Bishop Stika: A man of ‘peace’ and ‘prayer’ now leads the Catholic Church

Bishop Richard F. Stika speaks to members of the media March 13 following the election of Pope Francis. Photo by Dan McWilliams

Bishop Richard F. Stika speaks to members of the media March 13 following the election of Pope Francis.
Photo by Dan McWilliams

Describing the Church’s new leader as a man of peace and prayer, Bishop Richard F. Stika spoke March 13 to the Knoxville media soon after Pope Francis was introduced to the world.

Just as Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was surprising, so was the relatively quick election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as his successor. Bishop Stika had said in a March 12 TV interview that he thought the College of Cardinals would elect a new pope on Friday, March 15, after being in conclave since March 12.

“In all my wisdom I said it would occur on Friday. It just shows that I am not infallible.,” Bishop Stika said with self-deprecating humor during the March 13 press conference at the Chancery. “I, along with many people throughout the world, was surprised to hear that what on supposedly seems to be the fifth ballot that the cardinal electors took, that they elected a cardinal from Buenos Aires in Argentina, who now has taken the name Francis.

“What’s interesting about this is this is the first time in over a thousand years that a pope has been elected from an area outside of Europe; in fact, the first time a pope has been elected from what is called the New World.”

The bishop asked, “What do we know about this 266th pope, the 265th successor of St. Peter?”

“He’s a member of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. He was a professor of literature and philosophy. He also has a degree in chemistry. He lives a very simple life in Buenos Aires. He doesn’t live in the archbishop’s residence; he lives in an apartment and he cooks for himself, and he takes the bus to work. He’s a man of prayer. He’s considered beloved in Argentina because he has this great love of the poor, and it’s known throughout his nation.”

Bishop Stika said Pope Francis “is a man of peace, but especially he’s a man of prayer.”

“Right after his election, right after his introduction to the whole world as he came out onto the balcony, he invited that crowd of over a hundred thousand people and in reality, the whole world, to pray for Benedict, his predecessor. So they prayed the Our Father, the common prayer that exists between all of Christianity, and then he did something very special.

“He invited all the people in St. Peter’s Square, and in fact in the entire world, to pray over him, for he invited the people to give him their blessing. And so this man who now is a head of state and head of an organization of 1.2 billion—he bowed his head and invited the people to pray over him.”

That “gives a great indication of who Pope Francis will be in the years to come,” Bishop Stika said.

“He will be a man of prayer, he will be the face of Jesus, and he will invite all of us to be a people of prayer, and he will invite all of us to be reflections of God in all that we do and all that we say. So I invite Catholics of the Diocese of Knoxville and really all people of good will to pray for this great man who now will lead the Catholic Church, but in some ways, lead Christianity as we journey into the future.”

Bishop Stika said the cardinals were guided by the Holy Spirit as they chose this new successor to St. Peter.

The bishop has asked all parishes to celebrate Mass in congratulations for the new Holy Father on March 14 as well as Sunday, March 17.

“I’ve asked all the parishes that have church bells to peal the bells and put yellow and white bunting over their front doors as we celebrate the new bishop of Rome and the new Holy Father.”

Bishop Stika was asked at the press conference if Pope Francis’s election would spark a resurgence of Latinos returning to the Church.

“I think that Latinos make up a large segment of the Catholic Church,” the bishop said. “This election demonstrates that the Catholic Church is universal, that we had a pope from Poland, we had a pope from Germany, and now we have a Holy Father from Argentina, from South America. The Church is not just about one nation or one culture . . . [Pope Francis] even said the cardinals elected a person from a faraway land, and he is there now in their midst, so now he becomes the bishop of Rome and the pastor of the universal Church.”

The bishop said that the new Holy Father’s papal name was meaningful.

“St. Francis of Assisi talked about in his life that he had a dream to help rebuild the Church, and I think with all the difficulties and challenges that the Church faces these days, I think the reason he chose that name was pretty significant.”

Bishop Stika said he was at home working on his taxes March 13 “because I thought there was no way a pope would be elected today,” but then he saw on television the white smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel where the cardinals’ voting took place. The bishop then hurried to the Chancery to watch along with his staff members the introduction of the new pope.

The bishop said the Holy Spirit “is kind of unpredictable” but led the cardinals to select “the person that they thought would be the best pastor of the Catholic Church.”

“It might be unpredictable in some ways, difficult to understand for some, but for God all things are possible, as the Scriptures tell us. This is a perfect example of that.”

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Knoxville was one of the papal electors. Bishop Stika said he had not spoken with the cardinal in the wake of the election but expected to hear from him within the hour.

“When he left his residence at the North American College [as the conclave began], they had to leave their telephones behind,” the bishop said.

Bishop Stika said he will meet Pope Francis soon.

“I’m looking forward in April, two weeks after Easter, to be traveling to Rome for a week for meetings, and I’ll have a chance to see the new Holy Father, so I’ll bring with me the greetings of all the good people of East Tennessee.”

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