All articles are written by YJDP Student Sports Writers and edited by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.
The Church of the Nativity, located in Burke just off of Old Keene Mill Road, is not a particularly flashy place. Compared to many other parishes in the area and across the world, it’s one of the smaller and less decorated churches around. However, come Saturday evening or Sunday morning, one can expect a full house. At the 11:00 mass, the most popular among parishioners, there are consistently 100 or so people standing in the back of the church. Why are seats so hard to find here compared to other churches in the area? The booming popularity of this church can be traced to one man: Father Richard Martin, Nativity’s pastor since 1996, a man who inspired thousands with not only his words but his actions as well.
Martin was consistent in his message of love, charity and openness. He would use stories from his own life to convey these themes, but he also lived out his teachings in a way few can imagine. He was actively involved with Operation Starfish and Food for the Poor in their support of Haiti, making frequent visits to the island, including one just last month. Perhaps this is why it came as such a shock to many when he passed away on Saturday from complications of diabetes. He was 74 years old, but it still feels like he was taken from us far too soon.
An incredibly somber atmosphere was draped over the church this past weekend, one that saw 105 children receive their first communion. In his time as pastor, Martin would preside over this sacrament, and then acknowledge the recipients at subsequent masses. This time, however, he was not around to do so. Father Bill Korpi, who had given Martin the Anointing of the Sick shortly before his passing, was in tears when spreading the news to the 11:00 congregation. Rather than give a homily, Father Cedric Wilson turned the time over to the parishioners so that they could reflect on the life Martin lived and how it had impacted them. When the mass was over, both Korpi and Wilson were standing by the front entrance to help console others, although they were in even deeper sorrow themselves.
This practice of priests hanging around the exit at the conclusion of mass, open to any who have something to say to them, is common in the Roman Catholic church. However, of all the priests I’ve ever known, Martin drew by far the biggest crowds. People of all ages waited around to have a few words with him and shake his hand (he had an incredibly firm handshake, and I always remembered that about him). This greatly demonstrates his mass appeal, one that has lofted Nativity to incredible heights. In his homilies, he would often read letters written to him by parishioners who didn’t feel welcome at their old church. Perhaps they were gay, had gotten a divorce, had an abortion, or something else. Perhaps they were simply tired of a constant negative vibe that unfortunately runs rampant in many churches. Martin would not stand for this; he wanted these people back. He is known for saying that “as long as I’m here, anyone is welcome in this church.” Rather than condemn sinners, he would praise those who were making a difference. Rather than spending his homilies harping on imperfections, he spent them preaching his message of acceptance and love, openness and charity. There is a sign in the back of the Church, on the wall just left of the front entrance. It contains a quote from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” No ten words could describe Martin’s philosophy better during his time at Nativity.
From his childhood in Rhode Island to his priesthood in Virginia, Martin lived a full life. However, he left this world with unfinished business. The multimillion dollar building expansion project, which he avidly supported despite his aversion to petitioning for money, had not yet materialized (although it is still likely to be completed within a couple years). It seemed as though he was entitled to retire from priesthood alive and well, to get up in front of everyone for one last time and say thanks. I had assumed that his final mass would end in an extended standing ovation; nothing else would be fitting for a man who inspired so many people in so many ways. As it is, he is no longer with us, but his actions, words and message are alive and well, with no plans to go away any time soon.