Accepting the Great Commission for 200 years

The Eucharistic Congress Mass at St. Peter Pro-Cathedral, Richmond, Saturday, Nov. 7, was livestreamed. It can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3pdWDXa. Due to COVID-19, most of the congress was done virtually. (Photo/Michael Mickle)

Editor’s note: This column is based upon the homily Bishop Knestout delivered at the Eucharistic Congress Mass, Saturday, Nov. 7, at St. Peter Pro-Cathedral, Richmond. Hear the entire homily here.

Over the last many months, we as Catholics of the Diocese of Richmond have been celebrating with joy our bicentennial jubilee. For this celebration, we have been reflecting together on our communion in Christ, as well as our mission of evangelization and charity manifested to our neighbors, nations and the world around us. Our desire to highlight the goodness and beauty of our faith expressed over 200 years has been constantly before us.

In the Gospel (Mk 16:15-20), we hear of the Great Commission. The disciples are instructed, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”

Before he began his mission on earth to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God, Christ was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit, where he was tempted by the devil. Jesus contends with and drives out the demons who would pull him away from his communion with the Father and dissuade him from his mission of salvation.

The Gospel mentions the signs that will accompany the disciples:

“They will drive out demons.” For over 200 years, the people of the Church of Richmond have transformed the unforgiving, hostile wilderness and vast territory of the diocese into a refuge of the presence of God.

“They will speak new languages.” For over 200 years, the Church of Richmond has taught the faith and celebrated the sacraments in many languages, responding to the needs of native-born and immigrants alike.

“They will pick up serpents with their hands.” For over 200 years, the Church of Richmond has brought the unity of the faith to the chaotic, broken world so that the power of God would conquer everything that harms the dignity of the human person.

“They will lay hands of the sick, and they will recover.” For over 200 years, the Church of Richmond has ministered to the weak, vulnerable and sick, bringing the healing power of the sacraments and the comfort of our faith in times of conflict, pestilence and pandemic.

For over 200 years, the people of the Church of Richmond have gathered in our parishes to share communion with God and one another, and carry out in faith, hope and love the Church’s mission.

In Isaiah 2:1-5 we have a vivid, consoling image of the nations, the whole world, streaming toward Mount Zion, toward the temple, toward the place of perfect and full worship of God, toward the place where God dwells with his people and they receive his grace and blessings.

At the same time, we hear in Isaiah how instruction and proclamation are emanating from that same temple mount, from Zion, going out to the whole world.

We have presented before us today a vision of a great world-wide movement of people and instruction that transforms a world filled with anxiety and strife into a place where peace and joy is experienced — a place where swords are beaten into plowshares, a place where the instruments of politics and war, which cause suffering and strife, are placed at the service of nourishing and supporting the human family.

This great gathering of all peoples and this great proclamation of instruction and grace are like that daily rhythm that accompanies our whole lives, of breathing in and out, inhaling and exhaling deeply the air that sustains our life.

In Word and Sacrament, by our communion with God and one another, we breathe into our lives the clean, life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit. In our mission to proclaim the Good News, we breathe out to others the power and effect of the Holy Spirit.

But, in our own day, in our effort and desire to proclaim and share the Good News, we confront a great burden and obstacle. The pandemic pushes us toward isolation and quarantine. Our communion and mission are only accomplished with hesitation and anxiety for fear of spreading the virus.

To limit the spread, we are very familiar with the admonition to keep a social distance and to use face coverings. This is a metaphor of a veil covering and hindering our ability to communicate, to be in communion and to share our faith. Spiritually, this is what sin and death do. They hinder us in becoming one in mind and heart.

In the prophet Isaiah, he returns to the theme of the holy mountain. He says on this holy mountain God will destroy the veil that veils all peoples. He will destroy death forever.

How does God do this? By the passage of his Son from this life, through his passion and death to resurrection. As the synoptic Gospels indicate, at the death of Christ, the curtain of the temple, the veil that shields the glory of God from the eyes of men, was torn in two. The veil of death was destroyed forever. With Christ we can gaze upon the face of God and live.

Where do we encounter the Holy of Holies today? In the Eucharist!

Each of us makes a passage from death to life in our encounter with Christ. We do so in baptism, in the coming of the Holy Spirit at confirmation and by being nourished with Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist. In these sacraments of initiation, we experience communion and are called into mission.

In Latin, the Mass is ended with the words: Ite Missa est. It is from these words that we take the name for the eucharistic celebration — the Mass! It is with these words that we send the community out in mission to proclaim the Good News.

We are instructed to go out to the world, witness to our faith and invite those we encounter into intimacy with God — the same intimacy we experience through the Word and the Sacraments.

Our faith instructs us that the remedy for death and all its manifestations in sin, weakness and suffering is Christ himself. The remedy for sin and death is his Paschal Mystery. We experience and encounter this remedy in our participation in the Eucharist.

What a blessing we have in the treasure of this gift from God. In the Eucharist, we begin the life of heaven. We make a passage from spiritual death to life. We are nourished in the presence and glory of God. By our reception of the Eucharist and by our and adoration of the Lord present in his Body and Blood, we taste the first fruits of heaven.

In 1876, in the rectory of this church, the first cathedral, at the desk that remains to this day in a room near the entrance to this church, the bishop of Richmond at that time, James Gibbons (later Cardinal Gibbons), wrote his famous treatise on the Catholic Faith: “Faith of Our Fathers.”

In this work, he summarized our Catholic faith for the many Catholic families as well as the many non-Catholics he encountered in this diocese. This book would have an influence in spreading the faith among Catholics and other men and women of good will for many years to come. In “Faith of Our Fathers,” Gibbons says this about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist:

“When a Priest celebrates Mass, he honors God, he rejoices the angels, he edifies the Church, he helps the living, he obtains rest for the dead, and makes himself a partaker of all that is good.

“With what awe and grateful love should we assist at this Sacrifice? The angels were present at Calvary. Angels are present also at Mass. If we cannot assist with the seraphic love and rapt attention of the angelic spirits, let us worship, at least, with the simple devotion of the shepherds of Bethlehem and the unswerving faith of the Magi.

“Let us offer to our God the golden gift of a heart full of love and the incense of our praise and adoration, repeating often during the holy oblation the words of the Psalmist: ‘The mercies of the Lord I will sing forever.’”

We are grateful as we celebrate 200 years of faith and charity in the Commonwealth of Virginia that in communion with God and with one another, and in fulfilling the Church’s mission, we have assisted in the work of the Church to transform our culture and commonwealth to image more beautifully, more fully, the Gospel and the love of Christ.

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