Bishop Stika hosts retreat, celebrates Mass for diocesan men who get a crash course in being better servants of Christ
By Bill Brewer
Father Larry Richards is all about love.
His unbridled approach to spreading the Gospel is more akin to a contact sport than “a tiptoe through the tulips.” His homiletic style is intentionally devoid of touchy, feely catechesis.
His catechesis is hard-charging.
But make no mistake, his directive to Catholic males that each one step up and “be a man” hinges on love, forgiveness, compassion and mercy. It’s a command delivered with a velvet boxing glove — and humor.
Father Richards led the Diocese of Knoxville’s men’s retreat called “Be a Man! In the Image of Jesus” on Nov. 21 at the Historic Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville. The retreat attracted some 300 men from across the diocese ranging from teenage sons to fathers and grandfathers.
Bishop Richard F. Stika hosted the retreat and took part in a question-and-answer session with Father Richards during the day-long event that featured a concluding Mass.
With a mischievous smile, Father Richards told the attendees that his speaking style is to “shock” people, giving ample evidence of how he has put his own stamp on the New Evangelization.
“I make people laugh, and I punch you in the stomach. Then I make people laugh, and I punch you in the stomach,” he said.
“I’m not a tiptoe-through-the-tulips guy,” he added, while preaching about the steps men need to take in fulfilling God’s plan for them. In addition to instruction on forgiveness, mercy and love, Father Richards also offered guidance on strengthening prayer life, marriage, and the men’s roles as sons, fathers, and husbands, and as followers of Christ.
Father Richards is pastor of St. Joseph Church and the Bread of Life Community in Erie, Pa., and also hosts the EWTN radio shows “The Reason For Our Hope” and “Open Line” as well as the Relevant Radio program “Changed Forever with Father Larry Richards.”
In addition, he is founder of The Reason For Our Hope Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading the Good News by educating others about Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith through CDs, DVDs and books. He authored the books Be a Man! Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, which has been a top seller for Ignatius Press, and Surrender! The Life-Changing Power of Doing God’s Will for Our Sunday Visitor. He released a Catholic men’s Bible for Our Sunday Visitor and a Scripture devotional calendar titled No Bible, No Breakfast! No Bible, No Bed!
Bishop Stika, who kiddingly introduced Father Richards as Keith Richards, complimented the Pennsylvania priest on inspiring Diocese of Knoxville men to be better examples of Christ. Bishop Stika even referred to the “Be a Man!” message during his own homily to close the retreat.
“I think Father Richards is doing a great job,” Bishop Stika said toward the end of the program.
And when Bishop Stika asked the men in attendance if they liked the retreat and its speaker, both received a standing ovation.
As evidenced by the titles of his multimedia programs and products, Father Richards is open and optimistic about his faith, which is tinged with an in-your-face presentation designed to engage readers and listeners and provoke thought. His presentation is steeped in personal experiences, from being the son of police officers in Pittsburgh and pastor of an inner city parish in Erie to being a high school chaplain, a counselor, and an evangelist.
His tough approach as a Catholic life coach might resemble that of football’s Vince Lombardi, Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, or Butch Jones more than popular evangelists like Father Robert Barron or Dr. Scott Hahn.
Patrolling the bare stage and clutching a Bible, flanked only by the Vatican and American flags, Father Richards spent the morning coaching those in attendance on being men who God created them to be — and men who confess. He then spent the afternoon talking about being a man of mercy and answering questions from Bishop Stika and the audience.
Glimpses he offered into his background provided hints of his personality, formation as a priest, and evangelist of the Good News. He spoke of his parents, being yelled at as a child and then again as a priest by priests during confession, his early exit from a seminary program for being too blunt, the two years he spent in an anger management program, and being a pastor in an inner city parish.
And he credited Billy Graham for being his main influence in joining the priesthood.
“I was taught in the seminary that you are a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional,” he said, urging the men in the strongest terms to regularly go to confession.
“Every day. Every day we need to repent,” he added. “We have to be men who acknowledge our sins and repent of them.” As part of the retreat, diocesan priests were present all day throughout the theater to hear confessions in portable confessionals.
In a light-hearted homage to his days as a youth growing up in a Catholic family that lived in a decidedly Catholic community whose faith was formed by strict priests, Father Richards warned the men early and often that if they didn’t follow his admonitions, they were going straight to hell.
He would then pause, look out at the audience and smile teasingly.
“Gentlemen, you need to commit yourself to daily prayer. It’s not an option. Pray every day and say three things. Say ‘I’m sorry’ and repent. Say ‘I surrender,’ and say ‘Jesus, hold me,’” he said. “You can either sing ‘I did it my way’ or ‘I did it God’s way.’ They’re singing ‘I did it my way’ every second of every day in hell.”
Father Richards implored the men to be faithful to God’s word, Jesus Christ’s teachings, and Catholicism in the face of a changing world where such beliefs are now condemned in certain regions. He said that is an important part of being a man. And he instructed them, and all Catholics, to give Pope Francis their full support, love, and prayers.
He constantly connected with his audience through humor, relatable personal experiences, stories of faith formation, and priestly guidance.
“I came to Christ at age 17. Billy Graham brought me to Jesus Christ. He pointed me to Jesus. I said the Sinner’s Prayer. For Billy, that is the end. For us, that’s the beginning,” Father Richards said, referring to the penitential ending prayer said at the often televised Billy Graham Crusades and other Protestant services.
It seemed obvious that Father Richards had learned more from Billy Graham than coming to Christ. His delivery would pivot on a dime from calming and comforting to fire and brimstone — in the truest spirit of his evangelical Protestant role models.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m an equal opportunity offender,” he said as a preface to a new point he was preparing to make, which, by this time, drew knowing laughs.
Speaking on marriage and fatherhood, Father Richards repeated Colossians 3:18, where the Bible tells wives to submit themselves to their husbands. Prompting the men to practically high-five each other as they acknowledged that popular verse, he then raised his voice for effect as he spoke on marriage and fatherhood.
“Stop being a jerk. It’s time for you to start giving your life to your wife and children. Be a man,” Father Richards sternly instructed. “Your No. 1 job given to you by God is to get your wife and children to heaven.”
“God can use you as an instrument of salvation,” he reminded them. “It’s about time you died to yourself. That’s what makes you a good man.”
Then, elevating his voice to a thunderous crescendo, he harshly commanded the men to tell their wives and children every day they love them.
He then gave the men homework, instructing them to write a letter to each child they have that tells the child how much the fathers love them and how special the children are.
Smiling broadly, Father Richards then gave the men his patented ultimatum: “If you don’t do this homework, you’re going to hell.” Laughs filled the theater.
Robert Liuag of St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut, who attended the retreat with his 15-year-old son, Blaine, a freshman at Knoxville Catholic High School, called the retreat a very positive experience.
He was one of several fathers attending with their sons.
“He was very entertaining with his message, which was great. He kept people engaged. A lot of things he talks about are things I’ve been thinking about myself. It helps me stay focused at this point in my life. I’m 51 years old. It’s a reinforcement of things that I need to look at mid-life,” Mr. Liuag said.
He also said Father Richards words are an inspiration, especially his guidance on fatherhood.
“I have my son with me at the retreat. It was a touching moment when he talked about how his father passed and that message about making sure your kids know you love them and that you appreciate them. That’s important,” he said.
Blaine Liuag shared his father’s opinion of the retreat.
“It has had a similar impact on me. I think it’s a message for older people, but I also think there is more of a connection when he talks of Jesus’ message about love and forgiveness. He connects it to broader issues and gives us a better understanding of how to approach things,” Blaine said.
Mr. Liuag said he was unfamiliar with Father Richards before the retreat, but found that his message and his unique style of delivering it to be very appealing.
“It totally appeals to me. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know him at all when I got here. He is not your typical priest,” Mr. Liuag said, adding that Father Richards reminds him of Jesuit priests because of the language he used and the way he conveyed his message. “I think it’s great to see because he modernizes the Christian message. That is really important because it makes it relevant.”
“I absolutely agree. I think he just tells it how it is. And you understand. It’s not how you would expect a Catholic priest to talk,” Blaine said.
Father Richards connected with his audience on every level despite any differences in demographics.
“I thought he was very good. Father Larry asks us to really embrace Jesus,” said Dr. Elijah Martin, a parishioner who serves as the diocesan coordinator for the Frassati Fellowship of Young Adults. “It was very refreshing to hear that, and to actually see the man who acts it out.”
Continuing the theme of becoming a better man in the eyes of Jesus, Bishop Stika asked those on the retreat during his homily to also be the face, hands, and feet of Jesus as they strive to be better Christians and Catholics.
The bishop also asked them to be better men by always being mindful of the choices they make with the free will God gives all of us.
“This can have such an impact on the eternal life of a person,” Bishop Stika said. “The power of leading another person to sin can destroy them because it’s an act of selfishness.
“That is a challenging thought. To me, what he [Father Richards] was saying is the most challenging; the gift that God gives to us, the gift of right from wrong and making choices — free will — can have such a major impact on the eternal life of another person,” the bishop said.
“All of us are called to be the hands of Jesus, because the hands of Jesus would never let another person sin. The heart of Jesus would never ask you to love someone if you were leading them astray just to make you feel better, of ensnaring a person so you can use them as an object. The feet of Jesus would never lead someone into a situation of damnation or harm.
“I think what Father Larry was saying, the thing that he weaved, is that sin and the devil lets us use that which we love the most to destroy us — just what Pope Francis said. Just like with Padre Pio; the devil used an image of the Blessed Mother and an image of Jesus to try and trick him. We live in a perilous time,” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop noted that he has resumed praying the prayer of St. Michael the Archangel to lead us away from the snares of the devil.
“My hope for all of us here is that we take the words of Father Larry to heart. But even more than that, that we take the words of Jesus to heart. Did you notice that Father Larry always had the Bible in his hand. Billy Graham and other Bible preachers, Bible thumpers as my dad used to call them, held the Word of God, too,” Bishop Stika said. “Padre Pio said the two greatest weapons against the devil — the evil one — are the rosary and Scripture.”
Bishop Stika urged the men to, as the Church year comes to an end and the New Year approaches, resolve to get spiritually fit. He suggested they keep track of how much they pray just as they would track calories and exercise.
“So as we begin another liturgical year and as we look to 2016, we can make some decisions about this next year: to be a man, to be a man of compassion, to be a man of charity, to be a man of forgiveness, to be a man who knows when to judge and when not to judge, but especially to be a man who believes in Christ, the king of our universe,” Bishop Stika said, encouraging the men to have more active spiritual lives and to become more active in their parishes. ■