Periodically, every historic diocese has a major anniversary. For many outsiders, the event might not seem like much. But for those within the diocese, especially those who know the scrapes and scars of ministry, the anniversary is an occasion to give public thanks to God and to reinvigorate energies and efforts toward a deeper commitment.
Case in point: This weekend, the Diocese of Charleston (which is my home diocese where I serve as a priest) is celebrating its 200th anniversary.
This second centennial is being commemorated on a weekend in which the Church’s liturgical cycle of readings gives us the Parable of the Sower and Seed. The parable is timely and apropos to any anniversary celebration, since it describes the real struggles and sufferings of nurturing the seed of God’s word and allowing it to flourish.
The Lord Jesus warns us about the seed that’s eaten by birds, the seed that’s dried up by the sun, and the seed choked by thorns. The threats are tangible. But some seeds land in rich soil where they take root and prosper.
The Lord calls for our hearts and homes (and dioceses) to be rich soil for the living word of God. Such a summons is not easy. Rich soil is not a given. It has to be cultivated and prepared. It has to stay open and allow itself to be broken. Only in this way, can soil be rich and ready for an abundant harvest.
Two centuries ago, while Pope Pius VII was dealing with the threats and harassment of Napoleon, he found the time to sign a decree formally establishing another diocese in the English-speaking portions of the United States. The original diocese included South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia, as well as portions of the Bahamas.
The joke today being, we can understand letting North Carolina and Georgia go, but why the Bahamas?
The new diocese was expansive and limited in resources. It appeared that the seed might have fallen prey to the birds, or the sun, or the thorns. But appearances can be deceiving.
After establishing the new diocese, the pope named John England of County Cork, Ireland, the first Bishop of Charleston. It took the new prelate over five months to cross the Atlantic and make his way. When he arrived, he had a small handful of priests, very few religious, and no money. It seemed the rich soil was an unattainable inheritance.
But the soil is only what we make it.
And so, England assessed the terrain, evaluated his vision, collated his human and material resources, and launched one of the most aggressive and extensive evangelization and pastoral outreaches of the Church in the United States. He proved himself an indomitable shepherd, with boundless ardor and a tenacious initiative for the things of the Gospel and of the Church.
The young Bishop England had every possible reason and excuse to accept defeat, settle for the status quo, compromise the mission for mere maintenance, and neglect the growth of the faith and the expansion of her evangelical services. Yes, the birds were circling, the sun was beating, and the thorns were overgrown.
The seed was in danger. England could have let it go. Clergymen of lesser talent and drive would have let it go, but not John England and the young diocese entrusted to his care.
England traveled throughout his diocese by horseback, sought reform of his small band of clergy, founded the diocesan order of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy (the OLM’s), and empowered the sisters to become the real backbone evangelizers of the Carolinas and Georgia.
He launched the first Catholic newspaper, initiated the building of churches throughout the vast diocese, orchestrated circuits for the clergy, traveled throughout the United States to raise funds for the diocese, wrote a catechism, founded a seminary, fought against religious bigotry, and addressed the US House of Representatives on the principal beliefs of Catholicism.
In addition, and far before his time, England welcomed regular synods of clergy and laity to help address and resolve issues in the diocese. In many ways, and provoking the suspicion of some of his brother bishops at the time, he predated himself and tried to implement what is now called “synodality.”
England knew that if the Church was going to survive, every member had to be a part of the vision and mission of the diocese. This shaped all of his decisions. It’s what allowed the young diocese to be rich soil for the Word of God.
It was the secret to England’s success, and the foundation from which all his endeavors were launched.
John England was the Bishop of Charleston for twenty-two years. After him, many other talented bishops, clergy, religious, and laity followed and built upon what he started. It is this long chain of unbroken faith and service that has guided the Diocese of Charleston to its 200th anniversary.
It’s these realities, far beyond buildings and programs, that are the true monuments and cause of celebration in South Carolina this weekend.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby