At the gateway to the D.C. Beltway, on the road bound for the corridors of politics, stands a cathedral named for a politician saint. Overlooking busy Route 50 in Virginia, a main artery into downtown Washington, stands Arlington’s St. Thomas More Cathedral. A life-size statue of Jesus stands on a pedestal over the road, arms outstretched in blessing. Unobtrusive, many commuters might not even notice the cathedral, but it is a vital leaven for society in the shadow of our nation’s capital.
The cathedral is a “home away from home” for many northern Virginia Catholics who work for the federal government and are temporarily assigned to Washington. The State Department’s Foreign Service Institute is just across the street, and Catholic diplomats often make St. Thomas their home parish while in Washington for domestic assignments or language training.
The Diocese of Arlington is relatively young: Pope Paul VI erected it in 1974, carving 21 counties in northern Virginia out of the Diocese of Richmond, which had previously encompassed all of Virginia and part of West Virginia. The young diocese arose because of growth in the metropolitan Washington region, and it continues to grow: Bishop Paul Loverde is one of the few American ordinaries who regularly opens rather than closes churches. In 1974, there were about 144,000 Catholics in the diocese; by 2000, the Catholic population had more than doubled to 369,000 souls. Currently, according to the Arlington Diocese website, registered Catholics total 453,916.
This phenomenal growth isn’t something novel. When the Key and Memorial Bridges opened in the 1920s and 1930s, northern Virginia was already on its way to becoming a suburban community for Washington. St. Thomas More Cathedral predates its diocese, having started out as an ordinary parish church in 1938. The present church building dates from 1960-61. Prior to its construction, parishioners worshipped in the school auditorium, now Lee Hall. Although not the oldest church in the diocese (St. Mary’s in Alexandria, dating from 1795, claims that honor), it is the largest church in Arlington, thus making it the best choice for the cathedral.
Like its patron, whose feast day is June 22, this parish inspires loyalty. While a portion of its population changes regularly, reflecting the transitory nature of many Washington assignments, the cathedral has a stable local base in a residential, mixed-use neighborhood. Students stay committed to its school, too. St. Thomas More Cathedral School is the first school in the diocese to earn a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon certification. Fitting, considering Thomas More said, “One of the greatest problems of our time is that many are schooled but few are educated.”
Priestly loyalty has also been important: In its 70-plus-year history, the church has had only six pastors. Laid out in a brick cruciform pattern, the church has gradually adapted to the demands of a cathedral. New stained glass has been added, and the sanctuary was reconfigured to accommodate the needs of the cathedra; a crypt was built below the altar, too (containing the remains of the second bishop of Arlington, John Keating). Not just the mother church of the diocese, St. Thomas More is an active local parish. Six Masses are celebrated each weekend (including one in Spanish to meet the needs of northern Virginia’s booming Hispanic population). The parish choir sings almost every weekend (at 11am), and the music director, Richard Gibala, is a world-class liturgical musician. The parish hosts an active young people’s apologetics group (for folks 18-40), which meets every Sunday after the 5pm Mass, dinner included.
The Diocese of Arlington has been characterized by vibrant fidelity to the Holy See and the vigorous promotion of vocations. The presence in the diocese of such institutions as Christendom College testifies to the encouragement of faith and reason by diocesan authorities. In addition, its new high school, Pope John Paul the Great High School, graduates its first class this June. Like St. Thomas More himself, Virginia Catholics know how to stand firm when necessary.
In the 1570s, Jesuit Father John Baptista de Segura died a martyr’s death at Indian hands in what is present-day Virginia. Later, a few Catholics from neighboring Maryland worshipped in the Commonwealth of Virginia while trying to stay off the local religious radar. In the 1840s, Bishop Richard Whelan recruited Irish clergy for Virginia, fully public about the arduous life facing a priest in the state. Apart from the Washington area, the Catholic population is limited; as late as the 1950s, the Diocese of Richmond could not find anybody to sell it land for a church in Luray (the site of the famous caverns) because of local anti-Catholic sentiment.
Thomas More remains a prime example of perseverance through these and other trials, because “earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal,” as he aptly put it. Perhaps no better patron could have been found for a diocese on Washington’s doorstep than St. Thomas More. As the current fight over paying for abortion-causing drugs under Obamacare shows, the days when one’s convictions of conscience run afoul of the incumbent ruler’s policies are far from over. Thomas More remains a fitting patron for those who believe that, nevertheless, a good Catholic should be “the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”
Faced with a choice between his political fortunes and his faith convictions, St. Thomas never broke; he never compromised the essentials of his faith, although that decision eventually brought him to the executioner at King Henry VIII’s orders. As he said, “If honor were profitable, everybody would be honorable.”
He knew that faith must be lived courageously. As he said, “What does it avail to know that there is a God, which you not only believe by faith, but also know by reason … if you think little of him?”
St. Thomas More, pray for us!
John M. Grondelski writes from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.