by Jean Gonzalez
Florida Catholic/Catholic News Service
From dignitaries in horse-drawn carriages to everyday Catholics sharing the sign of peace on the basilica grounds under a Jumbotron, the celebration of four and a half centuries offered something for everyone.
Even a lesson on how Archie Bunker could be viewed as a theologian.
The St. Augustine Diocese, along with its namesake city, celebrated 450 years of faith and community Sept. 8, with festivities that began where it all started — the grounds of Mission Nombre de Dios.
Walking the footbridge toward the statue of Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who was the chaplain of Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles), the view of the 208-foot stainless steel “Great Cross” became illuminated by the early morning sun, as it does every morning.
What set the morning of Sept. 8 apart were the hundreds of pilgrims who walked the bridge to gather at the water’s edge, and the spiritual leaders taking the short sojourn.
Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine walked side-by-side with Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston.
Pope Francis named the cardinal, a Capuchin Franciscan, to be his papal envoy to the celebration by the pontiff.
One of the first events of the celebration was a re-enactment of the landing of Menendez, St. Augustine’s founder carried out by members of Florida Living History Inc.
Actors wore the authentic dress of Spanish explorers, soldiers, priests and Indians of the Timucua tribe. They arrived to the site in a chalupa, a 16th-century Spanish watercraft that ferried passengers and cargo from the tall sailing ships into a city’s harbor.
After the presentation, the faithful were invited to join dignitaries, bishops, clergy and religious for a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. Along with the cardinal and Bishop Estevez, some 17 bishops and archbishops attended the event, including Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
To add some pomp to the grand celebration, many of those shepherds boarded one of seven horse-drawn carriages for the one-mile trek from the mission to the cathedral basilica.
In one carriage were Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice; Auxiliary Bishop Martin D. Holley of Washington, who grew up in Florida’s panhandle; and Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham, Alabama. Bishop Baker, an Ohio native, who made the St. Augustine Diocese his home as a seminarian and served in several capacities within the 17-county diocese, including as rector of the cathedral basilica for 13 years.
Also aboard the carriage were two of St. Augustine’s former leaders — Bishops John J. Snyder and Victor B. Galeone.
To accommodate the large crowds anticipated for the morning Mass of thanksgiving, the diocese set up Jumbotrons at several sites outside the cathedral basilica so that Catholics could view and participate in the Mass even though there was not enough room inside.
One contingent participating in the Mass outdoors included a group of students and chaperones from All Souls School in Sanford. They attended the event to watch their pastor, Father Gilbert Medina, portray Menendez’s chaplain — Father Lopez — in the re-enactment.
Before the Mass, a Knights of Columbus color guard, dozens of deacons and some 200 priests from across Florida and Georgia processed into the cathedral basilica. At the altar stood eight Florida bishops who were concelebrants and Cardinal O’Malley, principal celebrant and homilist.
Cardinal O’Malley is no stranger to Florida. From 2002 until 2003, he was bishop of Palm Beach. He said it was his privilege to serve the state and witness the “energy and growth” offered by the dedicated clergy, religious and laity who serve God.
“This celebration is one of thanksgiving for the blessings of the past and the generous and faith-filled people who have gone before us, but it is also a moment to rededicate ourselves to the mission,” he said.
Sept. 8 not only marked the celebration of the first Mass in the “oldest European city in the United States”: The date also is the feast of the Nativity of Mary.
“How fitting that this new beginning would be initiated by celebrating a birthday party,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “Mary’s birthday is the beginning of the church, because she is Jesus’ first disciple.”
Throughout his homily, Cardinal O’Malley offered both words of wisdom, lessons of history and humorous quips. He remarked how the Gospel reading was a shorter version of St. Matthew’s Gospel that chronicles the genealogy of Jesus. He said while he prefers the full genealogy to be read, the case would only be true as long as there “is a deacon to read the Gospel, and I don’t have to struggle through those difficult to pronounce Old Testament names.”
He also mentioned how he tells people that his favorite American theologian is Archie Bunker, a comment that brought laughter from congregants inside and outside the cathedral basilica. He recalled a scene from “All in the Family” in which Archie’s son-in-law scolded Archie for making an anti-Semitic remark. When Archie was told he should be ashamed because Jesus was a Jew, Archie said, “Yes, but only on his mother’s side.”
The cardinal used the story to illustrate how the day’s Gospel reading concluded the genealogy by stating how Joseph was the foster father of Jesus. He segued to another point in the Gospel in which God speaks to Joseph in dreams, a circumstance that appeared in four episodes of the Gospels.
“It is consoling for a preacher to think that God might communicate with yawning parishioners during a sermon in which they have dozed off,” the cardinal said, adding that in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul restored the life of a man who had fell asleep during a long sermon and, as a result, plunged to his death from a windowsill.
“Fortunately, St. Paul was able to restore the young man to life, but it is very presumptuous to think that every preacher who gives a boring sermon has those same miraculous powers. So it’s better to stay awake,” he said.
While the cardinal received his share of laughs, he offered words of spiritual inspiration. He said while others might see the Catholic Church as a “church of ‘no,'” he said the Catholic community is a “church of ‘yes.'”
“Yes to God, to life, to love, to community, to service, to forgiveness. Our church began because Mary said yes to God. … When God is knocking on the door of humanity, it is Mary who opens that door in our name,” he said. “From the outside our religion can seem foreboding and mysterious, but to be inside the church is to experience the community of faith, the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus, and the excitement of a mission that challenges us to build a civilization of love.
“Our task is to invite people into the world of our faith to glimpse the beauty of a life of discipleship.”
In a letter commemorating the 450th anniversary, Bishop Estevez wrote: “The history of the very beginning of this city — the See of the Diocese of St. Augustine — can only be told against the backdrop of the religious record.
“Such a history rightly makes us proud. The heritage that has been ours for these four-plus centuries continues and calls us to renew our commitment to the new evangelization, to be proclaimers of the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed, and to bring those who have left the active practice of the faith, as well as the unchurched, to know the joy of the Gospel.”
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Gonzalez is editorial/online director in the Orlando office of the Florida Catholic newspaper, which publishes biweekly editions for the dioceses of Orlando, Palm Beach and Venice.