Church isn’t spoiling the season. Rather, those feasts serve as a reminder that we are often called upon to sacrifice in order to cooperate more fully with the will of God. Those feasts show us that in embracing the Savior whose birth we celebrate, we acknowledge and accept the Crucifixion and Resurrection that make our salvation possible. 

On Jan. 1 we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. What an appropriate feast to celebrate in this season as we call to mind Mary’s final words to the angel at the Annunciation: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). That statement is the perfect example of joyful acceptance as our Blessed Mother expresses her willingness to cooperate with God’s will and the work of the Holy Spirit.

When I think about the feast associated with the day of my episcopal ordination, I consider that St. Thomas Becket’s commitment to defending the faith against the intrusions of King Henry II were his acceptance to do God’s will. He gave his life for the sake of the Gospel. For all of us — bishops in particular — that is a much-needed example – even if, at times, it could be personally challenging.

We might not be called to martyrdom, but we are invited to make daily sacrifices to carry out what God wills for us. Oftentimes, that is challenging as it might involve loss, heartache, fear or even a total disruption of our lives. Yet, like our Blessed Mother, St. Thomas Becket and all who immerse themselves in faith, we know that when we are inspired by the Holy Spirit to joyfully accept God’s will by responding, “May it be done to me according to your word,” the Lord will give us every grace, as he did for Our Lady, to equip us to carry out his will. 

As I mark my anniversary as a bishop, please pray that I will always cooperate with the Holy Spirit in accepting what God calls me to be and to do.

The Nativity is in our midst!

December 17, 2018

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

All of you, I hope, have at least one Nativity scene on display in your homes. Growing up, the Nativity set in our home was what you might typically expect: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, along with some shepherds, sheep and other animals. Our family’s set also had a light inside the stable, with its warm glow illuminating an angel and the rest of the figures around the stable. The Magi were part of it, too, but making a slow journey from side tables to coffee tables to countertops, eventually arriving at the stable by Jan. 6.

Over the centuries, merchants and artists have embellished Nativity sets by including people we might not associate with these displays. Some show a person pushing a cart filled with wood. In another you might see a fishmonger and a vegetable peddler, or a woman carrying a basket filled with bread.

These scenes show the active and diverse life which might occur in any common space in a town’s or village’s public square. Given that people were coming into Bethlehem to be counted in Caesar Augustus’ census, these extended Nativity scenes provide a realistic context for what was happening throughout the area of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth.

In the midst of all that activity there was this life-changing event, affecting thousands of people who, except for those few shepherds in the fields at night, didn’t know its effect. Some may have heard the baby’s cries and stopped to see the newborn, but they most likely hurried along, caught up in the busyness of why they were in Bethlehem.

During this time of year, we are caught up in social engagements and activities. At times we’re filled with joyful anticipation while at other times we’re feeling the stress of commitments and responsibilities. We are like the additional figures in the Nativity set, going about our lives, working to cross items off our daily “to do” list. Yet, the impact of the Nativity, the one whose birth we are celebrating, remains in our midst.

As he was for those who hustled through the streets of Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago, Emmanuel — “God is with us” — is there as we stand in lines at airports, rush to make preparations for events and meals, and deal with unanticipated occurrences, e.g., sudden illness or death of a loved one. Those grieving during this time of year sometimes carry a heavy burden during the season, when joy and hope is so emphasized. We keep them in our prayers in a special way.

Like the people scurrying through Bethlehem when Jesus was born, we might be so consumed by the activities of this season that we are not aware of the Nativity’s impact. Aware or not, this incredible event demonstrates that God loves us even in the midst of our distractions and daily events; he loves us and pays attention to us even when we are not paying attention to him.

When a child is born into a family and brought into their home, that infant makes an immediate impact. He or she requires our attention and is the primary focus in our lives because of his or her need and vulnerability.

Whatever commitments and engagements we have become secondary to the needs of that child. And we’re glad to make him or her our focus and priority, even as we en- gage in all the other necessary activities of our lives!

So it is as we celebrate the birth of Christ. Our focus is on this gift from God who pulls us away from all the distractions that encumber us this season.

We are like the figures in the embellished Nativity set who carried out their daily tasks while in their midst was born the Son of God. The Nativity is in our midst!

As we take time to focus on it, we realize that it is God becoming one with us at Christmas and al- ways. He dwells among us as some- one small and vulnerable, and calling for our attention.

May you welcome the Son of God into your life this Christmas season and give him the attention he deserves; may his presence be with you throughout the new year.

With the assurance of my prayers for God’s blessings upon you and your loved ones during this Holy Season, I am

Sincerely in Christ,

Most Rev. Barry C. Knestout

Bishop of Richmond

This is precisely the time to embrace hope

December 3, 2018

Just after Halloween, during a visit to one of the local drug stores to purchase some personal items, I could not help but notice that Christmas displays were already being prepared, even though it was still a few weeks before Thanksgiving. I also noticed that some television stations were beginning to air Christmas commercials around the same time.   

Although this practice is no longer a great surprise, it is still disconcerting that, even for some Catholics, Advent gets lost amid the avalanche of secular messages during the weeks leading up to Christmas. If the Church took its lead from the retail world, Advent would have begun more than a month ago!

Despite the lack of secular attention given to Advent, believers know and welcome it as an opportunity to have what no advertising campaign can provide — hope. This is a gift from God, ours to embrace and live.

In the midst of a year in which we have witnessed much destruction and suffering due to acts of violence and natural disasters, it is easy to have our hope diminished or, worse, to discard it with an attitude of “What’s the use?” 

But, this is precisely the time for hope! 

As Catholics, our year has been filled with anger, depression, confusion, betrayal, shame and the antithesis of hope — despair. We are a hurting Church. 

When we listen to the Old Testament readings at Sunday Mass during this season, we hear about people who have been oppressed, suffering, waiting and hurting. They were also angry, depressed, confused, betrayed, shamed and wondering, as we do, “What next?”

They are encouraged by words like those from the prophet Zephaniah: “…the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear. On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion, do not be discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior…”(Zep 3:14-17).

“The Lord is in your midst” are words of hope, words that sustain us — and will sustain us — in the difficult times, whether in our nation or in our personal lives or in our Church. They are at the heart of our Advent reflection as they speak to a life filled with hope, with a belief that no matter what challenges we face personally or as a member of the Body of Christ, we can meet them when we focus on the Lord in our midst.

That hope is built upon words and actions. It requires a commitment to immerse ourselves not only in hope, but in faith and love. Hope calls us to open our hearts to what God wants us to do. Answering that call can be difficult, but it is necessary.

We know that as the Church we must continue to heal the pain we have caused those who have been abused by clergy; we must hold the abusers, as well as those who did not do all they could have done to protect the victims, accountable. Most importantly, we must work unceasingly to ensure this never happens again, that children and youth in our care are safe.

In immersing ourselves in hope, and embracing it as a gift from God, we call to mind the words of Pope Francis: “(Hope) lets us see far beyond, beyond the problems, beyond the pain and difficulties, beyond our sins” (Meditation, Dec. 14, 2015).

With that vision of hope, we know God is in our midst and that we have the spiritual fortitude we need to meet and address the challenges that lie before us. 

A letter from Bishop Knestout:

Please support Catholic Charities

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The season of joy and anticipation is upon us as we rejoice in God’s abundant love sent to us through His beloved son. Jesus’ story is one of love and hope. We have the opportunity to share His gifts of love and hope with our brothers and sisters who are suffering and in need through the wonderful ministries offered by Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia and Commonwealth Catholic Charities throughout the Diocese.

The Second Collection at all the Christmas Masses in the Diocese of Richmond supports the work of Catholic Charities who minister to those in most need on the peripheries by assisting the homeless, feeding the hungry, welcoming the refugee, supporting the immigrant, securing adoptive and foster homes for children, and caring for pregnant mothers and unborn babies. Collectively, Catholic Charities is one of the largest social service providers in Virginia, offering help each and every day during the year.

Jesus did not turn away those in need, and neither can we. Through your generous donations, Catholic Charities will continue to provide solutions, relief and hope throughout our Diocese. One hundred percent of your contribution to the Christmas Second Collection goes to Catholic Charities, and they need your support to continue to be a responsive and redeeming presence in our communities. Your support of this important collection will answer the prayers of so many who are in need.

I take the opportunity to convey my gratitude and prayers for you and your family during this holy season of Advent and throughout the Christmas season as we celebrate the wonder of the birth of Jesus.

Gratefully in the Lord,

Most Rev. Barry C. Knestout

Bishop of Richmond

Advent 2018

Draw life from Eucharist — the ultimate thanksgiving

November 19, 2018

During the listening sessions held throughout our diocese last month, I welcomed hearing concerns about a number of matters related to the sexual abuse crisis, including transparency, accountability, leadership, formation of seminarians, protection of children and young adults, and the future of our Church. The expression of those concerns is an important step toward addressing this crisis in a truthful and just way. 

I have thought about and prayed about all of those concerns; I will continue to do so as in the weeks and months ahead I address them with my words and actions.

I heard something else during those sessions — something about which we can lose sight when we are in the throes of crisis or scandal, when we are afraid of what the answer to “What next?” might be. I heard about the good things the Church has done and is doing, and I heard some participants praise the holiness, commitment and hard work of their parish priests, and express gratitude for their service. 

As people of faith dealing with crisis, confusion and failure that weigh upon our Church, as we repair the damage, heal the pain, and address the matters that define the scandal, we cannot lose sight of the life-giving beauty God has given our Church. 

The mission of the Church — to teach the faith, to lead people to holiness, and to live in charity — is faithfully expressed and lived by laity, religious and clergy in our diocese. We have Scripture, the sacraments and tradition that fortify us in the faith as it is handed from generation to generation. Most importantly, we cannot forget the Good News with which each of us is entrusted — to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. 

Nor should we overlook, as some at the listening sessions mentioned, the beauty in the good works of our Church, responding to the needs of the poor and vulnerable carried out individually, in our parishes and diocese, by Catholic organizations, and throughout the universal Church. There is beauty in our Gospel witness as we educate young people in our schools and catechetical programs, provide care in our hospitals and shelters, feed the hungry at our parish food pantries, fund national and international disaster relief, and generally strive to live what we are taught in Matthew 25:31-40. 

These actions are outer signs of God’s inner grace at work in our lives. They are our mission — the mission we carry out even as we seek ways to rid the institutional Church of the evil that has damaged it and its people.

In speaking about their faith, some listening session participants said that despite what has happened in the Church, the Eucharist sustains their faith and gives them life.

Eucharist comes from a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” As Americans we express gratitude for our temporal gifts on Thanksgiving Day. As Catholics, our thanksgiving goes further and deeper, for at every Mass we give thanks to God for what he does for us and who he is for us, perfectly expressed in Jesus. 

This is a challenging time for the Body of Christ, but this is also an opportunity for us to grow in our faith, to make our hearts one with God. As we deal with the frustration, anger, disappointment and overall turmoil that has ensnared our Church, let us be inspired and guided by the words of St. Paul: “And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful” (Col 3:15).

May we always remain focused on and draw life from the Eucharist – the ultimate thanksgiving.

Seminarian formation an ‘experience of discipleship’

November 5, 2018

One of the concerns raised at each of the listening sessions that preceded the Masses of Atonement I celebrated last month was the thoroughness of the formation our seminarians receive as they prepare for priesthood. The concern was raised because people felt that better psychological screening within that formation would have prevented the ordination of men who later abused children.

That is a valid point. The application process and the screening that accompanies it has evolved. Decades ago, a recommendation letter from one’s pastor to the seminary rector or diocesan vocations director paved the way for a man to undertake studies for priesthood. Today, the process is much more involved.

It begins with an individual’s prayerful discernment of a call to priesthood. 

That call is not heard in isolation. It starts in the home. My own vocation was rooted in the faith life of our family. I was inspired by the example of my parents, particularly my dad, who answered the call to the permanent diaconate and exemplified ordained Christian service.

A seminarian’s vocation is further nurtured by parish priests and the diocesan Office of Vocations. From them he receives assistance and support as he deepens his relationship with Christ and opens his heart to where he is being called.

As discernment continues, the man is invited to complete a comprehensive application which includes family history, religious and educational background, financial and medical status, and a personal autobiography of his spiritual journey. He also requests references from priests and other important figures in his life, completes a comprehensive physical exam, submits to a background screening and psychological assessment, and completes the VIRTUS program.  

A vocation review board reviews the application and interviews the applicant regarding his call and readiness to enter into priestly formation. Upon recommendation from the vocation director and the review board, I accept him as a seminarian and assign him to the seminary we feel will best fit his needs.

A seminarian’s formation is four-fold: spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and human. It includes living in common with fellow seminarians, guidance from a competent spiritual director, and completion of a master’s degree in theology. 

As part of his pastoral formation, he serves a series of 10-week and 15-month parish assignments in our diocese in which he hones his ministerial skills while interacting with and being formed by parishioners and parish staff.

This immersion in parish life gives the seminarian a realistic experience of what he would encounter in his ministry as a parish priest. It allows him to apply what he has learned in the classroom to the realities found in the lives of parishioners.

All phases of the seminarian’s formation are regularly evaluated by the seminary faculty and by the diocesan vocations director to ensure that he has the emotional, psychological and spiritual discipline to make the life-long commitment to priesthood and to all it entails — joyful embrace of celibate chastity, simplicity of life and obedience to the Lord through the paternal care of me and my successors. 

After four years of college and three years of theological studies, and upon recommendation from the seminary and the review board, I will ordain him a deacon. He will continue his studies while performing pastoral and sacramental duties in a parish.

A year later, following another interview by seminary faculty and the vocations review board, I ordain him to the priesthood.

While ordination marks the end of a man’s seminary studies, his formation continues throughout his priesthood. Through celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments, prayer, spiritual reading, retreats, academic studies, priest support groups, and conferences, he continues the development he began in the seminary.

Speaking to the Congregation for the Clergy in 2014, Pope Francis described formation of seminarians this way:

“It means guarding and fostering vocations, that they may bear ripe fruit. They are ‘diamonds in the rough,’ ready to be carefully polished with respect for the conscience of the candidates and with patience, so that they may shine among the people of God. Formation is therefore is not a unilateral act by which someone transmits theological or spiritual notions. … The formation of which we speak is an experience of discipleship that draws one to Christ and conforms one ever more to him.”

During this National Week of Prayer for Vocations, join me in praying for our “diamonds in the rough” that through their formation and in priesthood they will be disciples who draw those they serve closer to Christ.  

‘How do we know we can trust bishops?’

October 22, 2018

One of the questions asked of me at each of the listening sessions that preceded the Masses of Atonement I have been celebrating throughout the diocese is, “How do we know we can trust bishops?”

That is a question all who are called to lead, as company managers, government officials, and especially bishops, must answer. Those being led want to be assured they can trust their leaders will be people of character who will do what is right and just. It is not enough for leaders to say, “You can trust me.” We must demonstrate it with our actions.

From the day Pope Francis appointed me as bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, I have been working — and continue working — to earn your trust, because trust is fundamental to every relationship, every friendship. It is basic to what we believe and how we live as Catholics. 

You and I have gotten to know each other during my initial visits to various parishes in the diocese during January and February, when I administered the sacrament of confirmation in spring, visited parishes in the southwestern part of the diocese in June, and at every event of which I am a part. During those times when we greet each other after Mass, you and I are getting to know each other personally, albeit only for a few minutes. But we’re getting a sense of one another and, hopefully, perceiving the trust upon which we can strengthen our trust.

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.

As I heard the dozens of concerns raised during the listening sessions, I wished I could have spent time with every person discussing them and provided a specific answer to each of your questions. Time doesn’t allow it, nor do the geographic size of our diocese and the number of faithful.

However, I recalled how when Moses, faced with logistical challenges, was advised by his father-in-law, Jethro, to handle people’s concerns. He called upon trustworthy leaders to hear the concerns of community members. If they could handle them, they did. If they couldn’t, Moses addressed them (Exodus 18). 

Because I cannot address every matter personally, I depend upon our pastors and episcopal vicars to be those trustworthy leaders in our diocese. As they are an extension of my office, I encourage you to bring your needs and concerns to them, and I expect they will respond in a pastoral manner. 

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.

Fortitude, wisdom were hallmarks of Paul VI’s papacy

October 8, 2018

While I personally met St. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, I did not meet Pope Paul VI, who will be canonized a saint this coming Sunday. However, my family has a Paul VI story, one that involved my mother and brother personally, and which has endured for nearly 50 years.

Blessed Paul VI

In August 1969 — less than a month after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and about the same time Woodstock was becoming a household word — our family was returning to the United States after spending four years in Turkey due to my father’s work. 

Dad thought it would be good for us to vacation in Rome. One day he took the family to Castel Gandolfo, where popes go to escape the August heat, for an audience with Paul VI. 

Being 7-years-old and having brothers proximate in age, we were oblivious to what was going on inside the audience hall. All we knew was that it was hot and that we wanted some gelato! So, Dad kept an eye on us as we ran around outside.

Meanwhile, Mom, with my 5-month-old brother Brian in her arms, was inside. She was trying to position themselves alongside the railing of the center aisle where Paul VI, in those pre-Popemobile days, would be carried on the sedia gestatoria — an elevated chair. As she waited, a group of religious sisters, also trying to get close to the railing, gathered around her. 

Mom, being a polite American, didn’t realize that the sisters from another part of the world would approach the event in a different way. Her welcoming gesture allowed them to keep her from being near the railing, even though she had arrived first.

Before she knew it, Mom had been pushed back a few layers behind the sisters. She was upset and let the sisters know it! Apparently, one of the sisters helped Mom move forward so she could lift my brother up for a blessing by Paul VI as he passed by.

While Popes John Paul II and Francis have been given “rock star” status by the secular media, we sometimes forget that popes who did not have the media exposure and presence of those two were also spiritually sound leaders dedicated to the Gospel and our Church’s proclamation of it. Paul VI was one of those popes.

Although I was never in his presence, I have developed a deep admiration for Paul VI. Consider the years of his pontificate — 1963-1978. Those were, to say the least, years of tumult throughout the world. 

When one recalls the volume of criticism he endured inside and outside the Church, one realizes how important fortitude, a gift of the Holy Spirit, was for Paul VI to be able to lead the Church during that time.

Most Catholics associate Paul VI solely with the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” his prophetic statement about contraception and the dignity of human life that was published 50 years ago. But the encyclical he promulgated in 1967, “Populorum Progressio” (“On the Development of Peoples”) was equally prophetic and could well have been written today:

“The present state of affairs must be confronted boldly, and its concomitant injustices must be challenged and overcome. Continuing development calls for bold innovations that will work profound changes. The critical state of affairs must be corrected for the better without delay. 

“Everyone must lend a ready hand to this task, particularly those who can do most by reason of their education, their office, or their authority” (32).

In those words, and throughout that encyclical, one sees another gift of the Holy Spirit at work in Paul VI — wisdom. In his quiet, pastoral way, he reminded us what we must do and how we must live as followers of Christ. 

I was born four months before the opening of the Second Vatican Council. However, the bishop’s ring I received at the time of my episcopal ordination is a replica of the one Paul VI gave to each bishop who participated in the c­­­ouncil. 

That ring reminds me how my life has coincided with the post-conciliar Church. It further reminds me of the popes — St. Pope John XXIII and Paul VI — who opened their hearts to call for and continue, respectively, the work of the Second Vatican Council.

As he is canonized, let us thank God for Paul VI and his faith-filled life, and for the example and leadership he provided, and from which we continue to benefit.

William Westerman and his family pray at the start of the Ordination Mass, which was attended by more than 1,000 people.

Witness of deacons critical to life of Church

September 24, 2018

As I was preparing to ordain 19 permanent deacons for our diocese on Sept. 15, and reflecting on what I might say in my homily, I thought about my dad. Dad served as a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Washington from 1975 until his death in 1997. He was also director of the archdiocese’s office for the permanent diaconate from 1984 to 1994. 

Bishop Knestout imposes his hands upon Charles Giovannetti and prays the Prayer of Ordination. To the right is Deacon Francis Nelson Jr.

Dad’s call to the diaconate came, in part, through the spiritual conversion he experienced within the Charismatic Renewal. Always a man of faith, he became even more receptive to the Holy Spirit working in his life, eventually answering that call to holy orders.

Anyone who is a permanent deacon’s family member knows that his ministry will also, at times, become their ministry. As I shared in my homily at the diaconate ordination that Saturday, part of Dad’s apostolic work was Sunday afternoon visits to the Glendale Hospital, a state facility for the mentally challenged.

I was a teenager at the time he did these visits, and he invited members of our family — recruited might be the more accurate word — to accompany him. To put it mildly, it was a sacrifice for me to go with him. During fall, I had to forgo watching the Redskins’ games. For a fan, that is a sacrifice.

 It wasn’t only what I was giving up, but it was the smell and noise that emanated from this environment that was challenging for me. Now, years later, I appreciate having had that experience. I didn’t know it at the time, but accompanying Dad was part of my faith formation that eventually led to my answering the call to priesthood.

I am extremely grateful for the example of diaconal service Dad provided. I got to see and hear his witness to the Gospel as he ministered to those who otherwise might have been forgotten. His presence among the residents of Glendale Hospital instilled in me how important a deacon’s service is to our Church.

In the last couple of issues of The Catholic Virginian you had the opportunity to learn about the men I had the joy to ordain. They come from all parts of our diocese and work in a variety of occupations. Each had a unique call to the diaconate, yet each accepted the commitment to serve that comes with holy orders.

As Father Tony Marques explained in his Catholic Virginian articles about the role of deacons, service (“diakonia” in Greek) is at the heart of what they do in their parishes. They prepare people for the sacraments, provide adult       education, visit the sick, do social outreach, assist at Mass, proclaim the Gospel, preach, baptize, bless marriages, and preside at funerals. 

Deacons’ service requires sacrifice. If they are married and have families, their spouses and families sacrifice, too. 

We experienced this when Dad carried out his ministry, but we were supportive of what he did because we knew he had answered a call from God to serve the Church. Responding to that call daily in diaconal service was a source of joy for him, a joy we, his family, could see and appreciate in him. 

The witness of our deacons is critical to the life of our Church. They not only proclaim the Word of God, they live it. Please pray for the newly ordained and for all of our deacons that they may always be servant leaders in our faith communities and beyond.

All are called to ‘enlist witnesses for Jesus Christ’

September 10, 2018

While the Church liturgical year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, most pastors and other parish leaders will tell you the “church year” begins in September when students return to school and when faith formation programs commence. 

At this time of year, the Catholic faithful — especially those with children of school age — are reminded of their call to be witnesses of our faith and to recommit themselves to handing on that faith.

Parents are their children’s first teachers, their first witnesses of the faith — a promise they made when they asked the Church to baptize their children. By living a Christ-centered life, by praying with their children, and by celebrating Mass with them on Sunday and holydays, parents can make an impact as they plant the seeds of faith and nurture their growth in their children.

Often overlooked among our children’s witnesses of the faith are godparents. If you are a godparent or if you have attended a baptism, you have heard the priest or deacon ask, “Godparents, are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?” If you are a godparent, your godchild needs you to take that commitment seriously.

Our Church supports parents in forming their children in the faith. Our Catholic schools continue to provide a Christ-centered environment in which children pray, attend Mass, and give witness to the faith by practicing what they are taught. Catholic schools are a continuation of what is taught and modeled at home.

We are blessed with parish religious education programs that supplement the faith life of the home by instructing children in the tenets of our faith, including preparation for the sacraments of reconciliation, Eucharist and confirmation. They, too, connect to what is taught and modeled at home. 

Those who teach religion in a Catholic school or who are volunteer catechists in parish programs receive formation for this calling through Pathways Catechist Training, sponsored by our diocese’s Office of Christian Formation. This program provides them with the tools they need in order to share the faith with our children.

On Sunday, Sept. 16, the Church in the United States celebrates Catechetical Sunday, a time in which we rededicate ourselves to handing on the faith and to being witnesses of that faith. While the focus of this day is on catechists, the theme — “Enlisting Witnesses for Jesus Christ” — is also a reminder to parents, godparents, clergy, and the entire faith community of what we are called to do and who we are called to be for our children.

Parents are well aware of the negative influences their children encounter, particularly through the entertainment industry and profession-  al sports. Those influences are one reason why, through our words and actions, we must show children the way of Christ. We cannot enlist them as witnesses for Christ unless we ourselves are willing to be witnesses. 

On this Catechetical Sunday, I thank all, especially our catechists, who are committed to children’s faith formation, who are teaching them what it means to be a witness for Jesus. You are a blessing in our Church’s ability to carry out its catechetical mission.

At the same time, I ask everyone to examine his/her personal witness to Christ: 

n Does the way I live attract others to become witnesses for Christ?

n What can I do in order to become a better witness for Christ?

n Do my words and actions reflect my witness for Christ?

Let us answer those questions together — not only on Catechetical Sunday, but throughout the “church year.” 

Bishops must practice Extreme Ownership

Editor’s note: The following is based upon Bishop Barry C. Knestout’s homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 12, 2018. 

I recently heard a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk by Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL, in which he spoke about a leadership concept called Extreme Ownership.

He spoke about war as an incredible and brutal teacher whose lessons are not forgotten. In war, he said, one is forced to see humanity at its absolute worst, and one is blessed to see humanity in its most glorious moments.

Willink learned a most impactful lesson in the spring 2006 in Ramadi, Iraq, where terrorists ruled the streets. One day, multiple units that included friendly Iraqi troops and U.S. Marines and Navy SEALS were in a battle. The fog of war rolled in. With it came confusion, chaos, gunfire, screaming men, blood and death.

Through a series of mistakes, poor judgment and bad luck, the firefight broke out, not between them and the enemy, but between friendly troops. It was, Willink noted, “fratricide, the mortal sin of combat.”

Word of what happened made it up the chain of command. Someone needed to be held accountable and fired. As he prepared his debriefing, Willink saw there was plenty of blame to go around; he could incriminate so many of his men. Yet, he struggled to find the answer.

Then, right before his debriefing, the answer hit him. Only one person was to blame for what had occurred. He knew exactly who that was.

He walked into the debriefing room along with his men and commanding officers. He stood up and asked one question: “Whose fault was this?”

One after another raised his hand and took blame for what happened. After each one spoke, Willink replied, “No! It wasn’t your fault.” After the last one spoke, he replied, “No! It wasn’t your fault. There was only one person at fault, one to blame!” That person was himself.

He was the commander, the senior man; he was responsible for everything that happens, “everything!” That admission, he said, hurt. It hurt his ego and pride to take the blame. But he knew, in order to maintain his integrity as a leader, he had to take control of his ego and take responsibility — and not let his ego and pride control him.

As the briefing continued, Willink described his plan to ensure the tragedy never happened again.

He did not get fired. His commanding officers, who expected excuses and finger pointing, because he took responsibility, trusted him even more. His men respected him more, because they knew he would never shirk his responsibility, and never pass the burden of command onto them.

Willink concluded: Unlike a team where no one takes ownership of the problems, and therefore the problems never get resolved, with the SEALS, everyone took ownership of the mistakes and the problems.

“When a team takes ownership of problems, they get solved!” he said. “This is true on the battlefield, in business, in life.” It is also true in the Church.

Willink advised all who were listening not to hide, not to let their pride keep them from the truth. Take ownership — all the good and bad, all the mistakes, shortfalls and problems, as well as the solutions to get them solved.

“Take ownership of the mission, and lead,” he said.

Our Church is in a battle. We are experiencing the fog of war. This is a spiritual battle for eternal life and the good of souls. The instruments of the battle are the destructive weapons of vice, sin, pride, denial and even ideology.

In this spiritual battle there are casualties. There are those who succumb to discouragement, anger, resentment, cynicism, and despair. This is why the Church needs to be, as Pope Francis has said, a field hospital.

At every age, God’s people, all of us, in some way fail to live up to the challenge of discipleship. We easily give in to expediency and spiritual laziness.

Every time we see someone fall short of the virtue they are capable of, and we do not try to assist them in reaching their full potential, we contribute to the culture of denial and failure. Every time we don’t act with courage, we contribute to the culture of denial and failure. Every time we don’t speak up when we see something that seems out of place or out of order, we contribute to the culture of denial and failure.

We contribute to an environment that does not take sin seriously and an environment that does not call one another to holiness and virtue.

Every time we respond to the failures of those around us only by pointing fingers and proclaiming judgment, but do not see how we might have contributed to the problem, we stoke attitudes of anger, resentment and bitterness, and contribute to the problems rather than to their resolution.

But if we exercise Extreme Ownership then we will be slow to lay blame and quick to accept responsibility; then we might be able to make progress in overcoming ingrained sins. It is the accountability we profess when we pray in the Penitential Rite, “what we have done and what we have failed to do.”

The path to eternity is a path like Christ — of Extreme Ownership of our weakness and sin. This can help us to see more clearly our need for God’s grace and accept God’s gift of life for us. It is the only way we can repair the damage done by sin.

As we hear in John’s Gospel (6:41-51), Christ is the bread of life; he is what sustains us and gives us courage. He gives an example of sacrifice, which feeds us. He gives us the example of what Jocko Willink called Extreme Ownership. Jesus, though pure and innocent, accepts ownership of us and responsibility for our sins.

He carries the crosses we produce — crosses that would otherwise crush us. He takes those crosses and restores us undeservedly to life. He is our hope and our bread, our sustainability in times of discouragement, confusion and loss. 

With poor leadership and scandal in the Church, everyone — the lay faithful, clergy and, yes, bishops — have every reason to be angry, upset and discouraged. 

For us bishops, what has been reported about Church leadership in recent weeks is a call to embrace Extreme Ownership, no matter how challenging we find it. The only route through this newest revelation of failure is for us to take responsibility for the harm we have caused, reflect on how we may have contributed to an environment that allowed it to happen, learn why these issues were not addressed, and commit — individually and as a body — to preventing this from happening again.

Christ is the only person who can lead us to true holiness, a perfectly just and good man who willingly bears the burden for us. We are all sinners and in need of God’s grace. The path to eternal life is the admission of sin, weakness and stupidity, in word and action, and asking for the grace of forgiveness, renewal and the wisdom to grow in holiness.

Please, join me in praying for that grace.

Pray for justice, peace, and end to racism

July 30, 2018

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit and bless the renovated sanctuary of Holy Comforter Parish in Charlottesville. During the visit, the pastor and the parishioners recalled the protests and violence of a year ago, which occurred just a block away from the doors of the church. 

Since that time, I have been reflecting upon the upcoming anniversary of the confrontation that occurred in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. As the anniversary will draw much national and local attention, I am concerned it will be approached with provocative rhetoric rather than provide an opportunity for prayer and dialogue about racism, and the action needed to overcome it.

During the past year, the Diocesan Office for Black Catholics and Office of Social Ministries has hosted the “Rosary for Racial Justice and Reconciliation” on every first Friday as an opportunity for addressing and eliminating racism. (Photo/Brian T. Olszewski)

Racism is a sin

The starting point for us — individually and as a Church — is to accept what popes, bishops and others, based upon Scripture, have taught: Racism is a sin. It is, as the U.S. bishops wrote in 1979, “a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. “Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of races. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights” (“Brothers and Sisters to Us”).

Very simply, racism is a blatant mockery of Jesus’ instruction: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34).

Acknowledge what Church has done, failed to do

We know racism is part of our nation’s history. As Catholics, we must also acknowledge that our Church — the institution and its members — has at times committed the sin of racism, even as it at other times has been a prophetic witness against that sin. 

Last fall, I visited Georgetown University to participate in a service of remembrance, prayer and reconciliation to acknowledge the role of the university and its past leadership in the sale of 272 individuals into slavery in Louisiana in order to pay debts incurred by the university. Sadly, some clergy and parish communities of the colonial period in Maryland were also complicit in their support of slavery. 

Yet, more recent history shows that the Church, under the leadership of bishops like Cardinal Patrick A. O’Boyle, archbishop of Washington, and Bishops Peter L. Ireton and John J. Russell, the ninth and 10th bishops of the Diocese of Richmond, respectively, worked to desegregate parishes and schools many years before the wider American culture confronted the issue.

‘Redemption, restoration and rehabilitation’

This past April, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration opened in Montgomery, Ala. The memorial features the names of 4,400 people who were lynched from 1877-1950. The museum is located on a site where slaves were once sold. 

In an interview with Architectural Record, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the creative mind behind the project, said of the memorial and museum, “I want to liberate us. I want us to get to the part where (there is) redemption, restoration and rehabilitation … but you can’t get to that unless you acknowledge the past.”

We must acknowledge that past if we are to overcome the racism that exists in the present.

Seek reconciliation with God, victims

Another essential action is reconciliation. When we admit that racism is a sin, we as Catholics are obliged to seek reconciliation with God and with the victims of racism. Our commitment to reconciliation involves a willingness to improve; it involves action. 

As Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl wrote in a pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Racism,” to the people of the Archdiocese of Washington last November, “Regularly we must renew the commitment to drive (racism) out of our hearts, our lives and our community. While we may devise all types of politically correct statements to proclaim racial equality, without a change in the basic attitude of the human heart (emphasis added) we will never move to that level of oneness that accepts each other for who we are and likeness we share as images of God.”

Changing that “basic attitude of the human heart” is imperative because racism damages all of us. In confronting racism, we must open our hearts to Scripture, embrace what we hear in the Gospel, and commit to living it unconditionally. When we pray, we allow our hearts to change. When our hearts are open to change, we hear the voice of God (Heb 3:15).  

Prayer and dialogue are imperative

The Church cannot be silent about racism. Prayer — individually and as a faith community — is a start in our addressing racism. It cannot be an occasional act; we should pray about it in our daily lives and in faith community gatherings.   

One such opportunity in which I invite you to participate has occurred every first Friday over the past year. Our Diocesan Office for Black Catholics and Office of Social Ministries has hosted the “Rosary for Racial Justice and Reconciliation” as an opportunity for addressing and eliminating racism. Information is available on the diocesan web site in order to participate.  

Beyond prayer, there must be parish, faith-based dialogue as has been occurring over the last year at Incarnation Parish in Charlottesville — an honest sharing of and listening to each other’s stories. 

As we speak and listen, we need to examine our individual and collective consciences about this sin. Our prayer, dialogue and examination of conscience should lead to action — individual and community action based upon Scripture, our commitment to social justice, and the dignity of the human person.

Be witnesses of the Gospel

Catholics should be an integral part of that community action. As Cardinal Wuerl wrote in his pastoral letter: “In the public debate on the challenges of our age, we need to stand for the dignity of all human life and we ought also to insist on the place of religious faith. Without God and the sense of right and wrong that religious convictions engender, we will never adequately confront racism.” 

In the conclusion of his pastoral letter titled “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015,” Bishop Edward K. Braxton, writing to the people of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., suggested: “Pray, listen, learn, think, and act.”

This year, on Aug. 12, as we reflect upon all that took place in Charlottesville a year ago, I ask you to pray for justice, peace, and an end to racism. But do not confine your prayer to one day. Commit to praying, listening, learning, thinking and working for peace, justice and an end to racism.

Our faith calls us to be witnesses of the Gospel. Be that witness in working to eliminate racism within our culture.

As it was in 1968, ‘Humanae Vitae’ is a needed examination of conscience

July 16, 2018

Fifty years ago, many events — wars, violence, demonstrations, protests— shook the world.  One such event was Blessed — soon to be Saint — Pope Paul VI’s delivery of his encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”) on July 25, 1968.  In it, our Holy Father wrote about the Church’s belief in the sanctity of all human life and the immorality of artificial contraception. His message remains as timely today as it was when first issued.

Paul VI did not draw massive support in stating the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception. In fact, he was vilified by many. He was a “sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34) when it came to teaching and warning Catholics in particular and society in general about the immorality of artificial contraception.

This is the cover of a 50th anniversary edition of “Humanae Vitae” with related papal texts and published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (CNS)

I was 6 years old when the encyclical was issued, and unaware until much later of its message. But living through the past five decades, I firmly believe the contraceptive mentality of which Paul VI spoke in “Humanae Vitae” — the deliberate obstruction of the capacity to transmit life inherent by God’s design in the act of married love — is at the root of issues regarding human sexuality manifest in today’s culture.

Around us, we see misguided definitions of marriage and gender, the ingrained nature of the abortion trade, an increasing number of divorces, the objectifying of men, women and children (as evidenced in human trafficking and the proliferation of pornography), and a disregard for the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death.

In “Humanae Vitae,” Paul VI acknowledges cultural concerns about social responsibility, population growth, and the role and rights of women in society. He notes the personal challenge that parents face in making decisions about their families. Yet, he also rightly affirms that Jesus laid the foundation for our moral understanding of our humanity and that we should not accommodate aspects of our human sexuality for the sake of convenience.

These ideas set forth a solid framework for understanding the intrinsic value of human life. St. Pope John Paul II developed that framework in 129 public audience addresses between September 1979 and November 1984; they are now known as the “Theology of the Body.”

Pope Benedict XVI further elaborated when exploring the nature of God and his relationship to humanity in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love”).  Pope Francis carried forward this same framework in his encyclical “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), emphasizing the importance of married love.

Message for all

Paul VI addressed “Humanae Vitae” primarily to married couples, public authorities, scientists, medical professionals, parents, theologians, and clergy. But he gave fair warning to all, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, that a more widespread acceptance and use of contraception would ultimately tear at the moral fabric of culture in three distinct ways. Each has come to pass in the last 50 years.

The first way was an increase in marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Rising divorce rates, the coarsening of popular culture and the entertainment industry demonstrate the truth of Paul VI’s vision.

The second way was his profound warning that a widespread acceptance of contraception would create a culture where there is a loss of respect for women. This is clearly evidenced in the $13 billion pornography industry, addiction to which has become so ubiquitous that it is considered a public health crisis.

Finally, Paul VI considered further developments with contraception would enable elected officials to abuse their public authority. This too has happened — most recently in attempts to force Catholic-sponsored charitable institutions to violate our sincerely held teachings by making us pay for or subsidize contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.

God’s law over man’s law

In “Humanae Vitae,” Paul VI reminded us of what has always been true — in all things, God’s law has primacy over man’s law:

“The teaching of the Church regarding the proper regulation of birth is a promulgation of the law of God himself. And yet there is no doubt that to many it will appear not merely difficult but even impossible to observe. Now it is true that like all good things which are outstanding for their nobility and for the benefits which they confer on men, so this law demands from individual men and women, from families and from human society, a resolute purpose and great endurance. (Emphasis added).

“Indeed, it cannot be observed unless God comes to their help with the grace by which the goodwill of men is sustained and strengthened. But to those who consider this matter diligently it will indeed be evident that this endurance enhances man’s dignity and confers benefits on human society” (20).

It does indeed take a resolute purpose and great endurance to faithfully carry out God’s law.  But, as Paul VI emphasized, God provides married couples with the grace to do just that. It is available when they open their hearts to God, place him at the center of their marriage, and know that he will sustain them in living the teachings of the Church.

The Diocesan Center for Marriage, Family & Life provides a variety of resources to help individuals, couples and parishes to integrate these teachings into their daily lives. God is gracious with his mercy and compassion — especially for married couples. Indeed, that grace is available to all who put God at the center of their lives.

Powerful statement

“Humanae Vitae” is often referred to as “the birth control encyclical.” But to see it as only that is to miss its greater message. It is a powerful statement of one of the principles of Catholic social teaching: that life and the dignity of the human person is God-given, not man-made.

“Humanae Vitae” gives us a roadmap to advocate for and to be witnesses to the dignity of human life in our private lives and in the public square.

As the Church marks the 50th anniversary of this fundamental document, I urge the faithful of our diocese to read and reflect upon the truths Paul VI presented to us. When read in its entirety, “Humanae Vitae” is not only an instruction about marital love, but an examination of conscience about familial and societal love — an examination that is needed as much today as it was in 1968.

Collaboration helps build Kingdom of God on earth

July 2, 2018

One of the responsibilities — and joys! — of a diocesan bishop is to ordain men to the diaconate and priesthood. I had the privilege of doing both for the first time as bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, ordaining deacons on May 19, and priests on June 2.

Deacons and priests are theologically an extension of the bishop’s ministry. They are very deeply linked with me in that I call them to support me in my primary roles as teacher, priest and shepherd.

As the bishops of the Second Vatican Council wrote, the clergy’s connection with their bishop is “in a spirit of trust and generosity,” and they “take upon themselves, as far as they are able, his duties and the burden of his care, and discharge them with a daily interest” (Lumen Gentium, 28). Very simply, they are my closest collaborators.

Our ordination of five transitional deacons and three priests bodes well for our diocese. Those ordinations are the result of an increase in the number of men who have been discerning a call to the priesthood and who have been guided by our vocations office in that journey. But that’s just part of it.

Answering that call from God requires years of formation in which men are instructed, tested and evaluated so they know in their hearts they are, in fact, prepared to serve the Lord and his Church. The process for recognizing that call is intense and extensive; discernment of their vocation is strengthened in the context of their personal, intellectual, pastoral and spiritual formation.

These men grew up in families where their vocations were nurtured, where faith was taught and practiced. Their vocations are also cultivated in vibrant parish communities that are intentional in their support of those discerning a vocation, and who encourage and rejoice when one is called to the priesthood or religious life. I am grateful to the families and parishes that provide those environments in which vocations can take root.

In preparing for the future, fostering vocations to the priesthood involves the sacrifice and support of our entire Church community. We commit, through our Annual Diocesan Appeal, the financial resources needed to provide our seminarians with thorough personal and theological formation, as well as with the pastoral experiences they need in order to be qualified, effective priests.

As they grow in faith and discern their calling, we, as a Church, discern with them, helping them recognize if they are being asked to serve as priests or in another way. We walk with them, exercising patience as they gain knowledge and experience relative to their vocation.

Please keep our deacons and priests in your prayers. Pray that their love of Jesus deepens, pray that as proclaimers of the Word of God, they will always, as the Rite of Ordination of Deacons instructs them, “believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach,” and as the Rite of Ordination of Priests instructs: “understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.”

Also important to the life of the Church are those who serve in lay ministry. On Saturday, June 23, I commissioned 12 lay ecclesial ministers who had completed formation through our diocesan Lay Ecclesial Ministry Institute (LEMI).

All Catholics, by virtue of our baptism, are called to discipleship, but, as you read in the last issue of The Catholic Virginian, each of the men and women I commissioned has been called to serve in a specific way. Theirs is an “explicit faith commitment” — a term used by the U.S. bishops in our 2005 document on lay ministry titled “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord.”

The formation for lay ecclesial ministers parallels that of priests and deacons as it focuses upon the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral development of those called to serve. The ministries in which they are engaged, e.g., education, catechetical, youth, campus, etc., are vital to the life of our faith communities in particular and for the Church as a whole.

Lay ecclesial ministers are not an “elite” group set apart from others, but from among the laity they have made a commitment to use their particular gifts to bring people closer to Christ. They minister in collaboration with priests and deacons, in distinct but complementary ways, to build the kingdom of God on earth.

As you keep our priests and deacons in prayer, please keep our lay ecclesial ministers in your prayers that their ministries will continue to prove fruitful in the Vineyard of the Lord.

St. Barnabas shows us how to serve the Church

June 4, 2018

One of the questions I was asked when I was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Richmond was, “Who is your patron saint?”

While Barry is not a derivative of Barnabas, I consider St. Barnabas as my patron because I was born on his feast day — June 11. (My confirmation name is James, chosen for St. James the Less, known as the brother of our Lord. He was the first bishop of Jerusalem).

What we know about St. Barnabas — his name is translated “son of encouragement” — we learn from the Acts of the Apostles. We know that he was generous, one who was willing to sacrifice what he owned for the good of the Christian community (4:36).

St. Barnabas may have had one of the most difficult tasks within the early Church: introducing Saul, aka Paul, to the apostles. One can only imagine just how difficult it was for him to arrange that meeting.

Although Paul had undergone his conversion on the way to Damascus, the apostles were still wary of him as they knew him only as the persecutor of Christians. Now one of the disciples wanted them to meet this notorious murderer face-to-face! We don’t know the details of that encounter, but we know St. Barnabas convinced the apostles that Paul truly had converted and was ready and worthy to proclaim the Gospel.

St. Barnabas can best be seen as a servant of the Church and as a facilitator for evangelization. He was a servant in that he was willing to do whatever was needed to fortify and grow the Christian community, including traveling with St. Mark to Cyprus in order to proclaim the Gospel. As a facilitator, he was instrumental in helping Paul bring the Gospel to people who otherwise might not have heard it, traveling with him to Antioch.

In some ways, we can all identify with St. Barnabas because, although he was not among the 12 chosen apostles, he worked in support of the apostolic mission. In fact, because he was so close to the mission, like St. Paul, he is remembered and celebrated as one of the apostles. Yet, as did others who came after the apostles, he helped sustain the life and work of the Church — something all of us are called to do.

My role straddles both of these areas. As a bishop, I am a successor to the apostles. Like the apostles, my role is to safeguard apostolic tradition and the teaching of the Church. I am called to teach the faith, celebrate the sacraments and provide oversight or governance for the institutions and charitable works of the Church.

My role in our diocese is to facilitate and support the proclamation of the Word that is carried out in our parishes among pastors and catechists. As bishop, I not only lead and guide that work, but I ensure they have all the support they need for the work. In these roles, I find much inspiration from the life of St. Barnabas.

There is another aspect of St. Barnabas’ life that inspires me. He was trusting of and dependent upon the guidance of the Holy Spirt in living and proclaiming the Gospel. In Acts 11:24, he is described as “a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Two chapters later, we learn that when he and Paul were being driven out of Antioch, they were “continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (52).

St. Barnabas reminds us how we are called to serve our Church, and that when we serve, we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us in order that we may worthily proclaim — and live — the Word of God.

Say prayer of thanksgiving when you hear ‘gave their lives for us’

May 21, 2018

This year we are fortunate that the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Memorial Day and the Solemnity of the Body and Blood Christ (Corpus Christi) are all celebrated within a span of eight days. We are fortunate because they provide us with an opportunity to remember those who have sacrificed their lives for us.

When we celebrate Mass, we are bringing into the present Christ’s one, everlasting sacrifice of his life so that we may all enjoy eternal salvation. Recall the words heard when the bread and wine are consecrated to become the body and blood of Christ: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

This memorial — this Eucharist — is not only a remembrance of Christ’s ultimate act of love, but it is an opportunity for us to give thanks for that sacrifice,  and to dedicate ourselves to living as Christ taught and lived so that we will experience the beatific vision — seeing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, face to face, when we die. That would not happen had God not sent his Son to redeem us from our sins.

On Memorial Day, I will be privileged to celebrate the annual Mass for the Fallen at Holy Trinity Parish, Norfolk, beginning at 10 a.m. Just as in Eucharist we remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us, so too when we commemorate Memorial Day we remember those who gave their lives for us in military service.

When we hear or read “gave their lives for us,” we need to stop, take time to realize what that means, and to say a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving because, due to their sacrifices,  we remain blessed with freedoms that are at  the heart of our nation. We are free to express our faith and to live it as we were called to live  it when we were baptized.

In remembering the impact of “gave their lives for us,” we bring into the present their  sacrifices, whether they be decades ago or of  recent memory. In that remembrance we need only imagine how empty our lives would be had they not given theirs. Consider the void in which we would live if we did not have the freedom to proclaim and live the Gospel, if we did not have the freedom to celebrate and receive the Eucharist.

As our deceased servicemen and servicewomen were children, siblings, spouses, and parents, we must remember the impact their deaths had upon their families. We pray for the survivors of the deceased as they live with the pain of that loss.

As Catholics and as Americans, our remembrances on these two solemnities and the national holiday are linked to the past, but not isolated in it. Rather, they are part of our daily lives. In the Eucharist, we are sustained by the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior. Because members of our armed forces sacrificed their lives, we are sustained by the freedoms we cherish.

Share the gift you received from the Holy Spirit

May 7, 2018

This month there is much for Catholics to celebrate. Our biggest celebration is Pentecost — the birth of our Church. We hear how the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and how they continued to preach what Jesus had instructed. When we hear that reading from Acts 2:1-11, we should realize it is not only a story about the early Church, but it is our story.

In baptism and confirmation, we receive the Holy Spirit, and we, as disciples of Jesus, are called to proclaim — in words and actions — what he taught.

As you read this, I am in the midst of a stretch of seven weeks in which I am administering the sacrament of confirmation to hundreds of teens at regional confirmation Masses in 35 parishes throughout our diocese. Each confirmation has had young people from as many as seven parishes in their region gathering together to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is an honor for me to seal “with the gift of the Holy Spirit” our young people and to celebrate this step in their faith development, as it indicates their willingness to affirm their faith and to be witnesses of that faith.

These celebrations are also a time for those of us who have been confirmed — no matter how long ago — to reflect upon our reception of the sacrament, how we are growing in our faith, and how we are using the gifts of the Holy Spirit — wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord.

We must remind ourselves, as I remind the confirmands, that confirmation is not a stopping point in our faith lives. In many ways it is actually a beginning, expressing a maturation of our faith and accepting the responsibility of living and sharing that faith in the world. It is a renewal, another opportunity to grow in our relationship with Jesus as we call upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit in how we live and in all we do.

My devotion to the Holy Spirit is an important part of my priesthood. I attribute that devotion to my father’s involvement in the Charismatic Renewal, and in seeing what an impact that had on his spiritual life and on that of our family. He embraced and trusted the Holy Spirit, and he taught us to do the same.

In celebrating the birth of our Church, pay special attention to the instruction from St. Paul that the Holy Spirit has given a gift to each of us — “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). Take that to heart, recognize that gift in your life, and commit to sharing it — to being the witnesses of Jesus Christ that our confirmation inspires us to be.

* * * * *

The Holy Spirit incorporates us into the Body of Christ. Throughout history the Church has been seen as our mother because the Church gives and nurtures us in the life of Christ. So, it seems especially fitting that as we celebrate Pentecost, the birth of the Church and our birth into the life of faith, that we also celebrate and recognize our mothers on Mother’s Day.

We are already celebrating our Blessed Mother this month; how fitting that we can also celebrate our blessed mothers. However you recognize your mother on this day, be it with a visit, phone call, card, or gift, take time to intentionally pray for her. Thank God for the life she gave you and for the sacrifices she has made on your behalf.

We have much to learn from our Blessed Mother

April 23, 2018

An important part of my prayer life is rooted in my devotion to our Blessed Mother. I purposely emphasize “our” as she is more than “the” Blessed Mother; she is ours. As May is designated by the Church as “the month of Mary,” this is a good time to remind ourselves that Mary has maternal care for all of us — everywhere and for all time.

Scripture records only a few instances in which Mary speaks: to the angel at the time of the Annunciation; to her cousin, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist; to Jesus, upon finding him in the temple; and to Jesus again during the wedding feast at Cana. In each instance, her words are part of the insight we receive regarding the life and mission of her son.

One of Mary’s roles — perhaps the most important as the first and greatest of all the disciples — is her witness to her son. Recall that when she and Joseph finally found Jesus in the temple, and he told them why he was there, Scripture tells us his “mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51).

Imagine everything that was in her heart throughout her life! Our Lady treasures every aspect of Jesus’ life and mission: the Annunciation and Nativity, his public life to his condemnation and Crucifixion, his Resurrection, Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit. For all that her son did for us, she was there, witnessing his miracles and listening to his teachings, knowing, through the calling she had accepted and through her faith in God, that her son truly was the Son of God.

Throughout history, artists and sculptors have provided us with thousands of images of Mary. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, has many such beautiful depictions of Our Lady. While those images can serve as inspiration for us, what is more important than how our Blessed Mother may have looked is who she is and what she provides to those who accept her embrace.

Pope Francis, in a homily on the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, Jan. 1, 2017, gives us one idea of who our Blessed Mother was:

“Mary gave us a mother’s warmth, the warmth that shelters us amid troubles, the maternal warmth that keeps anything or anyone from extinguishing in the heart of the Church the revolution of tenderness inaugurated by her Son,” he said. “Where there is a mother, there is tenderness. By her motherhood, Mary shows us that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong.”

Warmth. Shelter. Tenderness. Humility. These are the qualities of someone who is approachable, someone who understands our needs, our challenges. All we need to do is approach her and get to know her; she intercedes for us with her son and helps us along our pilgrim journey toward heaven.

One of the ways I have gotten to know our Blessed Mother is through recitation of the rosary. While reflecting on the joyful, sorrowful, luminous and glorious mysteries of the rosary, St. John Paul II called them a compendium of the entire Gospel.

Praying and reflecting upon these mysteries has deepened my relationship with Our Lady and with Our Lord. Whether one prays one decade, five decades, or all 20, reflecting on the mysteries, the rosary provides us with the opportunity to place ourselves in the presence of our Blessed Mother, to be immersed in what she treasured in her heart and to share with her what is in our heart. Remember, she is approachable.

As we honor Mary during May, please get to know her or get to know her better. We have much to learn from her witness, from her trust in God. In knowing her, we will also get to know Jesus better, and draw closer to him.

Conference participants demonstrate vibrancy of faith

April 9, 2018

As you read in the last issue of The Catholic Virginian, more than 400 men from our diocese gathered Saturday, March 17, at St. Bede Parish, Williamsburg, for the annual Catholic Men’s Conference. As a first-time participant, I was edified by the experience of seeing this many men coming together for prayer, reflection and fraternal support.

I liken it to what I saw at the Diocesan Youth Conference and college Summit in February, and to what, I’m told, occurs at the annual Catholic Women’s Conference in November: Catholics who seek to deepen their relationship with Our Lord, who want to grow in knowledge and practice of their faith, and who are willing to support others in that growth that they will take time to come together for this common purpose.

As bishop of our diocese, it is encouraging to witness and be a part of something that generates great interest among the participants, and which demonstrates a very vibrant aspect of our faith. Many of those who participated in the men’s conference drove a great distance to be there. That in itself speaks volumes about how much they value their faith, and how far they are willing to go to accept a unique opportunity to pray, reflect and grow in the faith.

Any event at which there is an encounter with Christ and grace is going to be fruitful to the individual participants as they accept the invitation to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, which many did, and take inventory of how they are living their faith. But that encounter reaches much further than the individual; the spiritual renewal they undergo affects their wives and children as these men strive to better fulfill their roles as husbands and fathers, which was one of the themes emphasized throughout the conference.

What also impressed me was the men’s evangelical spirit — a willingness to take what they heard and experienced back to their parishes and to share it with other men. That is a continuation of the devotion we already see among men of faith who are part of our many parish prayer groups, Bible studies and other fraternal associations like the Knights of Columbus councils and, the Men of St. Joseph.

When people are unabashedly willing to proclaim and live the Good News, it bodes well for our Catholic community — families, parishes and diocese — because it indicates a commitment by conference participants to help others grow in faith, hope and love.

I am grateful to our diocesan Office for Evangelization for the work it does in sponsoring conferences for youth, college students, men and women. When people take advantage of what these conferences offer, it is a great sign of the vibrancy of the Church in Richmond. It shows the seriousness with which people live their faith, how deeply they are engaged in it, and their desire to be a witness of it for others.

During Easter season, rejoice in new life God promised, delivered

March 26, 2018

Easter and Christmas are the two greatest feasts of the Liturgical Year. They both have a significant place in our hearts and memory. Advent and Christmas are filled with traditions of carols, gifts, and family gatherings, and Lent and Holy Week with prayer, liturgical richness, and gathering our family of faith.

I have always found Easter to be a more prayerful time with fewer social occasions and expectations. As a priest and bishop, it is a time of spiritual reflection and a renewal of commitment to discipleship and, in the case of priests, to priestly service and prayer.

Easter is always a meaningful celebration. It is not through any human understanding, but rather through our faith, that we try to understand what Christ has done for us, and why he did it. The story of his passion, death, and resurrection is more than history; it is our Mystery of Faith. It is timeless, and it relates to and impacts our lives not just once a year, but daily.

Easter has special meaning for me this year. During Lent, I have reflected on the importance — the necessity — of dying to one’s old self in order to welcome and embrace new life. Foremost has been the spiritual dying, shedding the “old man” of sin and death, as St. Paul writes, and putting on the “new man” of life and love.

In the season of fasting, penance and almsgiving, or as a result of those things, Lent has been a time of renewal, which included more time spent in prayer and reflection on Scripture in order to deepen my relationship with Christ.

This year has meant for me a more significant share in the Paschal Mystery, in dying and rising with Christ. Being named bishop of the Diocese of Richmond meant letting go of the work I was doing as a priest and bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington, and beginning a new life to shepherd the people of our diocese.

If you have undergone a major change in your life, e.g., leaving a home in which you have lived for many years, being transferred by the military, losing your job, a divorce, you have experienced a kind of “death.” You had to let go, and it was difficult.

There was a Lenten component to my letting go; giving up what you know and where you’re comfortable is a sacrifice. But there was also an Easter component — the joyful experience that comes with new life.

That new life has taken the form of immersing myself in the work and ministries of our diocese, of learning how our parishes, schools, institutions, organizations, and individuals are manifesting the Word of God to those they serve. The joy will continue in the weeks ahead as I will be conferring the sacrament of confirmation upon hundreds of youth in over 30 parishes, ordaining five transitional deacons and three priests, and commissioning 14 people as ecclesial lay ministers.

For me, Easter is a season of spiritual joy, and this year, it is a season of pastoral joy — a new opportunity to share in and witness the deep faith of our Catholic community. The latter is possible because I was willing to let go of what constituted my old self.

During this Easter season, I pray you will experience the joy we celebrate in our Risen Lord, that, as a result of Lent, you have shed your old self, and that you are renewed in faith, rejoicing in the new life God promised and delivered through his Son.

Pope Francis inspires us to be people of hope

March 12, 2018

As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the pontificate of Pope Francis, much has been said and written about what he has meant to the world at large and the Church in particular. When commentators say, “We have never seen a pope like this,” I want to add, “The same could be said for those who preceded him.”

When we reflect upon the papacies of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, we understand that each had a different style of leadership from the other, as Pope Francis does from them. The ministry of the pope, as it is for all bishops, is to emulate who Jesus was: priest, prophet and king.

While all three exemplified those traits, each accented one of them in subtly different ways. For St. John Paul II, you would often see an emphasis on the priestly role — the one who sanctifies, who leads his people to holiness. His writings and rich reflections instructed us to express holiness in our words and actions, and he provided us with models of holiness by canonizing 469 saints during his pontificate.

Pope Benedict emphasized the prophetic role — the teacher. Some would say he was an “academic,” which he certainly was, but he was also a practical pastor, instructing us in the divine truth, helping us to know our faith so that we could better practice it.

Pope Francis, who has certainly expressed the priestly and prophetic roles as his predecessors did, has shown us kingship in a way we might not expect to see it. He expresses that kingship in his emphasis not on a regal kingship, but on a kingship rooted in servant leadership. He is the shepherd, the “pastor on the ground,” a missionary of charity, encouraging us to be one, too.

Through his words and actions, he is helping us answer two questions: How do we proclaim the Gospel in the modern age? How do we fulfill the promises of Vatican II?

One thing Pope Francis shares with his immediate predecessors is his focus on hope. St. John Paul II said, “I plead with you — never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”

In his encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (God is Love), Pope Benedict XVI instructed: “Hope is practiced through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of apparent failure, and through the virtue of humility, which accepts God’s mystery and trusts him even at times of darkness.” Pope Benedict also wrote an encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi” (Saved in Hope) offering a profound reflection on the virtue of hope.

Pope Francis, in the inaugural Mass of his pontificate, said, “Today too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope!”

Reading those words nearly five years later, we see how Pope Francis has placed hope at the heart of his life, and why he encourages us to be people of hope. The pope wants us to know and to proclaim that Christ is our hope; he wants us to embrace and live the hopefulness we find in Jesus.

Lent is an ideal time to reflect on the virtue of hope and how we live it. To help us with that reflection, we would do well to recall the words with which Pope Francis opened a series of 38 catechesis he gave last year:

“…we should not abandon hope, because God, with his love, walks with us. I hope, because God is by my side: this we can all say. Each one of us can say, I hope, I have hope, because God walks with me. He walks and he leads me by the hand. God never leaves us alone.”

Please continue to pray for our Holy Father as he leads us and inspires hope in us.

Experiencing ‘a concert of the life of the Church’

February 26, 2018

In the same year I was born, there was published a popular book written by John Steinbeck titled, “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” in which he writes about meeting people and hearing their stories during a road trip that took him to all parts of the United States.

During a recent 19-day period, I had my own “Travels” through the Diocese of Richmond, crisscrossing the western, central and eastern parts of Virginia, celebrating Mass and visiting with thousands of you in 17 parishes, as well as in a number of schools, campus ministry centers and other Catholic entities.

It was a wonderful experience and I am grateful for your welcoming words and many expressions of kindness. I am also grateful for the chance to hear your stories, as well as your questions and concerns.

Two things in particular struck me as I learned the make-up of our diocese:

First, I am privileged to see the deep expression of faith in our parishes, the vibrant prayer and praise, and to learn of and experience the outreach — the witness to the Gospel — that is taking place across our diocese.

One example is the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, where the parish sponsors a ministry that serves lunch to 200 people each weekday. Those who volunteer are the face of Christ to those in need, and those in need are the face of Christ to the volunteers.

We have to keep alive in our minds and hearts that we are called to care for and support one another. In these encounters, we have the opportunity to express our love, to learn from one another, to learn from each other’s experiences and to be attentive to the needs of the other, especially those who are on the periphery of our own life and experience.

The lifeblood of our Church and our spiritual life, in which our words and actions are centered on God, is our willingness to repeatedly go out to those on the margins of life and society as an expression of love — the love Christ exemplified for us.

The second thing that made an impact upon me was the commitment to and enthusiasm for the faith I saw among our youth and young adults. I visited Charlottesville Catholic School, Roanoke Catholic School, Holy Cross Catholic School, St. John Neumann Academy, Peninsula Catholic High School, Portsmouth Catholic Regional School and Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School. I also celebrated Mass with students from the Catholic campus ministries at James Madison University, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and William and Mary.

I was energized by our young people and the excitement they expressed as I walked through the doors of our Catholic schools and on our college campuses. It was a privilege to be so warmly greeted by our students as we see the hope and the life of the Church manifested in them.

In all that our youth and young adults have occurring at this time in their lives, they put God at the center. I was humbled by the fact that our students waited in receiving lines, as they did on a Friday night at Virginia Tech, so we could greet one another, say hello and get to know one another. I thank God for these students’ parents and others who formed them and rooted them so firmly in the faith.

When we were planning the regional Mass schedule in December, I told staff members I would not mind being exhausted at the end of the day. They took me seriously, and I’m glad they did, as those full days provided a lot of opportunities for engaging the life of the Church. I am grateful so many of you took the time to join in the celebration of Mass with me and then say hello in the receiving lines at the receptions after Mass.

For those places I haven’t yet had an opportunity to visit, I look forward to meeting many more of you as I continue to travel around our diocese in the weeks and months ahead.

What I experienced at our parishes, schools, care centers, hospitals, and campus ministries can best be described as a concert of the life of the Church, a composition expressing the beauty and vibrancy of the Church of Richmond — many people living their faith, proclaiming the Gospel with their words and actions, celebrating the sacraments and manifesting charity toward one another and especially those in need. We are, as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:12-27), that one Body of Christ with many dedicated, gifted, generous members.

I thank God for all you do and, as I said to our students and parishioners, I continue to pray for you at every Mass. I ask that you continue to pray for me in my new ministry here as I look forward to future “Travels” in which I will pray with and meet many more of you.

Emphasis on Ash Wednesday is our priority on Feb. 14

February 12, 2018

It was brought to my attention that Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday this year. It is newsworthy in that the last time this occurred was 1945. Because today Valentine’s Day is much more of a secular holiday, the fact that it falls on Ash Wednesday does not present the crisis of faith — “What are Catholics to do?” — as some may ask when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday of Lent. (This year, it falls on a Saturday.)

Amid the deluge of cards, candy and flowers, St. Valentine has been mostly forgotten; “Saint” doesn’t even appear in secular references to “his” day.

The feast of St. Valentine was removed from the Church’s liturgical calendar in 1969 because his origin and authenticity was questioned. The saint revered for many centuries may even have been an amalgam of several individuals, but too much was uncertain or unknown, so his feast day was removed.

The pious legend presented in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” is that St. Valentine was a priest in the third century who cured people and instructed them. According to the legend, he wrote letters from prison prior to being martyred.

What we emphasize on Ash Wednesday is far more important and enduring than the frills and the trivial many people will use to mark Feb. 14. We are marked with ashes, a sign of our sinfulness and of our willingness to repent, as well as our acceptance that everlasting life is found not on earth, but in eternity.

The words spoken as the ashes are imparted reflect those respective actions: “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15) or “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19).

Beyond that, our emphasis, as it is every Lent, is on prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Anytime is a good time to renew our prayer lives, but Lent provides an excellent time for us to fortify our prayer lives and to establish a deeper relationship with Jesus.

We not only have the Sunday Scripture readings, but you can find the daily Scripture readings at This is one of several ways to embark upon a prayerful Lenten journey.

Others include saying at least one decade of the rosary daily, and intentionally focusing upon the mystery of that decade, or participating in a parish prayer group. A key to a prayerful Lent is opening yourself to God being present and active in your heart.

Mention fasting, and you are certain to hear stories, particularly from older Catholics, about doing without particular foods and recreational activities, e.g., desserts and watching TV, respectively, during Lent. But there are other things from which we can fast — sacrifices that might be even more penitential than doing without a favorite food or form of recreation.

For example, consider fasting from gossip — something that is a destructive presence throughout our culture. Less than a month after he became pope, Pope Francis noted in a meditation at one of his daily Masses: “If, with the grace of the Spirit, we succeed in never gossiping, it will be a great and beautiful step ahead and will do everyone good.” Definitely a thought worthy of our prayer, and an action from which we need to fast, along with so many other possible bad habits or sinful actions.

There are ample opportunities on the local, national and international levels for almsgiving, e.g., mission organizations, homeless shelters, meal sites, relief efforts. In my recent visits to the regions of the diocese, I gained a deeper appreciation of the generosity of our local church and its many charitable works, as well as the many opportunities for service to the poor in our parishes. You can make this even more “Lenten” or sacrificial by contributing from your need rather than from your surplus.

Long after the Valentine’s Day cards are replaced with St. Patrick’s Day cards, and the price of Valentine’s Day candy is reduced, the prayer, fasting and almsgiving we begin on Ash Wednesday will continue to have an impact upon our own lives, as well as the lives of others. May your Lent enrich you, and may you grow closer to Our Lord during these six weeks.

Bishop Barry C. Knestout greets students following Mass in the University of Virginia Chapel, Tuesday, Jan. 23, in Charlottesville. The Mass was one of 17 regional Masses the bishop celebrated between Jan. 20 and Feb. 7. (Photo/Deborah Cox, Office of Communications)

‘Silent witness’ powerful at March for Life, beyond

January 29, 2018

I always marvel, and sometimes shake my head, when I see thousands of people watching a football game in Buffalo, Green Bay and Chicago when the temperatures are sub-freezing or sub-zero. Viewers might call them foolish; these fans call themselves dedicated.

On Friday, Jan. 19, I had the honor of joining a group that, according to some estimates, numbered more than a hundred thousand people — including the 12 buses full of participants from our diocese — for the 45th annual March for Life in Washington. I have participated in this event more than 20 times. Unlike some years, when temperatures and conditions were nasty, this year’s march was held in 40-degree weather.

No matter the weather, the participants are not foolish; they are dedicated — dedicated to protecting and promoting the sanctity of life. Unlike the aforementioned fans and teams in cold weather stadiums, the March for Life and its participants get scant, if any, coverage by the secular media. If they do, it is likely because a confrontation with pro-choice advocates occurred.

Besides the sheer number of people who participate in the March for Life annually, there are two things that make it an even more powerful statement. One is that this is a silent witness. It’s not so much because people don’t speak. They do and advocate for the unborn during the rally that preceded the march and then in the March for Life itself. No, this is silent because the popular media do not cover the March for Life as they do other social protests.

You might hear some singing and chanting or praying the rosary, but for the most part it is a silent stand — unvoiced in the popular media, but still a presence of those who hold human life, from conception to natural death, as sacred.

There are those who say we need to be more vocal about life issues. We certainly must state our views with the intensity they warrant. Yet, there is much to be said for the silent witness of those who march for life, those who silently pray not only for the victims of abortion, i.e., the babies and their mothers, but who also pray for elected officials, judicial appointees, and fellow Americans that they may understand human life must be held in highest regard in all they do.

The other thing that makes the March for Life a powerful statement is the number of Catholic youth and young adults who participate. Thanks to the efforts of our diocesan Office of Evangelization, 300 youth and young adults participated in this year’s march. That does not surprise me, as every time I have participated in this march, there have been throngs of youth and young adults.

They are not there because it is “something to do.” They are there because it is something they feel they must do. They have been formed in the faith to proclaim the Gospel with their words and actions, and this is one form of that proclamation.

These youth and young adults inspire me, as they should inspire all of us. They are busy with school, activities and work. Yet, they make a commitment to be part of this silent witness; they are willing to stand and walk silently for the unborn and other innocent people whose lives are threatened.

By the time we made it up Constitution Avenue and onto Capitol Hill, I was a little tired and had trouble staying awake on the way home. I was ready for the quiet rest of night. Yet, I was inspired by the witness of all who had gathered that Friday. They spoke by their actions and their dedication to the dignity of the unborn.

While some media outlets, by ignoring the newsworthiness of the March for Life, might desire to muzzle the voices of all who support the dignity of human life, the proclamation of the silent witnesses who marched for life spoke volumes. It is a witness we value and we need in providing dignity to all human life.

‘Home for Christmas’ has new meaning this year

December 18, 2017

As I write, an early blanket of snow is covering Virginia and the Washington area. Everything looks and feels more like Christmas — a time when thoughts naturally turn toward home.

Home! I’ve been thinking a lot about home lately. In this Advent season, I’ve been making preparations to move from the place I have lived for the vast majority of my life to a new home in Richmond.

During these past few weeks, as I have been preparing for my move to Richmond, I have experienced a lot of different emotions, They have ranged from the gratitude of being chosen by Pope Francis to be your shepherd, to sadness of having to say goodbye to the dozens of people with whom I have worked and ministered throughout my priestly and episcopal to joyfully anticipating getting to meet and build the Kingdom of God with the faithful in my new diocese.

As sadness and elation entwine themselves in my heart, I take solace in the Advent Scripture readings at Mass, as they focus us more attentively on the coming of Christ. We can imagine Joseph and Mary, heavy with child, making their way to Bethlehem, the ancient home of King David.

What were Mary and Joseph thinking as they prepared to make this trip? Joseph was concerned for the welfare of Mary and the Child she carried, the stress of the journey upon her, the apprehension about the dependability of their transportation and the safety of the road.

Mary’s attention was focused on her Child and trusting that God the Father would see them through. With the influx of people into Bethlehem, both were likely wondering, “Where will we stay?”

We know that upon reaching Bethlehem, there was no room for them at any of the inns. Instead, Our Lord had “nowhere to lay his head.” Yet without home or customary surroundings of safety and comfort, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

There is a saying that “home is where the heart is.” We know where our Lord’s heart is – within us and his body the Church. Our Lord made His home with us and his Spirit dwells within our own hearts. His heart was pierced and he poured out his love for us. We hope for this love during our Advent journey — and for this we rejoice during the season of Christmas.

As we move into the Christmas season, my thoughts are about home — the one I’m leaving and the one to which I am coming. Anyone who has ever moved from home — be it to another neighborhood, city, state or country — does not forget home. There are the roots, the formation, the friendships, and the memories that never leave us.

People ask, “Aren’t you going to miss Washington?” Certainly, but I welcome what awaits in my new home. It will be an opportunity to put down roots, and to make new friends and memories. Most importantly, it will be another opportunity to proclaim and live the Word of God among you, and to bring others home to the Church.

So, “home for Christmas” does have a different meaning for me this year. While I will be staying in Washington for the next month, saying my farewells and celebrating Christmas, my home and my heart are with you as we approach the joy of the Incarnation of Our Lord. Wishing each of you and your families a very Merry Christmas and offering prayers for our lives together in the New Year!

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