Pope Francis blesses dedication stone for new Sacred Heart Cathedral and prays for Church’s foundation in East Tennessee.
By Bill Brewer
The Church’s building blocks come in all shapes and sizes. One in particular made its way from a Tennessee Valley marble seam to Rome, where Pope Francis blessed it and prayed that upon it a solid foundation for the Catholic Church in East Tennessee will continue to be built.
Bishop Richard F. Stika last month hand-delivered a stone to Pope Francis that will dedicate the new Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The square stone, roughly the size of a large floor or ceiling tile and weighing 19.5 pounds, will greet those attending Mass and other events as they enter the cathedral. It will be part of a display illustrating Pope Francis’ blessing of the Diocese of Knoxville’s new mother church.
Accompanied by Cardinal Justin Rigali, Bishop Stika presented the commemorative stone to Pope Francis on Oct. 14 during the pontiff’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
The stone was originally slated for a September papal blessing while the pope was in the United States for the World Meeting of Families, but complicated logistics surrounding Francis’ visit prevented Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali from delivering the stone to New York.
That’s when Bishop Stika put Plan B into action.
The bishop already was scheduled to be in Rome for several days in October, so he contacted Pope Francis’ office to see if the pope would bless the stone during the Oct. 14 general audience.
He received word that he and Cardinal Rigali would be welcomed by Pope Francis, who would indeed bless the stone.
Traveling to Europe with a 20-pound stone, however, has its own logistical challenges.
“My biggest concern wasn’t the weight; I guess that’s why I go to the gym now,” Bishop Stika said smiling. “My biggest concern was getting it through security. But there were no problems at all. We took it onto the plane as a carry-on. We wrapped it up nicely. It went smoothly.”
Before the audience, Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali handed the stone over to a security guard, who promised to return it to them at the appropriate time.
“When I went up to greet the pope, (the security guard) handed it off to me. The pope realized what we were doing as we approached. He placed his hand on the stone and closed his eyes and for about a half-minute he prayed over it with his eyes closed. Then he made the sign of the cross,” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop, who is quick with a quip, set his sights on the pontiff.
“And then I got him to laugh. Cardinal Rigali greeted the pope first. When I met with the pope, we told him Cardinal Rigali was my auxiliary bishop. That made the pope smile,” the bishop said. “I also told
Pope Francis that the people of the Diocese of Knoxville were praying for him, and I thanked him for his visit to the United States. I told him I thought his visit had an impact. I assured him of my prayers for him and the prayers of the diocese. Then I gave him a hug and he whispered in my ear in English, ‘Please pray for me.’”
Bishop Stika attracted attention carrying a stone around Vatican City, and he even had a few cheerleaders among other bishops and cardinals in St. Peter’s Square.
“There were a number of bishops at the general audience who were congratulating me about the cathedral. These were guys from around the world, and they were kind of giving me a hard time about this big stone I was carrying. I was sitting next to two bishops from Ethiopia, and they were kind of cheering me on. There also was a cardinal from Bangkok in Thailand who was cheering me on. I shared the story with other bishops and cardinals from around the world, and their reaction was: ‘It’s great that you’re building a cathedral,’” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop now has met with Pope Francis about a half-dozen times and has found Francis to be welcoming and engaging on each encounter.
“I’ve been blessed. He’s very, very warm. He embraces you and smiles. When I said to him, ‘Thank you for coming to the United States; you really made an impact,’ he understood. He understands English, he just chooses not to speak it too much,” the bishop said.
During their time in Rome, Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali stayed in Casa Santa Marta (where the pope resides), the building adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica. On the morning of the papal audience, Bishop
Stika said he was carrying the stone and waiting for the elevator when the door opened and Pope Francis, accompanied by a security guard, walked out.
“I thought for a moment that I could just get the stone blessed then, but no one would have been able to see photographs of Pope Francis blessing our dedication stone for the cathedral,” Bishop Stika said, noting that the pope will walk around Vatican City, which is somewhat isolated, by himself.
The dedication stone and the much larger cathedral cornerstone will hold special blessings, in keeping with the Scriptures, where it says “Jesus is the cornerstone.” But with the cornerstone weighing hundreds of pounds and sitting 30 inches tall, 34 inches deep and 34 inches across, there was no convenient way to get it to the pope.
“I knew I was traveling to Rome in October to participate in a wedding of parishioners where I used to be pastor, so we linked the two together,” Bishop Stika said, noting that the trip to Rome was paid for by his former parishioners.
The dedication stone was made possible by parishioners at St. John Neumann in Farragut. Bishop Stika expressed gratitude to them for their role in the cathedral project.
“The stone comes from Tennessee, from Alan and Sally Sefton. On their property is Tennessee marble. They had it cut, and we sent it to a place to have it polished. Then, we had a cross placed on it. We are going to mount it to another stone and then have it at the entrance to the cathedral on the inside with photographs of the pope blessing it and one of the pope’s zucchettos I was able to acquire as part of the display,” the bishop said.
Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, believes the dedication stone is significant because of the link it provides.
“I think it’s a very exciting symbol of our connection with the universal Church, and it helps us to recognize that even though we are a local church, with Bishop Stika as the pastor of the Church of East Tennessee, we also are part of a universal Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and this really ties us to that Church that spans the entire world,” Father Boettner said.
“So when we have that dedication stone in the entry area of the new cathedral, in the narthex, it’s going to be that constant reminder that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we span the world and we have a faith that dates back to Jesus Christ Himself,” he added. “Secondarily, I think, it’s also an opportunity to hear Pope Francis’ call; that what we celebrate in church when we gather together at the Mass sends us out into the world. The pope has been continually challenging us to go out to the margins. So I think having this stone blessed by Pope Francis is also going to be that constant reminder to send us out to the margins of society and reach out and welcome all people.”
It is remarkable that the cathedral will be built with a stone harvested from East Tennessee and blessed in St. Peter’s Square by the Holy Father, according to Father Boettner.
“If the pope came to our cathedral, it would be normal for him to bless something. But I think this is exceptional in that we’ve taken a piece of East Tennessee marble to the pope — our bishop took the stone to the Holy Father and carried this 20-pound stone all over Rome … and carried the stone back. It’s a unique opportunity for us to really experience that connection to the universal Church,” he said, noting that the dedication stone has a simple cross cut into it so that it clearly is of religious significance.
“We know that the cross marks us from the very moment of our baptism. In the baptism ritual, we make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person being baptized, so I think this being a foundational stone, or a dedication stone, having that cross cut into it is a beautiful sign of our faith,” Father Boettner said.
As construction on the cathedral continues, Bishop Stika, Cardinal Rigali and Father Boettner look forward to the church taking shape, stone by stone, and they believe it will be the foundation for the Church in East Tennessee for a long time to come. Bishop Stika wants people of all backgrounds to know it is a place where God lives.
“I’m reminded of a story from Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan about a man who arrived in New York and asked a cab driver to take him where God was. The cab driver took him to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The man wasn’t Catholic. The cab driver said, ‘this is the only place I know where God lives.’ I think the cab driver was of another faith,” the bishop said. “I hope people see this cathedral for centuries as the symbol of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee.
“For our diocese, we’re relatively new compared with other dioceses around the world that have been around for 400 or 500 years — or even 1,000 years. And it’s our statement of faith that we’re here in East Tennessee, that we’re a growing church. The importance is our worship, and that’s why I think building the cathedral is significant. It’s the mother church,” he added.