Giving thanks: thousands celebrate diocese's 50th anniversary

North Texas Catholic
(Aug 23, 2019) Local

Bishop Michael Olson elevates the host as Bishop Kevin Vann concelebrates the Fort Worth Diocese 50th Anniversary Mass, Wednesday Aug. 21, 2019 at the Convention Center in downtown Fort Worth. (NTC/Ben Torres)

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FORT WORTH — After traveling two hours in rush hour traffic, parishioners from St. Mary Church in Windthorst processed into the Fort Worth Convention Center Arena with their blue and white church banner, then patiently waited for the anniversary Mass to begin.

The group, along with thousands of other Catholics from across North Texas, gathered Aug. 21 to mark the establishment of the Diocese of Fort Worth 50 years ago by the late Pope Paul VI. Since then the 28-county diocese has flourished not only in the number of Catholics, parishes, and schools, but in the rich cultural diversity of its people.

Surrounded by fellow Catholics from small rural farm communities, large urban areas, Spanish speakers, and those wearing the native garb of homelands in Tonga, Vietnam, or Ghana, Jean Berend didn’t let the sweeping spirit of the moment go unnoticed.

“This is us. This is our faith and we’re all part of it,” gushed the St. Mary parishioner looking up at the swell of 3,000 people in the arena. “We’re Catholic and we’re proud. We should be shouting that from the rooftop.”

St. Mary's of Windthorst, Texas, enters the Fort Worth diocese anniversary Mass, celebrating 50 years of ministry in North Texas, Wednesday Aug. 21, 2019 at the Convention Center in downtown Fort Worth. (NTC/Ben Torres)

Although the diocese comprises different ministries and people, the Eucharist is a unifying factor — a point echoed in the evening’s theme, “The Eucharist Makes Us the Church.”

“The Eucharist is the constant presence of Christ,” Bishop Michael Olson told the North Texas Catholic. “We have so many gifted people, talents, and a great grace in our diversity, but at the heart of it all is a unity and communion that Jesus offers us in Himself.”

Fifty years is just a series of “nows,” he pointed out, referencing the milestone anniversary.

By knowing God intimately, the diocese can prepare for the future Christ has planned for it.

“We start today in prayer and thanksgiving, and ask Him for guidance,” the bishop added.

Constant growth has defined the 23,950-square-mile Diocese of Fort Worth since its beginning. When the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth split into two entities, a mere 75,000 Catholics belonged to 66 parishes in North Texas. Today the diocese boasts a burgeoning 1.2 million self-identified Catholics.

Joe Culotta believes his uncle, the late Bishop Joseph Cassata, was appointed as the new diocese’s first leader to spur its growth.

“He was really good at business and I think he was sent to develop and help the Catholic community to grow,” said the Houston resident who attended the Mass with another Cassata relative, Dorann Fruia, and her husband, Joe. “I remember him telling me, ‘I’m here to do God’s work and take care of the Catholic population.’”

During his tenure from 1969 until retirement in 1980, Bishop Cassata gave approval for 12 new parishes as the Catholic population increased to 93,500.

“He was interested in education, helping the marginalized, and had a knack for getting along with people,” Culotta recalled. “Cassata High School is a good way to honor him.”

Seminarians lead the procession of the Fort Worth Diocese 50th Anniversary Mass, Wednesday Aug. 21, 2019 at the Convention Center in downtown Fort Worth. (NTC/Ben Torres)

A presentation of banners by representatives of the 19 schools and 91 parishes in the diocese helped those present visualize how large and inclusive the local Church has become.

Isabel and Gabriel Velasco were chosen to bring in the flag belonging to St. Benedict — one of the newer parishes.

The youngsters were specifically chosen because “Father [Karl Pikus] wanted people to know that it wasn’t just older Catholics who are attracted to the Latin Mass,” said the girl’s father, Ferdinand Velasco. “We have a lot of young families in the parish, too.”

St. Benedict’s brief history demonstrates just how fast the diocese is growing. Opened in 2015, the parish is already experiencing overflow crowds at its two Sunday Masses.

“We thought it would take time to catch on,” admitted Velasco, a member of the parish’s Gregorian chant choir. “The growth of the Catholic community in North Texas is exponential and it’s not just the population growing. We have many people entering the Church on Easter Vigil as well.”

Rousing music from St. Patrick Cathedral’s Spanish choir set a festive tone as attendees took their seats. The Nolan High School choir and St. Michael Parish children's choir also added their voices during the prelude and communion meditation.

Lisa Squibbs brought her four young children to the Mass so they could witness the Catholic Church as a universal faith.

“I wanted them to experience the different cultures and see everyone come together,” said the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishioner.

To the majestic strains of “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” performed by a 100-member diocesan choir, members of the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and the Order of Malta entered the arena-turned-worship space during a liturgical procession. They were followed by 21 bishops, 96 priests, and 35 deacons. All 30 seminarians for the Diocese of Fort Worth also played a role in the liturgy. 

Greeted with a special welcome from Bishop Olson before the Mass began were the Metropolitan Archbishop of San Antonio Gustavo Garcia-Siller; Orange County Bishop Kevin Vann, who served as the third bishop of Fort Worth; Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo, Colorado, a former diocesan priest here; and Auxiliary Bishop Gregory Kelly representing Dallas Bishop Edward Burns. Fort Worth was part of the Dallas diocese prior to 1969.

All four bishops concelebrated the Mass with Bishop Olson.

Bishop Michael Olson gives Holy Communion to the Tongan community who brought up the gifts at the Fort Worth Diocese 50th Anniversary Mass, Wednesday Aug. 21, 2019 at the Convention Center in downtown Fort Worth. (NTC/Ben Torres)

“It is truly a blessing to be the Deacon of the Word in the most beautiful way — celebrating the most Holy Eucharist,” said newly ordained Deacon Pedro Martinez, who read the Gospel (Matt. 20:1–16) in Spanish. “I’m honored and blessed to be part of this 50th anniversary celebration.”

When his family moved to Fort Worth from Mexico 18 years ago, the diocese provided pastoral and spiritual care to them primarily through access to a Spanish Mass.

“Let us continue to pray that the Diocese of Fort Worth can proclaim and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ — all of it,” he said.

Sister Theresa Y Thi Tran, expressed a similar sentiment. Her congregation, the Lovers of the Holy Cross, arrived here in 2017 from Vietnam to assist Vietnamese Martyrs parishioners.

“We wanted to come here today to thank God for everything He’s done for the diocese,” she said. “The people in the diocese are special to us because they accepted us for ministry.”

In his homily, Bishop Olson noted the anniversary liturgy coincided with the memorial of Saint Pius X. The former pontiff, known as the Pope of the Blessed Sacrament, served during the bloodiest century in human history.

“Pope St. Pius X cared for the people of God not as a politician or as a diplomat, but as a pastor who sought to restore all things in Christ,” he said. “He called the Church back into the reality of the mystery of the Eucharist in its real presence of Christ: the Eucharist frequently received with reverence and devotion and offered with simplicity and beauty.”

The bishop urged his listeners to contemplate anew the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

“By taking Him for granted, we end up grasping for things in selfishness and in the darkness of entitlement instead of belonging to Christ and each other as the Church,” he warned.

Using words written by Pope Francis, Bishop Olson also used the occasion to acknowledge and express appreciation to those priests who faithfully and generously spend their lives in service to others. Many make their lives a “work of mercy” for the sake of the Gospel in areas that are often hostile, isolated, or ignored.

Bishop Michael Olson processes out after the Fort Worth Diocese 50th Anniversary Mass, Wednesday Aug. 21, 2019 at the Convention Center in downtown Fort Worth. (NTC/Ben Torres)

“I know this to be true of you, not only as your bishop, but as a priest of this diocese who has served with you for more than 25 years,” he said.

One of those priests, Monsignor Publius Xuereb joined the diocese 50 years ago, serving under all four Fort Worth bishops. A chance meeting with Bishop Cassata in Dallas when he was 25 brought the native of Malta to the United States and Texas in 1969. He remembers when there was no DFW Airport or Highway 121 and only wide-open spaces north of St. George Parish in Haltom City. The chancery office was one room in the basement of a building at St. Patrick Cathedral.

“There were very few parishes and only cows from Nolan High School to Dallas,” joked the pastor of Holy Redeemer who also served 10 other parishes. “The diocese has grown a lot — unbelievably.”

The 75-year-old monsignor has fond memories of all the bishops he worked under. Bishop Joseph P. Delaney, the second bishop of Fort Worth, died in 2005 and was succeeded by Bishop Vann.

“I loved them all. They were all good and had their own particular gifts to offer,” he observed.

Each bishop helped the diocese flourish.

“We’re having a celebration today because of Cassata, Delaney, Vann, and Olson,” the monsignor said emphatically. “I thank God for them.”

Ringers from the bell choirs at St. Patrick, Good Shepherd, St. Andrew, and Holy Family closed the liturgy with a stirring rendition of “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

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