“Wow” was the general consensus as a lineup of Catholic luminaries shared their brands of theological insight and Christ-filled inspiration to convention center halls brimming with enthusiastic followers.
Bishop Richard F. Stika opened the Eucharistic Congress with a Youth Mass on Sept. 13 and then celebrated the closing Mass on Sept. 14. He emphasized that the diocese’s youth are not the church of the future, but rather they are the church of today.
In addition to Bishop Stika, diocesan youth attending the Congress heard from noted prayer and worship leaders ValLimar Jansen and Paul George as well as performers Sarah Kroger and Josh Blakesley, who also led adoration.
Hispanic guests at the Congress heard from Father Rafael Capo´ and Sister Rosa Hernandez, MGSps, and a concert by Johann Alvarez, who also led adoration.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave the keynote address and praised the Diocese of Knoxville for its spirit of growth, saying it is a shining example of the Catholic Church growing dramatically in areas that historically have been dominated by other faiths.
“The youth, vitality and promise of this diocese is inspirational for me,” Cardinal Dolan said. “Here in the South you have a remarkable sense of pride and cohesion, and a sense of what it means to be Catholic.
Cardinal Dolan was constantly surrounded by well-wishers as he made his way through the Sevierville Convention Center, often stopping to chat and pose for photos.
His celebrity-like status prompted Bishop Stika, a longtime friend of the cardinal from their time serving the Church together in St. Louis, to joke that it was as if paparazzi had descended on the Eucharistic Congress.
Bishop Stika and Cardinal Justin Rigali, who is in residence in theDiocese of Knoxville, also were constantly greeted by Eucharistic Congress attendees as they made their way through the Convention Center halls. Bishop Stika interacted with adults and youth, posing for photos and asking nearly everyone he met where they were from. He also was seen placing his zucchetto, a small round head cover as part of his official dress, on the head of an admiring child as the boy’s parents and siblings relished the moment.
It also was an opportunity for Cardinal Dolan to be with Cardinal Rigali. Cardinal Rigali was instrumental in the rise of Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Stika within the Church. Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Stika received their Episcopal consecrations from Cardinal Rigali when Cardinal Rigali was the archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Cardinal Dolan drew laughs from the several thousand attendees at his keynote address as he told stories and joked with the group.
Father Robert Barron and Dr. Scott Hahn, both of whom attract large audiences at their appearances, delivered inspirational talks to thousands of Eucharistic Congress guests. During his uplifting talks to adults and youth attending the congress, Dr. Hahn told the faithful that partaking in the Eucharist at Mass is the closest thing we have to Heaven.
He said the Last Supper and Calvary are infused, adding that if they are not then the Last Supper is just a meal and Calvary is just an execution.
“Jesus is not a victim of the Romans, but he is a victim of divine love,” Dr. Hahn said.
He said when translating the Gospel of John into other languages, there is no figurative language for “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” because Jesus meant for them to be taken literally.
Dr. Hahn, a former Presbyterian who converted to Catholicism, also said that when he used to do Bible studies with Presbyterians as a teen, Presbyterians would say “Jesus paid a debt that he didn’t owe because we owed a debt that we couldn’t pay,” which had an impact on the theologian and author of books, including Rome Sweet Home and The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, because Dr. Hahn described himself as a troublemaker as a teen and he knew what debt he owed.A highlight of the Eucharist Congress was a chat on the first night with Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Stika, which attracted more than 1,200 people.
During the 90-minute dialogue, Bishop Stika asked Cardinal Rigali about his experiences as a cardinal, as a Vatican emissary and adviser to several popes, as an archbishop, a member of the College of Cardinals and participant in two papal conclaves, as well as their long friendship and time spent working together.
The pair, who play off of each other well, rivaled Cardinal Dolan and Stephen Colbert, the host of TV’s The Colbert Report and a comedian and political satirist, who have developed a comedic chemistry when Cardinal Dolan appears in public or on The Colbert Report.
It was even suggested in the audience during one of many laughter breaks that the cardinal and bishop should do more public appearances.
Cardinal Rigali related a story about being with Pope John Paul I during his last audience, 10 hours before the pope’s untimely death 33 days after being elected pope in 1978.
“The pope looked fine. There was no indication he would be dead in 10 hours,” Cardinal Rigali recalled, saying as he was finishing some work the pope visited with him briefly before retiring for the evening.
“The last thing he said to me was ‘I have disturbed you. That makes you a disturbed monsignor’ I said it is an honor to be with you, Holy Father.’”
That story prompted an immediate response from Bishop Stika, who wryly smiled and deadpanned, “Pope’s are infallible, you know.”
The ballroom burst out in laughter.
“I think we should take this on the road,” Bishop Stika joked.
Bishop Stika celebrated the opening Youth Mass on Sept. 13 as well as the closing Mass on Sept. 14, delivering the homilies at each Mass.
In the closing Mass, Bishop Stika thanked those who traveled to Sevierville to participate in the diocese’s silver anniversary and beginning of a yearlong jubilee celebration.
Among those, in addition to Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal Rigali, were Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of the Archdiocese of Louisville, who was the second bishop of Knoxville; Archbishop Robert Carlson of the Archdiocese of St. Louis; Bishop James Vann Johnston Jr. of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., who was among the first two priests ordained in the Diocese of Knoxville and served as a priest and its chancellor; Bishop David Choby of the Diocese of Nashville; and Bishop Terry Steib of the Diocese of Memphis.
Bishop Stika also thanked the various religious communities serving the diocese, including the Religious Sisters of Mercy; the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich.; the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia; and the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, a contemplative order that has relocated from New Mexico to the Diocese of Knoxville.
In his closing Mass, he spoke of dynamic growth the Diocese of Knoxville is experiencing, noting that the Catholic Church in East Tennessee is vibrant and attracting many people from all walks of faith.
He also shared is vision for the future of the diocese, which would include a larger cathedral.