50 years a priest

Golden jubilee of ordination Mass at All Saints Church marks milestone for Father Michael Woods

By Bill Brewer

When parishioner Chris Kite asked Father Michael Woods last winter how he would like to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, the answer caught no one off guard.
Father Woods simply requested that his All Saints congregation join him for a Mass on the lawn of the Knoxville parish near his June 19 anniversary date. Outdoor Masses are a favorite of Father Woods, who is known to celebrate at least one a year.

So the idea was set in motion, and on Sunday, June 12, some 2,860 of Father Woods’ parishioners, friends, family, and colleagues gathered for a special Mass to celebrate his golden jubilee of ordination. Bishop Richard F. Stika presided at the Mass, which was celebrated by Father Woods. Concelebrating was Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga. Also in attendance were priests, deacons, and women religious from around the diocese.

Father Carter, who served as an associate priest at All Saints under Father Woods, delivered the homily, which followed closely the Scripture and readings for June 12. But Father Carter’s message also touched on the Irish priest who calls Carlingford, Ireland, his original home and who has been spreading the Gospel in the Diocese of Knoxville with a brogue since 1994.
Father Woods began the Mass by extending a heartfelt welcome to everyone.

“Way back in February I expressed a desire that on my jubilee, instead of being in an enclosed area, we have this outdoors with everybody celebrating the priesthood. This is beyond all my expectations, and I thank you for coming. I welcome you,” he said before offering a short, sobering message of hope. “I know it’s a joyous occasion and it’s exciting. But it’s also true that while this is happening, there is a lot of evil in the world. It is this kind of moment that can conquer it. … I beg you during this Mass while we celebrate the graciousness of Jesus, we remember, too, that he was crucified. He has risen, and we can conquer this kind of evil.”

Father Michael Woods, clutching a flat Michael, shares a few words with Bishop Richard F. Stika following the Mass to celebrate his 50th anniversary as a priest.

With the congregation sprawled across the All Saints lawn closest to the church, dressed coolly amid 90-plus-degree temperatures and sitting in lawn chairs covered by portable canopies and umbrellas to escape the sun, Father Carter launched into his message, which was equally poignant, praising, and funny.

“Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that if you ask him to preach for an hour, give him 10 minutes to prepare. But if you only want him to preach for 10 minutes, give him an hour to prepare. Father Woods asked me to preach for this two weeks ago. It should be the shortest homily ever given,” Father Carter began.

“But I’ll have you know that I’m the only one on record to ever outdo Father Michael Woods in homily length; only once. Now though I was humbled and honored by the request, I was ready and quick to accept the invitation. You see, I had already stored away in my mind what I would say if I was asked to speak at his funeral. Now don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t because I wanted to see him die, but because I surely thought it was something worth remembering once he was gone. Amen?”

The congregation responded with an “Amen” after laughing at Father Carter’s comparison to Father Woods’ homily length and his mention of prepared remarks for the Irish priest’s funeral.

The Sunday Scripture referred to a woman who crashed a party, creating quite a buzz among party-goers. But her untoward initiative was pure in motive: She had come to see Jesus. She had heard of Him and desperately wanted to see Him.

Father Carter, standing in his vestment at an ambo on a makeshift stage underneath a tent, turned the Scripture scene on those attending the Mass.

“Why did you come here today? We’re outside…in June…in the South. It’s hot,” Father Carter mused, holding back a laugh or two. He then pointed out where people had traveled from, including Ireland, Los Angeles, Texas, and Atlanta, to celebrate with Father Woods.

“Who did you come here to see? Well, some of you at first might say Father Michael Woods, 50 years and all that. Now, if 50 years and all that and Father Michael Woods was our final answer, we would have to be talking about things like his Irishness. Did you know that he was Irish? He invented St. Patrick’s Day himself, Leprechaun outfit and all. One time I worried about him when he came home and he said he had just enjoyed some good “craic” with someone. I thought he had taken an illegal substance until I found out that craic (pronounced crack) is the Irish word for good conversation.

“Is coming to see Father Michael why we came? It’s not, is it? Seeing Father Michael Woods is never why we came. If anything, Father Michael is the Simon of today’s Gospel. We came to Woods’ place because we heard that Jesus was there, plain and simple. And I believe that Father Michael knows Jesus. That’s what makes him a good priest,” Father Carter said, before adding, “Father Michael, I must confess that I stole most of your ideas and put them in my homilies. That was good craic about Jesus.”

Father Woods complimented Father Carter for preaching a “beautiful homily,” and then in a funny exchange on the altar, Father Woods turned to Bishop Stika and asked who should speak next, the Irish priest or the bishop. Bishop Stika then deadpanned with a grin, “how long are you going to be?” Father Woods then replied, “Oh, I’ll just say a word then.”

Parishioners attending the anniversary Mass took advantage of anniversary keepsakes to keep cool.

“If there are any young men out there wondering about the value of the priesthood, take a look around you. That is why people are here, to find Jesus. I think I could be accused because of my suggestion that we have an event like this, accused like the Pharisee, that I’m grandstanding,” Father Woods said. “But I want you to know the real reason why I asked for a celebration like this. It is because I identify with the woman of today’s Scripture. She was profoundly grateful and came with an alabaster jar to the feet of Jesus. And why I had this celebration is because I have brought my alabaster jar to pour out over your feet as the Church in East Tennessee.”

Then, holding a golden chalice, as his voice cracked with emotion, Father Woods continued, “Today, as I celebrate 50 years, I remember the first time I saw this chalice. It was on my table in my home, and it was a gift from my mother and father. I hadn’t celebrated yet my first Mass. In their name, and in the name of all the people they represent in my home and in my family, I’m so grateful to them for encouraging me and praying for me for this gift of priesthood. And I remember them very fondly.”

Father Woods also thanked the Church in Atlanta, which he said took a chance on him as a young priest and formed his priesthood. He also thanked the Diocese of Knoxville’s founding bishop, Anthony J. O’Connell, who persuaded Father Woods to serve in the Diocese of Knoxville as an associate pastor at St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge. He then thanked the Diocese of Knoxville’s second bishop, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of the Archdiocese of Louisville, who persuaded Father Woods to become incardinated and officially join the diocese. And he thanked all the priests and parishioners in the diocese who have welcomed him.

And he expressed gratitude to Bishop Stika.

He recalled meeting Bishop Stika for the first time at the bishop’s 2009 ordination and installation as bishop of Knoxville. The next day the bishop visited St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge for the sacrament of confirmation. Father Woods greeted the bishop in the rectory, and when Bishop Stika heard Father Woods’ accent, the bishop said, “How did you get here?”

“I said, ‘Oh that is a long story.’ And Bishop Stika, you said truly, so gently and kindly, ‘Michael, we all have a story.’ You made me very welcome and you have been such a support and encouragement to me since coming to our diocese. I am very grateful,” Father Woods told Bishop Stika.

Bishop Stika told those attending the Mass that he had prayed for a sunny day to celebrate Father Woods’ 50th anniversary.

“So we have the luck of the Irish today. Then I went to get a hat, my red St. Louis Cardinals hat, because I thought I would need it. And it was a miracle! It was green,” the bishop said, revealing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap that was completely Irish green.

“For 50 years, Father Michael has truly been the hands and the voice and the heart and the smile of Jesus. The Polish might say to him ‘Sto lat,’ or may you live 100 years, because you are not retiring until you turn 100. And I have witnesses,” Bishop Stika said, drawing laughs. “I also wish you many more years, Father Michael.”

Bishop Stika unveiled a “Flat Michael,” a life-size image of Father Woods wearing a leprechaun costume holding a pot of gold that he jokingly vowed to hang in the new cathedral. “In the name of all my brother priests and deacons, this has been a real celebration for the Diocese of Knoxville. … Father Michael, happy anniversary.”

In closing, Father Woods said, “I am so grateful to you for allowing me to serve you, to make me feel so welcome. I have loved it. It has been such a great experience. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to serve you and for enriching me with your own faith.” ■

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