Bishop Stika signs decree launching formal inquiry into matter as first step toward Vatican investigation
By Jim Wogan
Bishop Richard F. Stika has officially launched an inquiry into whether a miracle has occurred in the Diocese of Knoxville, a move that could strengthen the case for sainthood for a Catholic priest.
Bishop Stika issued a formal decree on Sept. 15, initiating a diocesan inquiry regarding the possible medical miracle.
The inquiry is highly unusual and is the first time any kind of Catholic religious miracle has been investigated in the Diocese of Knoxville.
The inquiry centers on Father Isaac Thomas Hecker, an American Roman Catholic priest and founder of the Paulist Fathers, a North American religious society of men.
“A number of months ago, Father Ron Franco, the pastor at Immaculate Conception Church here in Knoxville, came to me,” said Bishop Stika. “Father Ron is involved in the cause of Father Hecker, the founder of the Paulist community.”
According to the decree signed by Bishop Stika, the diocese will investigate whether a miracle took place here through the intercession of Father Hecker.
Father Hecker died in 1888.
His case for sainthood was officially opened in 2008 in New York City and is sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York.
Bishop Stika has appointed four members and officers for the diocesan inquiry—including Cardinal Justin Rigali, who will serve as the Episcopal Delegate.
Cardinal Rigali is a former archbishop of St. Louis and Philadelphia.
In addition to Cardinal Rigali, other members of the board of inquiry are: Father David Carter, JCL, rector at Sts. Peter and Paul Basilica in Chattanooga, Deacon Sean Smith, chancellor of the Diocese of Knoxville, and Chancery staff member Janie Hennessy.
The decree was signed by Bishop Stika and co-signed by Paul Simoneau, vice chancellor of administration for the Diocese of Knoxville. Mr. Simoneau also is the diocese’s director of the Office of Justice and Peace.
Abiding by Church rule, members of the board of inquiry are bound by an oath of secrecy — so circumstances surrounding the possible medical miracle aren’t being released.
However, Bishop Stika has indicated the event will be thoroughly investigated by the diocese and a team of un-biased medical experts, including doctors.
If Bishop Stika is comfortable that the panel’s findings indicate a medical miracle has taken place — a report will be sent to the Vatican, where another thorough investigation will be conducted.
Father Hecker is now known as a Servant of God in the Catholic Church, which is the first step on the path to sainthood.
If a miracle can be attributed to Father Hecker, he would be eligible for beatification. If a second miracle can be connected to the priest, he would be in line for possible canonization.
Word of the possible miracle has sparked significant media interest inside and outside of the Diocese of Knoxville.
It also has given Bishop Stika an opportunity to educate Catholics and non-Catholics alike on a process that is often seen as mysterious and equally misunderstood by those unfamiliar with the faith.
Do Catholics pray to saints?
“What we do is we seek their intercession,” Bishop Stika said. “It’s like when you ask a friend to pray to Jesus for you or for someone else. That is our relationship with the saints. We believe the saints are people who have lived good and virtuous lives and now they are standing at the foot of God. So we are asking them to have this conversation with the Lord, to intercede for us for good health, or for well-being or just for the spirit of holiness.”
Humorously, the bishop also admitted that there are different kinds of miracles.
In sports, he cited the Miracle Mets winning the 1969 World Series.
In football, he spoke of Tennessee overcoming a 24-point halftime deficit to beat Notre Dame 35-34 in South Bend in 1991. To UT fans, the game is known as The Miracle at South Bend.
While those events remain historic topics of conversation for sports fans, the bishop admits the type of miracle the Diocese of Knoxville is investigating is much more serious.
There is no indication how long the process will take.
“In God’s time,” the bishop said to one member of the media covering the story.