Bishop Stika delivers best wishes, invitation, gift to Pope Francis on weeklong Papal Foundation visit
The Diocese of Knoxville is making quite an impression on Pope Francis so early in his pontificate.
Bishop Richard F. Stika, who serves on the Papal Foundation’s board of trustees, met with the pope in Rome in April, even concelebrating Mass with the Holy Father, and extended an invitation to him to attend the diocese’s 25th jubilee and Eucharistic Congress in September.
Bishop Stika’s position on the foundation’s board of trustees paved the way for him to meet Pope Francis three times during the trip April 8-15.
Bishop Stika said he found Pope Francis to be “very engaging.”
“He has a very quick and beautiful smile,” the bishop said. “He does speak English. I haven’t had extensive conversations with him, but his English was clear. I saw him interact with young folks and older folks, and I think what you see is what you get. He’s very authentic.
“It’s amazing. So often when I travel, people who aren’t Catholic will approach me to share how much they like the pope. Cardinal [Justin] Rigali also encounters the same thing. People will say, ‘I’m not Catholic, but I really like your new pope.’ I’ve had that happen here in Knoxville as well as in Rome and at the airport in Atlanta, so I think he’s captured the attention of the world.”
The first time Bishop Stika met Pope Francis was at the Holy Father’s weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
“As the bishop, one of the perks is that I get to sit on the platform with the pope, and then you’re presented to the pope afterwards,” Bishop Stika said. “On that particular day, I think there were perhaps 30 bishops or so, so I was able to greet the Holy Father and extend the greetings of the people of East Tennessee.”
The next day, the Papal Foundation members had their audience with Pope Francis, and Bishop Stika used that opportunity to give the Holy Father a gift.
“It was at that time that I presented him a print of a stained-glass window that’s in the chapel of the residence of the archbishop of St. Louis,” Bishop Stika said. “It’s a stained-glass window of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who is a saint associated with St. Louis. She served there at the beginning of the 19th century. She’s buried there, and the pope has a special devotion to her, so I had a print made from one of the windows and presented it to him along with a letter extending to him an invitation to the [diocese’s upcoming] Eucharistic Congress, almost knowing that he would not be able to attend, but that we ask for his blessing for that.”
On the following Saturday, the pope celebrated daily Mass in the chapel, “as John Paul used to do,” Bishop Stika said.
“The pope’s secretary invites groups of individuals in for the Mass, and as I was the only bishop, I was the principal concelebrant, so I sat next to the pope for Mass, spoke to him, and even got a big hug at the sign of peace,” he said. “A real special moment was when we were getting vested for the Mass. We had a nice conversation in the sacristy.”
The Diocese of Knoxville was first introduced to Pope Francis in March by Cardinal Rigali, shortly after the pontiff was elected by the papal conclave.
As a member of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Rigali was in the conclave. Pope Francis and Cardinal Rigali met several times in the first hours of Pope Francis’ pontificate, with the cardinal extending the diocese’s congratulations and prayers and Pope Francis issuing a special blessing personally signed by the pope to the diocese and Bishop Stika.
Bishop Stika brought along his nephew, Joseph, on the Papal Foundation trip as a high school graduation present for the young man. The two stayed at the Domus Santa Marta, also being used as the papal residence by the newly installed Francis.
Cardinal Rigali, a member of the Papal Foundation, also accompanied the bishop on his April trip. The cardinal helped interpret when the bishop presented the print of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne to the pope.
The Papal Foundation was founded in 1988 by Cardinal John Krol, a former archbishop of Philadelphia, to support charities around the world designated by the pope. Foundation members, who are primarily from the United States as well as Canada and Mexico, are known as Stewards of St. Peter. Foundation grants in 2012 totaled $8,575,500 and went to recipients on five continents.
“The foundation works very closely with a representative of the Secretariat of State in Rome at the Vatican—currently Monsignor Peter Wells. The Holy See designates the works of charity that the pope would like to fund, and the results of that are the donations,” Bishop Stika said. “I think in 25 years, the number has been over $80 million that the foundation has given.”
Bishop Stika said the board of trustees is made up of all resident cardinals and a few bishops, including him. They meet twice a year, with a board meeting usually in April or May in Rome attended by all the Stewards of St. Peter. The week includes various tours of different sites in Rome.
The Board of Trustees also meets in December at the Nunciature in Washington, D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington is the board chairman, and Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of Wheeling–Charleston, W.Va., is the president.
One of the “special moments” of his Papal Foundation trip, the bishop said, involved a diocesan seminarian who is studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
“I was able to present our seminarian, Michael Hendershott, to the pope twice, so he was able to come to the audience with the Papal Foundation and then I was able to get him invited to the Mass on Saturday,” Bishop Stika said. “On Saturday, as I presented Michael to the pope as his bishop, Michael probably spoke to the pope for a couple of minutes in Italian, and the pope looked at me and pointed at Michael and he said, ‘His Italian is excellent.’ So Michael got a compliment.
“Michael told me the next day on Sunday that when he went back to the North American College, as far as he can tell, he’s the only seminarian to meet the pope, and some of the seminarians were kidding him that since he met the pope twice, his bishop really must take care of him and that they’ll join the Diocese of Knoxville. It’s become a recruiting tool.”