The pope’s popularity is extending beyond Vatican City, where he has upended traditional security protocol by walking into the crowds of faithful to shake hands, bless babies and comfort the disabled—acts that are resonating with people around the globe, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
And that popularity promises to extend to East Tennessee as Pope Francis’ reach touches the people of the Diocese of Knoxville.
In the first hours of his pontificate, Francis presented a special blessing to the Diocese of Knoxville in yet another example of his unexpected openness and desire to be accessible to the faithful.
Bishop Richard F. Stika revealed that Pope Francis embraced the idea of a blessing for the diocese that originated with the bishop and Cardinal Justin Rigali, who is in residence in Knoxville.
Cardinal Rigali is in the College of Cardinals and was among the papal electors selecting Pope Francis as the successor to His Holiness Benedict XVI, who resigned on Feb. 28.
Bishop Stika explained that several years ago Cardinal Rigali, who then was archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and Cardinal Bergoglio learned in conversations that they shared an interest in the American saint Rose Philippine Duchesne of St. Louis.
Upon Pope Francis’ election March 13, Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Stika recalled the St. Duchesne connection.
“When he was elected pope, I talked to Cardinal Rigali and said, ‘Wasn’t he the cardinal who has the devotion to Rose Philippine Duchesne?’ Cardinal Rigali replied, ‘Yes, that’s him.’ And I said, ‘If you happen to talk to him, tell him that I would like a blessing for the Diocese of Knoxville,’” Bishop Stika said.
Bishop Stika noted that Cardinal Rigali has met with Pope Francis several times following the pope’s election.
“Maybe by the grace of God, there were several times that Cardinal Rigali sat at the table with the pope and had lunch or dinner with him. At one particular moment, he was sitting with the pope and mentioned how we had discussed the pope’s devotion to Rose Philippine Duchesne. Cardinal Rigali said Bishop Richard Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville is asking for a blessing for his diocese. Right after that, the pope said, ‘Even better than that—go over to the Secretary of State, get the documents drawn up, and bring it back to me, I’ll personally sign it,’” Bishop Stika said, adding that he didn’t expect Pope Francis to be able to give the blessing.
The Secretariat of State had the blessing drawn up and Cardinal Rigali presented it to Pope Francis.
“The Holy Father then said, ‘Come to my room and I’ll sign it.’ So Cardinal Rigali went to his room, where the pope signed it. And it says, ‘To Bishop Richard F. Stika, the priests, and the religious, and the faithful of the Diocese of Knoxville,” Bishop Stika said.
Cardinal Rigali remarked that it was one of the first special blessings the pope has presented to a diocese, if not the first, and it has a special characteristic that adds to its uniqueness.
“Cardinal Rigali said it is unusual for a pope to sign his name to a normal blessing, but if he did, it typically is in Latin.
“Maybe the pope was looking kindly on all of us. He signed it in English as simply ‘Francis,’” Bishop Stika said.