Former Diocese of Knoxville priest and chancellor celebrates Mass with Bishop Stika, Cardinal Rigali
By Dan McWilliams
Bishop James Vann Johnston Jr. returned home June 30.
The bishop, who for seven years has led the Diocese of Springfield–Cape Girardeau, Mo., celebrated Mass at Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville to mark his 25th anniversary in the priesthood.
“As we come here tonight, we gather to give thanks for the gift of the priesthood, and we realize that the evening that our Lord gave us the gift of the priesthood, he also gave the Church the gift of the Holy Eucharist,”
Bishop Johnston said. “And so what more fitting way to give thanks for the Lord’s many gifts than by celebrating the Eucharist.”
Holy Ghost is Bishop Johnston’s home in many ways. He was baptized and confirmed there and later served as an associate pastor at the North Knoxville church. Bishop Johnston also is a former chancellor for the Diocese of Knoxville and moderator of the curia.
Bishop Johnston was the first transitional deacon ordained for the Diocese of Knoxville and the second priest ordained. He entered the priesthood June 9, 1990, at Holy Ghost.
Holy Ghost was filled for Bishop Johnston’s anniversary Mass, with his family, priest friends, and numerous parishioners on hand for the celebration, which continued at a reception downstairs in Father Henkel Hall far into the evening.
Bishop Richard F. Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Bishop David P. Talley—auxiliary bishop of Atlanta and a seminary friend of Bishop Johnston—former longtime Holy Ghost pastor Monsignor Xavier Mankel, current Holy Ghost pastor and longtime Bishop Johnston friend Father John Dowling, and more than a dozen priests from around the diocese were in attendance at the anniversary Mass. The first priest ordained for the diocese, Father Alex Waraksa, was present along with another early diocesan seminarian, Father David Boettner, a vicar general and rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral who succeeded Bishop Johnston as moderator of the curia.
The Mass was emceed by Father John Orr, associate pastor of Holy Ghost. Deacon Sean Smith, who succeeded Bishop Johnston as chancellor for the diocese, served as deacon of the Word.
Readers for the Mass were two of Bishop Johnston’s nieces, Anna and Mary Iverson. At the end of Mass, Bishop Johnston’s sisters, Amy Iverson and Beth Schmitt, presented a photo of Bishop Johnston that will hang at his alma mater, Knoxville Catholic High School.
Bishop Johnston also celebrated his anniversary with Masses at the two cathedrals in his diocese: June 8 at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Annunciation in Cape Girardeau and June 9 at the Cathedral of St. Agnes in Springfield.
In his homily at Holy Ghost, Bishop Johnston repeated several times the verse “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . .” (Luke 1:46-47).
“That about sums it up,” he said. “These are the words of Mary, of course, and these are actually the words that probably best express what I feel in celebrating the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. They are the words of deep gratitude for God’s great, unmerited goodness and love, poured out in my life.”
The bishop asked everyone to “join me in thanking God for the gift of priesthood to the Church, which builds us up, the Body of Christ, into a holy Temple.”
Bishop Johnston advised that his homily would run a little long.
“I hope you will indulge me tonight with a few extra minutes in my homily; 25 years ought to earn you something!” he said with a laugh.
He used that extra time to “express my thanks to God for so many people who are living blessings,” including those who helped him along the way in his seminary days and early priesthood.
“Again I want to thank in a special way His Eminence, Cardinal Rigali. I also thank Bishop Stika, the current bishop of Knoxville, for the gift of their presence; it means a great deal to me that both of you are here—thank you,” Bishop Johnston said.
“Also, Bishop David Talley, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. My friendship with Bishop Talley goes all the way back to our seminary days, and he was one of the priests who actually vested me here 25 years ago with the stole and chasuble. He and Monsignor Marv Borger from the Diocese of Toledo continue to enrich my life with their friendship.”
Bishop Johnston said he also was “grateful to all of the bishops, priests, and deacons from the Diocese of Knoxville and also from the Diocese of Nashville, with whom I served here in Tennessee.”
“I am very grateful to Father Mike Johnston, who when he was the brand new vocation director for the Diocese of Nashville called me one night while I was still an engineer in Houston,” he said. “I was all set to join a religious order, and because of Father Mike’s call that night, he led me back to Tennessee as a seminarian, and so I’m grateful to Father Mike Johnston, who preached at my first Mass 25 years ago. He led me first to Nashville to be a seminarian, and then when the new Diocese of Knoxville was erected in 1988, I became overnight a seminarian for the Diocese of Knoxville, one of three.
“Along with myself there were two others. You may have heard of them. One, Alex Waraksa, and another, David Boettner, and so I thank both Father Alex and Father David for being here tonight.”
The bishop also thanked Father Chris Michelson, “my first pastor in Oak Ridge.”
“You know, they say, and I think it’s true, that a priest’s first assignment is critical,” he said. “It’s so important.
And I can’t ever thank you enough, Father Chris, for such a great experience as a newly ordained priest at St. Mary’s.
“He probably wondered what he was getting, because the day I was ordained and it was announced I was going to St. Mary’s, lightning hit the church and caught it on fire.”
Monsignor Bob Hofstetter “also gave me a good experience in my second assignment at St. Jude in Chattanooga and actually helped me to survive teaching high school religion,” Bishop Johnston said.
The bishop thanked “the other great priests whom I served with while here in Knoxville: Monsignor Mankel, who was also my high school principal, and Monsignor [Al] Humbrecht, while I was at the cathedral. I want to mention also a good friend, Father Scott Duarte, from the Diocese of Richmond, whose friendship dates back to our days studying canon law at Catholic U.”
Bishop Johnston didn’t leave out Father Albert Henkel, Holy Ghost’s pastor from 1958 to 1996, “who arrived here the year before I was born in 1958 and who was still here when I served as one of his associate pastors in 1996.
“I thank the current pastor of Holy Ghost, my good friend of many years and faithful hiking buddy, Father John Dowling. I thank Father Dowling and his associate, Father John Orr, who is serving as our emcee tonight, and I thank them in a special way for hosting this Mass.”
The bishop said he is “also grateful to all of the many religious and laity whom God has enriched my life with over these years—for all of you!”
“My good friend Sister Matthew Marie Cummings told me when I left my first assignment in Oak Ridge, she said, ‘you will find good people wherever the Lord sends you,’ and that has truly been the case. There are good people everywhere,” he said.
Bishop Johnston noted “how special it is to celebrate this Mass here in this place, not only because I was ordained a priest here; not only because I was baptized and confirmed and made so many Holy Communions and confessions here. It goes back even farther than that.
“My parents were married here on Thanksgiving Day in 1956 by Monsignor Leo Baldinger; and before that my mother lived just a few blocks up the street at the corner of Central and Scott avenues when my Granddaddy and Grandmother Huber moved here in 1952 from Bardstown, Ky. I spent many days of my childhood just a few blocks up the street from here.
It was great because you could see from their yard the bell tower of Holy Ghost, and the Freezo ice cream place was right outside their back door.”
Holy Ghost and the Freezo are about the only remnants in that neighborhood of Bishop Johnston’s youth.
“I think it’s so appropriate that the only two things that have endured over all these years in this section of town are the Catholic Church and ice cream,” he said. “So, I am very happy to come back to this place to offer thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
The bishop especially thanked God “in a special way for the two people who have blessed me in this life far more than anyone else; who were the essential people who passed on the Catholic faith to me and inspired me to want to be a priest”: his parents, Vann and Pat Johnston.
“They are the ones God used to guide me, pray for me, and love me. In fact, their love, with God, brought me into being. I can never thank God enough for giving me my parents, and I have been even more blessed to have them in my life so far into my adult years.”
A person “cannot overstate the powerful role parents and family have in the plan of God,” Bishop Johnston said; “my faith tells me that God loves me unconditionally as a son—that becomes more real when I experience the unconditional love of my parents as their son; my faith tells me that the meaning and purpose of our lives is self-giving, sacrificial love, which is at the heart of the Holy Trinity; that becomes real and believable through witnessing and receiving that kind of love in one’s parents; my faith tells me that God is both merciful and just—I experienced both mercy and justice in my parents and in our family.
“Here’s the point: faith becomes more real, credible, and attractive when you see it mirrored in the lives of your mom and dad, whose love brought you into the world and who care for you more than anyone else in the world. Their faith and love opened me up to the greater mystery of God in my life, and thereby, opened me up to my vocation. I would not have become a priest without my parents.”
The bishop said his brother and two sisters and their families “are also my greatest support system.”
“I have to also single out for thanks a person who came along at just the right time in my life and had a very important role in my becoming a priest: St. John Paul II,” Bishop Johnston said. “He was elected pope in 1978 on my 19th birthday. I was beginning my sophomore year in college. Like many other young people, he inspired me. He first inspired me to be a more intentional disciple—to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly and generously. He inspired me by his words, his life, and his example. He revealed for me the greatness of the priesthood and how much it could serve the kingdom of God and change the world.
“So, thank you St. John Paul II; I know you are here tonight with Mary and all the saints and angels, with us around the altar.”
The readings at the 25th-anniversary Mass came from Jeremiah 1:4-9, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, and John 15:9-17.
“The Scripture readings for Mass tonight are the same ones that were read 25 years ago at my ordination,” Bishop Johnson said. “They still have great relevance, and after 25 years, even more meaning.”
Bishop Stika delivered closing remarks at the Mass.
“In the name of my brother priests and deacons, Bishop Johnston, I just want to offer again congratulations on your 25th anniversary as a priest. Ad multos annos. Especially to your mom and dad and to the family, we just say congratulations,” the bishop said, leading to a long round of applause for Bishop Johnston.
Bishop Stika mentioned that he had just ordained the 50th priest for the diocese the weekend before the diocese’s second priest appeared at Holy Ghost.
“It just shows that tradition continues to carry on,” he said. “Bishop, congratulations. Know that you are greatly loved and continue to be loved, not only by the people of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau but also by the Diocese of Knoxville.”
In introducing the photo presentation, Mrs. Iverson said “it is wonderful to be here at Holy Ghost, which was and always will be our home parish.
“Apparently, the joy of the priesthood was Vann’s fountain of youth, because more and more people started talking about my ‘little’ brother, Vann. He is 11 years older than me.”
Mrs. Schmitt said “there is really no way to put into words what a gift
Bishop Vann’s priesthood has been to our family and to the Church. He has married us, baptized our children, heard our confessions, confirmed and even brought some of us into the Church, celebrated the Eucharist, and ordained others to the priesthood. He has been there to anoint our sick, offer us wise counsel, and to comfort us in some of life’s most challenging trials.”
In honor of the occasion, “we’re donating this framed and engraved portrait to Knoxville Catholic High School, where you graduated in 1977,” Mrs. Iverson said. “Our hope is that it will not only serve as a reminder of all the spiritual blessings of the Catholic education that you received but also as a possible inspiration to a future priest or bishop who may be roaming the halls of KCHS today or in the future.”
Father Orr presented Bishop Johnston with a new baptismal certificate, “just in case you lost the original.”