Bishop Stika celebrated Mass and presided at the Sending of the Neophytes ceremony at Sacred Heart Cathedral, where those who joined the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Knoxville after participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults were formally sent into the community to live their faith through their parishes in full communion with the Church.
Bishop Stika congratulated the diocese’s newest members on their faith formation.
“I just want you to know that in the name of the Catholic Church of East Tennessee, as the bishop, I just want to welcome you into our family. You’ve all had particular journeys of life that have brought you to particular moments in your faith journey,” Bishop Stika said. “And as you join us at this eucharistic table as we receive the most precious gift of the body and blood of Jesus himself, I just want you to know that you’re loved and that you’re one with our family and that God blesses us all with your presence.”
Bishop Stika made the poignant connection that the new members were officially being sent into their parishes on the Vigil of Pentecost, which marks when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, who then were told to go out and evangelize.
Bishop Stika reminded the newest Catholics that just as St. Joseph equipped Jesus with the skills needed to be teacher and carpenter, Jesus Christ has instilled in them the tools to be faithful Catholics and to take active roles in the New Evangelization.
“God is this God of love, and God wants to bring all of us closer to himself. He’s given us this gift of creation and he kind of pushes us into the world. But it’s the same God who wants to draw us closer and closer to Him through Jesus,” Bishop Stika said, pointing out that Jesus knows we tend to withdraw when life gets hard and that the world makes it hard to say His name, but we still have those tools to be faithful servants.”
“He knew we had to have the right ingredients of what it meant to be a follower, to be a leader, to be a believer, to have faith. And so when he said to the Apostles when He ascended into heaven…he made that promise to them because he knew they needed courage and fortitude and reverence and all those ingredients that are part of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is a wonderful gift from Jesus,” the bishop added.
Bishop Stika then encouraged the diocesan neophytes to have the faith and courage to live as Catholics in a world that tries to make us afraid to say the name Jesus or celebrate Christmas.
“Sometimes we’re just hesitant, and yet it’s the same Jesus that says to us, ‘I give you power, and I give you authority, and I give you the grace of the sacraments, so therefore you can go and teach about me, to teach what I taught the Apostles and those first believers – don’t be afraid,’” the bishop said.
He then reinforced to them that they now are part of the Catholic Church and are joined together with all Catholics around the eucharistic table and can witness the miracle when they hear “This is my Body and this is my Blood, given for all of you.”
He asked the new Catholics three questions: “Do you believe that Jesus loves you?” “Do you love Jesus?” and “If you believe that you love Jesus, what are you going to do about it?”
Bishop Stika then asked the longtime Catholics in attendance to learn from those just joining the Church.
“There’s a reason they have joined our Church,” he said.
The Sending of the Neophytes ceremony comes on the heels of a new study that ranked the Diocese of Knoxville in the Top 10 nationally for the number of Catholic converts.
Sister Mary Timothea Elliott, RSM, director of the diocesan Office of Christian Formation, noted that people have been joining the Church in East Tennessee in ever increasing numbers.
“It reflects what is happening in the South with the New Evangelization,” said Sister Timothea, who assisted Bishop Stika in the Sending of the Neophytes ceremony.
She highlighted the significance of the ceremony and the opportunity the neophytes have to make a difference in their parishes.
“The bishop tells them they now are to engage in the New Evangelization and in the life of their parishes. It’s a continuous effort to work on their faith in their parishes,” she said.