Pope Francis presents Diocese of Knoxville with blessing

One of new pontiff’s first acts is to sign papal document for Cardinal Rigali as gift to Bishop Stika and the diocesan faithful

Papal blessing In one of his first acts as pontiff, Pope Francis signed this blessing for the Diocese of Knoxville, responding to a request by Bishop Richard F. Stika that was presented to the pope by Cardinal Justin Rigali.

In one of his first acts as pontiff, Pope Francis signed this blessing for the Diocese of Knoxville, responding to a request by Bishop Richard F. Stika that was presented to the pope by Cardinal Justin Rigali.

As Pope Francis establishes the 265th pontificate since St. Peter following his March 13 ascension from the College of Cardinals, where he served as Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, the world is embracing the new pontiff and his acts of humility and compassion.

The Jesuit 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 is extending to East Tennessee as Pope Francis’ reach touches the Diocese of Knoxville and its people.

In the first hours of his pontificate, Pope 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 has met several times with the pope since his election on March 13.

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.

Cardinal Rigali noted that a number of years ago when he was archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, he and Cardinal Bergoglio during a conversation learned they shared an interest in the American saint Rose Philippine Duchesne of St. Louis.

Upon Pope Francis’ election, Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Stika recalled the St. Philippine 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, noting that he didn’t expect his request to actually reach Pope Francis and he was surprised it came to be.

Cardinal Rigali 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 and 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—get the document drawn up and bring it back to me. I’ll personally sign it,’” Bishop Stika said.

Pope Francis asked Cardinal Rigali to have the blessing drawn up quickly  before papal formalities took effect that would require such a blessing to go through channels.

The Secretariat of State had the blessing drawn up and Cardinal Rigali presented it to Pope Francis for the pontiff’s signature.

Cardinal Rigali remarked that it was one of the first special blessings the pope has presented to a diocese—if not the first.

The blessing 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.

Cardinal Rigali said Pope Francis’ devotion to St. Rose Philippine Duchesne speaks volumes about the person he is.

“Cardinal Bergoglio told me some time ago that he prays daily to St. Rose Philippine Duchesne. She is so revered by American Indians as ‘the woman who prays always.’ Pope Francis also is a person of prayer and a person of service to people. That says a lot about who he is,” Cardinal Rigali said.

His Eminence said that of Pope Francis’ first 16 meals in the days just   after being elected, he shared 14 with the pontiff and sat next to him at several of those meals.

It was at one of the meals that Cardinal Rigali and Pope Francis renewed their discussion about St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, which led to the special blessing for the diocese.

“The pope sends his blessing and thought it would be nice if the blessing could be in writing. When I saw the pope at lunch, he said he would sign it and he invited me to his room and he signed it in my presence,” Cardinal Rigali said.

It was one of the first documents signed by the new pontiff, and Cardinal Rigali called it a great opportunity to introduce Pope Francis to the Diocese of Knoxville.

“It turned out quite providentially that he has a devotion to one of the three saints of St. Louis. I was very pleased,” Cardinal Rigali said.

Bishop Stika is encouraging Diocese of Knoxville faithful to pray for Pope Francis as he begins his pontificate. The pope selected the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19, as the day he began his ministry, which also is the anniversary of the bishop’s episcopal ordination.

“That’s why I’m pleased that of all the days the pope could have chosen … he chose this day to begin solemnly his ministry even though he was pope from the moment he said yes. As he begins this special moment in his ministry, we pray for him. Right now he’s a rock star … but in our eyes he’ll always be the person whom the College of Cardinals chose through the guidance of the Holy Spirit to be Peter in our midst today,” Bishop Stika said.

“So he will challenge us and he will love us. I’m sure he’s going to make us smile, but also he’s going to make us think. We pray that his ministry will be long and fruitful, that he might be safe, but also that he might be strong in those moments when he might have to chastise or challenge, or invite people to reflect on our relationship with Jesus Christ, on our relationship with the Father,” he added.

Describing the Church’s new leader as a man of peace and prayer, Bishop Stika spoke to the Knoxville media on March 13, 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.

Bishop Stika said he was at home working on his taxes March 13 when Pope Francis was elected “because I thought there was no way a pope would be elected” that day, 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.

“In all my wisdom I said it would occur on Friday. It just shows that I am not infallible,” Bishop Stika said kiddingly during the March 13 press conference at the Chancery. “I, along with many people throughout the world, was surprised to hear that on the fifth ballot the cardinal electors took, 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 has lived a very simple life in Buenos Aires. He didn’t live in the archbishop’s residence; he lived in an apartment and he cooked for himself, and he took 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 among 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. In other instances that have ingratiated him with followers, Pope Francis was photographed in the early hours of his pontificate riding a bus with cardinals and standing at the desk of the Vatican hotel, where he had been staying with other members of the College of Cardinals, to check out of his room.

“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. He was asked at the press conference if Pope Francis’s election would spark a trend of Latin Americans 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 in 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 noted that the new Holy Father’s papal name is 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.”

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.”

Once Cardinal Rigali entered the Sistine Chapel for the conclave, he and the other 114 electors could not have contact with the outside world.

“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 soon will be meeting with Pope Francis.

“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.”