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Local Catholic History: A Spiritual Springboard

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 05, 2013

There are important incidents, connections, sacrifices and achievements in the history of the Church in every region, in every parish. In some places that history is relatively brief, and this is certainly true of the United States. Nonetheless, today I am reflecting on the history of my own parish (All Saints in Manassas, Virginia). There are some good reasons for doing this apart from mere human interest, but I’ll return to the larger point later.

The first Catholic church in Manassas was dedicated thirteen years after the close of the Civil War. The initial parish served hundreds of square miles, an area divided into a total of six parishes over the next century and a quarter as the Catholic population continued to grow in Northern Virginia. Now All Saints is the largest parish in Virginia, served by four resident priests. Parishioners are primarily “anglo” and Hispanic, but there are other ethnic communities as well. Otherwise we would not have a Filipino choir.

Before 1929, however, there was no resident pastor, and before 1879 there was no church. Priests served the area out of the diocesan headquarters in Richmond. One of these priests, Fr. Patrick Donelan, died of heatstroke trying to reach Manassas just a year after the Civil War ended. Interestingly, our newest priest here is Fr. Jeb Donelan. I’ll have to ask him if he is related to Fr. Patrick!

In 1942, Bishop Peter Ireton invited the Stigmatine Fathers to run the parish, which they did until a decline in vocations forced them to give it up in 1993. In 1960, All Saints opened a school. But it took a significant change at the diocesan level for Manassas to become the Catholic school mecca that it is today.

In 1974, the Diocese of Richmond was in the midst of that rapid secularization of the Church which occurred in the wake of the cultural shift of the 1960s. Even so, the continuing growth of the Catholic population in Northern Virginia, fueled by the expansion of the Federal government, necessitated the division of the Diocese of Richmond by the creation of a new diocese in Arlington under Bishop Thomas Welsh.

How are diocesan priests divided up in such a split? The story goes that there was a good deal of free choice involved. Richmond had not fared well in terms of fidelity in the last years of Bishop John Russell (1958-1973), and it seemed unlikely to improve significantly under the leadership of Bishop Walter Sullivan (1974-2003). By contrast, Bishop Thomas Welsh promised to be (and in fact was) a rare champion of orthodoxy and authentic Catholic spirituality in those years. Most of the priests who cared deeply about these things chose Arlington.

Bishop Welsh undertook a long-term strategy to improve the Catholic character of the diocesan schools; moreover, Catholic independent schools were attracted to the diocese as well, beginning with the now famous Seton Junior-Senior High School under Anne Carroll in 1975. Over the next generation, Seton was followed by Holy Family Academy (1993), Good Shepherd Academy, and Renaissance Montessori School. The priests of All Saints parish have been remarkable in their insistence on including all school communities in the life of the parish, and ministering to all.

The late Fr. John Hardon, SJ, a noted Catholic author, educator and spiritual guide, used to say this to parents: “Do you want to raise your children Catholic? Then move to Manassas.” And indeed, the combination of a spiritually healthy diocese, a remarkable parish with highly dedicated priests, and a variety of deeply committed Catholic schools has attracted even more Catholic families to the area. Add the influx of a large Hispanic population and the result is a very vibrant (and demographically young) parish. Moms with small children are a signal feature of daily Mass at All Saints.

The Larger Point

We are fortunate to be at a high point of Catholic history in the Diocese of Arlington, but in the history of every parish there is at least one period of deep commitment and heroic sacrifice with which current parishioners can connect and on which they can build for the future. My larger point here is that a healthy spiritual culture always has a history, however short, which serves as an important base for genuine development. Where the spiritual culture is weak, it is necessarily true that the recent history is also weak. But there are always deeper roots which can be tapped.

In the modern world—mobile, global and highly digitized—we do not necessarily care about our Catholic history, including our regional Catholic history. In many cases, after all, this history is only really ours if we adopt it as our own, because we are so often late arrivals after having passed through a half-dozen other places. But this is both a loss and a mistake. One important way to cultivate a sense of belonging—a sense of personal association with what is good and strong and true—is to deliberately get in touch with the faith and sacrifices which produced the spiritual goods we enjoy now, the very goods we hope to develop and extend.

The point is not to become antiquarian. The point is that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 18:8), but the Church is the expression in history of that universal Presence and Identity. Each local Catholic history is really the history of every Catholic. Such a realization can and should eliminate that peculiarly modern temptation, the temptation to be merely “passing through”—as if our own pilgrimage in Christ has no communal beginning, and no communal end. The truth is that being Catholic is much more than being a disembodied voice. We need to find ways to get this into our bones. Deliberately building on our own local Catholic history is one of those ways.

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