RICHMOND, Virginia — July 11 was the 200th anniversary of Pope Pius VII establishing the Diocese of Richmond — one of the first seven Catholic dioceses in the United States. That alone was to be celebrated that day with representatives from the diocese’s 138 parishes.

But COVID-19, as it has done for the past five months, changed plans. It necessitated the postponement of the ordination Mass for a transitional deacon in May and for two priests in June. The ordinations were included in the bicentennial Mass, which was livestreamed.

While ordinations and historic diocesan events usually fill the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart with worshippers, state-imposed limits on the size of gatherings resulted in a congregation of 230 people, including 44 priests. Social distancing was observed and masks were worn by all.

Richmond Bishop Barry C. Knestout began his homily by recalling that the first drafts of William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” were originally titled “The Second Birth.”

“The phrase ‘second coming’ sounds very apocalyptic and foreboding, but the phrase ‘second birth’ sounds hopeful and scriptural,” he said. “For our bicentennial, we ask God to grace us with a new birth, a new springtime of faith.”

Noting that in the first line of the poem, Yeats wrote “the center cannot hold,” the bishop said that it is used to describe how the political center is lost due to polarization.

“As we celebrate 200 years as a diocese, amid a time of crisis and pandemic, we are reminded as bishop, priests, deacons, consecrated and the entire people of God, that we are called to be a people always centered on Christ,” Knestout said. “We are called to be people holding the center — seeking union and communion with God and one another.”

There is no place for self-centeredness, nor for centeredness focused on ideas, ideology, movements and activities, the bishop said.

“We can only find and hold the center when we are centered on Christ,” he said. “Our local church of Richmond has a long, significant and fruitful history, as it is centered in Christ.”

Knestout provided a brief explanation of the diocese’s early days, noting it had always been “on the periphery, not the center.”

“Our parishes have for most of our history been small, far flung and poor,” he said. “But this, oddly enough, without a large influential Catholic culture and Catholic population, has allowed us — has required of us — to place Christ and his church very much at our center.”

Catholics persevered in faith, according to the bishop, despite chronic challenges from shortage of priests, insufficient funds, Civil War and the “social ills of racism and religious bigotry.”

“In good times or bad, God has never abandoned us,” Knestout said. “Moved by this conviction, Catholics respond to the needs around us by making sacrifices for the sake of the church, for the poor and for the common good by seeking ways to alleviate the pain of others. As we grapple with the pandemic and political and cultural turmoil, we are strengthened to serve others and give witness to our faith.”

The bishop reiterated the diocese’s bicentennial theme of communion and mission as he spoke about those to be ordained.

“As we celebrate our communion centered in Christ and strengthened by this communion to go out on mission to the peripheries in charity, service and evangelization, it is fitting that we also ordain those who will serve this church as a deacon and priests,” Knestout said.

He noted that communion and mission were central to the ministry of the ordained.

“By these two inspirations and focuses, the people of God and the people of Virginia are led to a new birth, a new springtime of faith. This new birth begins in labor, in challenges, in suffering,” Knestout said. “It begins in the suffering and messiness of struggle and want, battered and tempted by the allure of isolating independence. And seeking grace to overcome temptations toward rebellious passions, we always return to the center, to Christ, to communion.”

Olszewski is the editor of The Catholic Virginian, newspaper of the Diocese of Richmond.