‘I have called you’

Bishop Stika ordains 23 men as permanent deacons on ‘historic’ day for the Diocese of Knoxville

By Dan McWilliams

Every once in a while, a truly special event occurs in the history of a diocese.

On June 11, just such an event took place for the Diocese of Knoxville, as 23 permanent deacons were ordained for service in parishes throughout East Tennessee.

“It’s a historic day,” Bishop Richard F. Stika said following the Mass at a packed Sacred Heart Cathedral. “It’s our second class of permanent deacons. But it just shows the vitality that they’re spread from all different corners of the diocese. They’ve really been committed. This has been a five-year program. They’re going to be a great blessing to all the parishes.”

The bishop said that, for him, ordinations are always special, and that for the deacons and their families, “it’s just been a spectacular day.”

One deacon candidate was unable to be with the ordinands on their special day, but was expected to watch the ceremony via livestreaming video.

“We gather together to celebrate the ordination of these, my brothers, to the order of the diaconate, to be of service to God’s people, to be of service to all of you and those that they represent,” the bishop said.

“There are 23 who are gathered with us today, but there is another, Larry Rossini, who is in his hospital room. He had bypass surgery earlier in the week. He is watching us. Hi, Larry, get well soon.” Mr. Rossini will be ordained at a date to be announced.

Bishop Stika was principal celebrant of the ordination Mass. Concelebrants included Cardinal Justin Rigali; Cleveland, Tenn., native Abbott Cletus Meagher, OSB, of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Ala.; Father David Boettner, rector of the cathedral; and the four diocesan deans — Monsignor Patrick Garrity, Father Ronald Franco, CSP, Father Peter Iorio, and Father Charlie Burton. More than 38 priests and some 35 permanent deacons attended the Mass.

The newly ordained are Deacons Hicks Armor, Doug Bitzer, Gil Campos, John DeClue, Mike Duncan, Butch Feldhaus, Al Forsythe, Don Griffith, Steve Helmbrecht, Erasmo Hernandez, Mike Humphreys, Bob Ketteringham, Scott Maentz, Barry Maples, Steve May, Dennis Meinert, Peter Minneci, David Oatney, Walt Otey, Steve Ratterman, Phillip Talmadge, Tom Tidwell, and Fredy Vargas.

The diocese’s first diaconate class of 28 men was ordained in 2007 and included three men who assisted at the 2016 ordination: diocesan Chancellor Deacon Sean Smith; Deacon Tim Elliott, who is diocesan director of deacons and deacon formation; and Deacon Joe Stackhouse, who was deacon of the Eucharist at the June ordination.

Deacon Jim Lawson, ordained in 982, was deacon of the word, and Deacon Gary Brinkworth, ordained in 2000, was one of the masters of ceremony, along with Father Joe Reed and Father Arthur Torres Barona.

“It was really pretty incredible to have all of those guys [at the ordination],” Deacon Elliott said.

“It’s been almost five and a half years since they started in the program, but, more than anything, what a great gift to the diocese these guys have given. For the rest of their lives, they’ll be ordained servants of the Church for our diocese.”

The ordination rite began with the election of the candidates. Deacon Elliott called them forward, and each man replied “present.”

Deacon Elliott then recommended the candidates to the bishop for ordination, testifying that “they have been found worthy.” Bishop Stika then said, “Relying on the help of the Lord God and our  savior, Jesus Christ, we choose these, our brothers, for the order of the diaconate,” after which the assembly applauded.

The bishop said in his homily that people today, as did those of biblical times, “want to see Jesus.”

“For those of you being ordained to the diaconate today, there are the same people in a different situation in a different time. They, too, are looking for Jesus,” Bishop Stika said.

“In fact, we’re all looking for Jesus. We all want to feel the love of God. We all want to know that, in those most desperate times or those most joy-filled times, God is with his people. Emmanuel. Jesus is with his people. They want to know God.”

The Church “has this beautiful thing called holy orders,” Bishop Stika said.

“Some people can be set apart, not on a pedestal, but to say to another person, ‘I can represent Jesus in a particular way to you,’” he said. “Pope Francis recently spoke to the deacons from around the world and reminded them, as he reminds all of you, my brothers, to be selfless, and to know that for those who are married, that also your primary responsibility is the sacrament of marriage, but also that you have a responsibility now to the people of God.”

The bishop added, “I have called you” in the name of the people of God, “and in the name of the Church. Anybody want to chicken out?”

Bishop Stika said he prayed “that you will be the face, and the voice, and the hands, and the feet, and the heart of Jesus. In those moments when it takes a little bit more effort, to know that effort is part of who you are now — belonging to the sacred ministry of the diaconate. I pray that in those moments when you feel that you might be incomplete that you remember God takes the weak and he makes them strong.

“In those moments when you think a little bit of sinfulness is entering into your life, maybe because you want to preach what you think you should preach, as opposed to what the Church wants you to preach, or in those moments when you think, ‘Oh, not them again, they bug me,’ that you know it’s those people who search you out — not because you all are so handsome, or debonair, or intelligent. It is because you have presented yourself as the Church, as a minister of charity, as one to proclaim and to live the Gospel, and to assist me, as bishop, and to assist my brothers in the priesthood.”

The bishop said the ordinands are “not just classmates.”

“You belong to the diaconate of the Diocese of Knoxville, so you can be with the old-timers [existing deacons] because they, too, are part of that unique bond of what it means to be a deacon in the Church. But even greater than that, you are part of the ministerial team that exists — holy orders — working with your brother priests, because we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.”

Bishop Stika expressed his gratitude to the deacon candidates’ wives.

“And finally to the wives, living and deceased, I say thank you, because you are a big part of their journey as well. They would not be here today unless you gave your consent. And to the families, children and grandchildren, and friends who are with you, we pray for them as they now will make a commitment to pray for you in the Liturgy of the Hours: the official prayer of the Church.”

The bishop concluded by saying, “As the Church in the Diocese of Knoxville, from Chattanooga to the Tri-Cities and all the parishes in between, we have much to be thankful for, and sing praises of gratitude to almighty God, for these, my brothers, will be of service to you. Expect much of them, because they present to you an image of Christ in a very particular way.”

Following the homily, the bishop heard the elect make several promises, including “to discharge the office of deacon with humble charity,” “to maintain and deepen the spirt of prayer that is proper to your way of life,” and “to conform your life always to the example of Christ.” The ordinands also promised respect and obedience to Bishop Stika and his successors.

The candidates then prostrated themselves for the Litany of the Saints, filling the entire area below the step in front of the altar, as well as the center aisle.

“It was kind of funny because we weren’t sure how we were going to get them all to fit,” Deacon Elliott said of the litany logistics. “When you have 23 guys on the floor, and there’s only so much space, and we have a great number of those guys who are over 6 foot, we had to put them in by size as to where they were going to lie on the floor.”

Afterward, the bishop laid his hands on each candidate’s head and prayed the prayer of ordination.

The new deacons were then invested with the deacon’s stole and dalmatic. Priest and deacon friends of each ordinand primarily did the vesting. Cardinal Rigali vested Deacon David Oatney.

Bishop Stika then handed on the Book of the Gospels to each deacon, telling them to “receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

The bishop gave each new deacon a hug in the greeting of peace. More than 800 hugs followed as each permanent deacon in attendance hugged each of the new deacons, telling them, “Peace be with you.” A standing ovation then followed as the new deacons returned to their seats.

After Mass, several of the newly minted deacons spoke of their formation, or of the beauty of the ordination Mass.

When asked about his discernment, Deacon Mike Duncan said, “It was a constant tug. And people kept suggesting that I become a deacon. I kept coming up with reasons why I couldn’t do it, but God kept knocking down those excuses.

“It’s my chance to give something back to the Church and to God, who has given me so much.”

Deacon Duncan, who spent a career in law enforcement as a member of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, has been assigned to St. Albert the Great Parish in Knoxville.

Deacon Scott Maentz called the ordination Mass “a little bit surreal.”

“I think today was incredible,” he said. “It was just wonderful, not only to have the Holy Spirit come upon me through the laying on of hands, but also because of all the wonderful people who were gathered to wish us well. That in itself was overwhelming. I must say there were a few times when I felt overwhelmed and moved to tears.”

Regarding the long years of study, Deacon Maentz, who will be serving at Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville, said, “They seem like a distant memory. It was about five years.” Deacon Doug Bitzer said, “It’s a relief” to finally be ordained a deacon.

“I didn’t know if I could actually make it through the whole five years,” he said. “With God’s love and guidance, it is really good and a real relief. I am ready to move on with the next part of my ministry.”

Deacon Bitzer, who will be serving at Immaculate Conception Parish in Knoxville, said he thought the ordination Mass “was fabulous.”

Deacon Barry Maples, a cousin of Father Michael Maples, described the liturgy as “wonderful, breathtaking.”

“I was very touched and very moved,” he said. “I was most impressed with the way we gave God the glory, and Jesus was held up and esteemed on high.”

When asked what it feels like to be a deacon, he replied, “It’s kind of humbling, and I kind of feel like there’s a lot of work ahead, which I’m glad to do.

“I look forward to helping the people in their walk with Christ and their walk with God, getting closer to God,” added Deacon Maples, who will be serving at St. Mary in Athens.

“That’s what I look forward to the most. That’s why I did this.”

Deacon Hicks Armor, who will be serving at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, said he was “honored to be a part of the class and honored to be a part of the ceremony. The bishop was very gracious, and all of us are really looking forward to serving the people of the diocese.”

He described his diaconate journey as “only five years.”

“It was a great journey,” Deacon Armor said. “The class really bonded. We made lifetime friendships and shared a lot of time together.”

Deacon Elliott said the new deacons’ assignments span the diocese.

“We covered a whole bunch more parishes that had no deacons,” he said. “We still have a few more parishes to go to get deacons involved, but they’re a little bit farther away from where everybody’s living.”

Deacon Elliott said he also was touched by what he called a “beautiful” ordination Mass.

“I was moved almost to tears several times watching all of those activities,” he said. “Actually, all of the music and the readings were all picked out by the guys themselves for that particular Mass.

That was a very moving experience all the way around.”

The new deacons read massive amounts of text in their studies for the diaconate.

“Generally, each month for at least 10 months of the year, over the course of their studies, they would read about 500 pages a month and generally write a paper or take a test at the end of each block of instruction,” Deacon Elliott said. “Then, during the summertime, they were required to do anywhere from 15 to 20 hours a month of charity work of different types, so that they would get exposure to different ministries throughout the diocese.”

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