Two days less than 50 years after the Most Rev. Robert Emmet Tracy was installed as the first bishop of the Diocese of Baton Rouge on Nov. 8, 1961, thousands of area Catholics filled the downtown River Center’s Arena on Sunday to celebrate the closing of the Diocese’s Jubilee with a commemorative Mass.
“We’ve had a wonderful year of celebration,” said the diocese’s fifth and current bishop, the Most Rev. Robert W. Muench, before the hourslong service.
“We celebrate who we are, and where we’ve come from, and now the question is ‘how can we do better, how can we meet new responsibilities, new opportunities, new challenges? How can we serve society? These are things we have been doing and will continue to do,” he said.
The arena was transformed into a cathedral with banners hanging from the high ceiling, a raised pulpit in the middle of the floor, a red-carpeted stage overlaid with a white cross and bedecked with church furniture at one end and an orchestra and choir at the other end.
The Rev. Tom Ranzino, pastor of St. Jean Vianney Church and director of worship, welcomed the crowd and reminded them there would be a celebration of the sacrament and because it was Sunday, “it counts,” to a round of applause.
Deacon Dan Borne and local Catholic TV host Dina Martinez told stories of the diocese’s history and introduced the service’s seven processions.
When the service began the arena was only half-full but gradually it filled completely with thousands of people participating in the processions.
The first was the introduction of the nation’s, state’s and Vatican’s flags presented by members of the 769th Engineering Battalion Tigergators of the Louisiana National Guard and the Louisiana State Police.
Delegations from each of the diocese’s 68 parishes entered in chronological order bearing their banners, beginning with St. Francis of Pointe Coupee in New Roads, established in 1728.
“It was nice, I enjoyed it,” said Bearl Scieneaux, one of the men bearing the banner for St. Catherine of Siena of Donaldsonville.
“We are running a relay for God,” added his banner mate, August “A.J.” Gomez.
“This is a great thing for our diocese to celebrate 50 years,” said J.J. LaPlace, representing St. Gabriel Church in St. Gabriel.
Procession three included hundreds of members of 37 congregations of religious men and women including many sisters’ and priests’ orders.
Students representing the diocese’s 23 elementary, and eight Catholic high schools entered in one door, paraded around the floor, waved to their cheering friends and family, and then took their seats, filling the upper decks.
The diocese’s 14 seminarians garnered a standing ovation as they proceeded through the crowd.
One of Bishop Muench’s stated goals is enlisting more priests to fill dozens of empty pulpits. The crowd appreciated the young men’s vocational intent.
The Diocesan organizations of Knights and Auxiliaries and Societies came next followed by the 151 employees of the diocese in its various services and ministries.
The final, liturgical procession featured all the priests in white and gold trimmed robes followed by ten bishops, Bishop Muench, and the service’s homilist, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Alfred C. Hughes, the fourth bishop of Baton Rouge.
“It was in 1961 that you became the 37th daughter diocese of New Orleans in a family that now includes 48 daughter dioceses,” said Hughes in his sermon. “You are indeed born in ‘the spirit of faith’ as the theme you have chosen for this Jubilee expresses so well.”
Hughes reviewed the history of past bishops, described how they each put their stamp on the diocese and explained how Bishop Muench is expanding the diocese’s evangelism ministries.
Hughes also described how the diocese has historically been populated with Native Americans, Africans — “who came mostly as slaves at first,” the Spanish, the Cajuns who escaped the “Derangement Acadien,” French, Germans and Eastern Europeans who fled the Nazis and the Communists, Irish, English, the Vietnamese in the 1970’s and the current influx of Spanish-speaking Hispanics.
“I suspect that no diocese in Louisiana, including New Orleans, has been more successful at bringing together people of such diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds into one body — Christ’s church,” Hughes said.
The diocese had invited members of other faiths and denominations to attend the mass and representatives were scattered throughout the crowd.
Mae C. McGuffery, representing Star Hill Baptist Church, said, “I think it’s wonderful they are inviting other religions to come to this program and embrace the entire community. We are all believers.”