Diocese of Knoxville marks 25th anniversary with Holy Eucharist celebration featuring Catholic theology headliners
The Diocese of Knoxville commemorated its 25th anniversary in grand fashion Sept. 13-14 as some 5,000 faithful from throughout Tennessee and around the country gathered in prayer and song, fellowship and worship at the Sevierville Convention Center to celebrate the Holy Eucharist in the diocese’s first Eucharistic Congress.
“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.
“My wife Karen and I attended this conference and were just blown away by the sea of love and affection for our Catholic faith in East Tennessee. A great experience it was,” said Allen Martin, who traveled from the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Ione, Calif., to attend the Eucharistic Congress.
Bishop Richard F. Stika opened the Eucharistic Congress with a Youth Mass on Sept. 13 and then celebrated the closing Mass on Sept. 14. The Masses were highlights of the conference, celebrating the Holy Eucharist. Some 5,000 faithful took part in the closing Mass and received communion.
In addition, some 50 priests led the sacrament of reconciliation, hearing 136 hours of confessions in 20 portable private confessionals set up for the worship event.
During the Youth Mass, Bishop Stika emphasized that the diocese’s teens 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 lauded theologian Dr. Scott Hahn, 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 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 the Diocese 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 share time 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 consecration from Cardinal Rigali, who once was the archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Cardinals Rigali and Dolan also participated in the papal conclave last spring that led to the selection of Pope Francis as the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
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 public 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, whose books include 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 Eucharistic Congress was a chat on the first night with Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Stika, which attracted more than 1,600 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 working together.
Bishop Stika delivered the homilies at the opening Youth Mass and the closing Mass. During the Youth Mass, Bishop Stika told the students that while they are called the Church of the future, they actually are the Church of today.
In the closing Mass, he told the more than 5,000 faithful in attendance that the Diocese of Knoxville occupies a special place, but it is part of a larger faith community of the Catholic Church around the world. Bishop Stika, quoting Blessed John Paul II, said praised be Jesus Christ, who taught the faith to those who would listen, and proclaimed those words we speak as we celebrate our faith—”the faith that we share as members of a community,” Bishop Stika said.
“It’s much greater than just the Diocese of Knoxville and all the little churches scattered about the world, for it is the faith of the apostles, the faith of our fathers and mothers, transmitted throughout the ages from Jerusalem until this time and place as we gather together. But as a local church, as the Diocese of Knoxville at this particular time and place, we give thanks for our faith as it is lived in a particular way in East Tennessee … as we begin the celebration of our 25th year,” he added.