Saint Joseph’s Church, Rileyville – 150th Anniversary – August 22, 2021
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – B 

It’s a real privilege for me to gather with all of you this day to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Saint Joseph’s Church for many reasons.

One of the advantages of being a bishop in one’s home diocese is that I’m familiar with the area and far more familiar with people and places than I would have ever imagined.  So today, this celebration takes me back to when I was a young boy.  For 50 years until he passed 17 years ago tomorrow, my dad belonged to a hunting club in Equinunk.  Often, when I’d stay with him at the lodge or when our family would have reunions there, Sunday mornings would always find us at Mass here in Saint Joseph’s.  Thanks for welcoming us then and thanks for this opportunity to remember a wonderful time in my life years ago.

But this celebration is not about me.  It’s about you – a community of faithful Catholics who have made this Church your home for 150 years.  I hope that as I recalled events in my life that unfolded in this church, you began to think of similar events in your own lives.  A baptism – First Holy Communion – a wedding – the burial of someone you love – the celebration of Christmas or Easter or some special event in your life or that of this community.

I think it’s interesting that for all of the memories that are likely flooding the minds and hearts of all of us who gather this morning, I suspect that when we recall events that have taken place in our lives in relationship to Saint Joseph’s Church, we are more likely to recall certain people than merely a place – perhaps a priest, a sister, a relative, a neighbor or a friend.  And no matter the nature of our recollection, at the heart of each of these events, more than you might realize, are likely to be found the deepest mysteries of our faith and the Eucharist itself.

Our late Holy Father, Saint John Paul II noted this about the parish, which certainly applies to the community here at Saint Joseph’s: “The parish is not principally a structure, a territory or a building, but rather ‘the family of God, a fellowship afire with a unifying spirit,’ ‘a familial and welcoming home,’ the ‘community of the faithful …  the place where the very ‘mystery’ of the Church is present and at work.

Suddenly when we hear those lofty words of our Holy Father; when we realize that at the heart of the memories rushing into our thoughts today is nothing less than the mystery of the Church and the power and presence of God, this anniversary celebration reminds us of much, much more than merely a building.

First, this celebration reminds us of who we are as Catholic Christians.  We are joined together by our Baptism into Christ and through His presence in the Eucharist.  That means that through the mystery and power of God, we are a part of the communion of saints, the saints of this world and the next.  We are bound to every soul who has ever prayed in this sacred space.  We are bound together because of the Eucharist that we celebrate which enables us to proclaim: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Yet there is another reason why we celebrate today.  This celebration reminds us of our need to engage a power in life bigger than ourselves.  We know that power to be God – who has spoken to us during the pandemic that we continue to confront, reminding us that we are not in control.  No, that belongs to the God whom we praise and adore this day:  Jesus, our Lord!

And there is still one more reason why we celebrate this day.  We celebrate the nourishment that we receive through the Holy Eucharist for mission.  …  And right here in Rileyville, look at the mission that you’ve embraced for the past 150 years.  You have celebrated life and called one another to a profound respect for that sublime gift.  You have taught people about our faith.  You have fed families and clothed the poor.  You have healed bodies and spirits, consoled, buried and converted hearts to the Lord.   You have done Christ’s work.

Today’s gospel passage chosen by the Church for this 21st Week in Ordinary Time could not be more appropriate for our celebration.  Many of Jesus’ followers were having a difficult time understanding his teaching about the Eucharist and its roots in the cross – the suffering and death that Jesus would inevitably face.  …  And a lot of his followers walked away.  In the face of that exodus, Jesus asked his disciples a sobering question:  “What about you?  Do you also want to leave?”  And Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

That’s a pretty timely and relevant question for us, isn’t it?  …  In the midst of a world that increasingly challenges the value of our religious beliefs, people leave the Church for all sorts of reasons.  …  But you’ve chosen to stay.  You stay because in spite of all of the imperfections of its members, it is through the power of God at work in the lives of the members of this Church that you have found hope and peace and a reason to move forward in your lives.

Father Langan recently shared with me a booklet that was printed on the occasion of Saint Joseph’s 125th anniversary.  In addition to the history of your community and wonderful pictures that tell so much of your story, I was struck by a section entitled “Memories of Saint Joseph’s” that contained recollections of many of the priests who served here over the years.  These recollections were summed up best in this quote:  “I can readily say that my strongest memory is one of a people who were so exceptionally kind and helpful and who expressed a deep faith in God and love of Church.”

My friends, it’s pretty obvious that you stay a part of this church because of your faith – a faith that enables you to see and experience signs of hope and signs of God’s life, his mercy and his love.  What a blessing!

So, as we gather in prayer to celebrate the Eucharist, may we also hold in our prayers this community of believers who have lived the faith of Jesus Christ for 150 years.  And may our prayer be one of gratitude and hope:  gratitude for all that has been and hope for what will be through the grace and goodness of God.