Congress participants place all focus on the Holy Eucharist at Mass

Bishop Stika: diocese accepts Christ’s call to build kingdom

PRAISED BE JESUS CHRIST Bishop Richard F. Stika presents the Holy Eucharist during the closing Mass for the Eucharistic Congress, which was attended by more than 5,000 faithful from the Diocese of Knoxville and around the country. Photo by Stephanie Richer

PRAISED BE JESUS CHRIST Bishop Richard F. Stika presents the Holy Eucharist during the closing Mass for the Eucharistic Congress, which was attended by more than 5,000 faithful from the Diocese of Knoxville and around the country. Photo by Stephanie Richer

Bishop Richard F. Stika took the opportunity at the Eucharistic Congress closing Mass on Sept. 14 to welcome all those who joined him to help the diocese celebrate its 25th anniversary and to share with thousands of the faithful his dream of building a new cathedral.

Two cardinals, nine bishops, dozens of priests, 30 deacons, and 21 diocesan seminarians helped the bishop celebrate the Mass at the Sevierville Convention Center.

“We welcome with Southern hospitality all those who from far and wide join us as neighbors to express gratitude to God for the event that occurred on Sept. 8, 1988, which began a new journey with the ordination of a bishop and the establishment of the Diocese of Knoxville in East Tennessee,” Bishop Stika said.

The bishop was preaching from an ambo borrowed from Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville and before an altar and crucifix lent by Holy Cross Parish in Pigeon Forge.

“We do have to give them back to the parishes tomorrow; otherwise, I’m in trouble,” he said.

Bishop Stika quoted a future saint as he continued his welcome.

“‘Praised be Jesus Christ.’ These words, so often proclaimed by Blessed John Paul, as he taught the faith to those who would listen, are words that we speak when we celebrate our faith—the faith that we share as members of a community,” he 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.

“As we begin our celebration of our 25th year, we do so with typical Tennessee hospitality, and we welcome all our neighbors who join us this day to focus on Jesus and the gift of the Eucharist.”

Bishop Stika welcomed Abbot Cletus Meagher, OSB, of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Ala., a native of Cleveland, Tenn., and the visiting bishops. They included Archbishop Robert Carlson and Bishop Edward Rice from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Bishop William Medley of the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., and Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Diocese of Lexington, Ky.

Bishop Stika also welcomed Tennessee’s other two bishops, Bishop Terry Steib from the Diocese of Memphis and Bishop David Choby from the Diocese of Nashville, “who are so committed to building the church in the Volunteer State,” he said.

The bishop greeted two bishops returning home: Bishop James V. Johnston of the Diocese of Springfield–Cape Girardeau, Mo., a native of Knoxville and one of the first two priests ordained in the Diocese of Knoxville, as well as Knoxville’s second bishop, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville.

“Bishop Johnston, welcome back to your roots,” Bishop Stika said, adding, “Much of what we celebrate today has its foundation in the pastoral leadership of Archbishop Kurtz.”

Attending the Mass in choir were Eucharistic Congress keynote speaker Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Knoxville’s own Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who was celebrating his 28th anniversary as a bishop that day.

“As we gather together today, I ask you to remember in a very special way a very close personal friend of mine who died two years ago today,” Bishop Stika said. “He was a Maronite archbishop by the name of Francis Zayek, and so we pray that he also rejoices with us today from heaven.”

Bishop Stika recalled his arrival in the diocese in March 2009.

“Upon my arrival I was offered much advice and I still am,” he said. “First of all, to remember that orange is the color, how to sing Rocky Top, how to pronounce “Murrville” [Maryville], and that this area isn’t Eastern Tennessee but rather East Tennessee.

“I was also reminded that this is missionary territory. Now I took this to mean that I was sent to this area to convert those who have not heard the good news of the baseball Cardinals—I’m working on it—but I realized that I was no longer in a Catholic area but rather in an area that in many ways did not understand the Catholic faith, especially the Eucharist that we hold so dear.”

The bishop said in the history of the local Church in the Diocese of Knoxville, “we have been chosen by the Lord by virtue of our baptism.”

“The constant invitation of the Lord to follow existed way before 1988, when this diocese was established, but our history these last 25 years has been a history of accepting the challenge of the Lord and teaching the faith,” he said. “From 32,000 Catholics, give or take, 25 years ago to around 62,000 today, give or take, the story of our Catholic faith has been shared and lived.

“This occurs from Chattanooga to the Tri-Cities, from Knoxville to Crossville, from the four new missions recently established in this past year, from our mother churches of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, our new basilica, to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Knoxville. Faith lived and shared, faith proclaimed and treasured but especially celebrated.”

Bishop Stika mentioned the “remarkable” number of 21 seminarians at the congress from a diocesan population of 62,000. And he gave thanks for the “long-term commitment of religious communities like the long-serving Sisters of Mercy, but also the Paulist and Glenmary communities, the Sisters of Mercy of Alma and the Apostles of Jesus, just to name a few.

“Now we welcome our first contemplative community, the Handmaids of the Precious Blood for they are in the process of moving their motherhouse from New Mexico to Benton, Tenn. Although these pontifical sisters are a cloistered community, four of the pioneer sisters are with us today, and as the newest community in our midst, we welcome the sisters to their new home and are grateful for their constant prayers for us, the people of God.

“We also remember today in a very special way the Alexian Brothers, who have their international generalate, their world headquarters, here on Signal Mountain.”

Bishop Stika also asked those in attendance to remember ministers of the Gospel who were not able to attend the Eucharistic Congress.

“In particular, we remember Monsignor Xavier Mankel, who on Sunday [Sept. 8], along with the diocese, celebrated his 25th anniversary serving as vicar general. Monsignor has had some illness and is on the mend, but we pray for him. Also we remember a very special priest to us all in the diocese, Monsignor Phil Thoni, who now lives in Nashville.”

The bishop closed his homily with a reference to the day’s feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

“So, my sisters and brothers, those I am privileged to serve as bishop, I invite you again to follow the Lord with his cross into the future and lift high that cross and to invite the fallen away to follow him and to welcome new members to share with us in the Eucharist,” he said.

Bishop Stika delivered part of his remarks in Spanish.

“Once again, it has taken me a while, but I’m learning!” he said. “I’m learning Spanish.”

At the end of Mass, Bishop Stika introduced a video presentation of a proposed new Sacred Heart Cathedral.

“You know, I’ve always wondered about people who have dreams where they never take them in any direction,” he said. “For me, faith is always about hope and the possibilities and the potentials of doing things that really make a difference, just like we have this Eucharistic Congress.

“I’d like to show you something that is a dream of mine, but it’s a dream that I inherited from many people over 25 years in one way or another. It’s a dream that I hope in some way might occur in these next few years.”

There was an audible “ooh” from the audience as the video showed a large domed cathedral on a redesigned Sacred Heart campus.

“You know, folks, it’s a dream,” Bishop Stika said. “Dreams are meant to be a reality. We’re a diocese that’s growing up, so we’ll see how the dream plays out. It’s not my cathedral; it’s yours. We’ll take a look and see what we can do in the future. We’ll be doing a feasibility study, asking a lot of questions and we’ll see how it works out.”

Mentioning the potential costs of a new cathedral, Bishop Stika said, “we’re not an either/or diocese” but one “that looks into the future and takes a gamble” on such things as buying the St. Mary’s Mobile Medical Clinic, funding Catholic Charities despite 95 percent of the clients not being Catholic, helping rebuild Haiti, and taking mission trips to Colombia.

“We’re a diocese accepting the call of Christ to build his kingdom but also to be nourished in our faith, and that’s where the cathedral comes in,” the bishop said. “Jesus, I trust in you,” he added, echoing his episcopal motto.

The bishop concluded his closing remarks with “a few thoughts of gratitude.”

“When I was in grade school, we were taught to be people never filled with a sense of pride, so I’m asking for your forgiveness, because I can’t tell you how proud I am of you and for all the people who had so much to do with gathering us together these two days to celebrate this Eucharistic Congress. . . .

“This congress is the result of so many who have given so much time so that Southern hospitality may be given to all who have entered these doors.”

Bishop Stika gave thanks for the diocese’s two high schools; its eight elementary schools; the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville; the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus “Ad Gentes”; Cardinal Rigali’s secretary, Sister M. Clara Auer, FSGM; diocesan Chancellor Deacon Sean Smith, who organized the Eucharistic Congress, and his top assistant, Paul Simoneau, the diocese’s director of Justice and Peace and vice chancellor; the Chancery staff for its help in planning the Congress; the staff of the Convention Center; all of the Congress’ presenters and musicians; and the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Extension. Deacon Smith and Mr. Simoneau received a standing ovation.

The bishop said he would be doing the “Stika wink” as he processed out of Mass. He said that Cardinal John J. Carberry of St. Louis once winked at him, leading to his vocation.

“At that time I was thinking about getting married and living happily ever after, and he winked at me, and years later I became a priest. I told the cardinal that the whole reason I was a priest today is because you winked at me. So for the rest of his life, he took the credit for my vocation. So when I’m processing out, I’m warning you all, I’m doing a lot of winking.”

Bishop Stika’s final words were “not to waste this” Eucharistic Congress:

“Don’t waste the energy, the vitality, the enthusiasm. If you’re not from this diocese, take it home with you to wherever you come from. Share it with others. Sing the praises of God by your actions and your activity. If you belong to the Diocese of Knoxville, we have a great foundation, but we can’t rejoice just for this day or this year. God expects a great deal of us because he has greatly blessed us. … God has shared this with us. Go home, as the Mass reminds us, to be sent forth to build the kingdom of God.”

The bishop ended the Mass by giving an apostolic blessing.

The Eucharistic Congress, which began Friday, Sept. 13, opened Saturday, Sept. 14 with a welcome and morning prayer. Bishop Stika gave the welcome in a bilingual videotaped presentation.

Before Cardinal Dolan’s keynote talk, Cardinal Rigali presided at a eucharistic adoration and benediction service before a full convention center hall Saturday afternoon. Cardinal Dolan was among those attending the adoration.