By Bill Brewer
East Tennessee law-enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical responders took part in the Diocese of Knoxville’s Blue Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Oct. 2, where the reading from Habakkuk was especially poignant at a time when public safety personnel increasingly feel under pressure in their communities.
Bishop Richard F. Stika welcomed those serving the community in safety roles and thanked them for their service. Then Sacred Heart members and others at the Mass gave the uniformed officers two ovations to show appreciation for their service.
Among those attending the Mass were Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch and a number of Knoxville police officers, Knoxville Fire Chief Stan Sharp and a number of Knoxville firefighters and first responders, and Oak Ridge Police Chief James Akagi.
The bishop spoke of how the safety community serves selflessly to protect our communities, with police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical responders never hesitating to rush to an emergency to save lives and never seeking attention for their bravery.
Mass began with a Knoxville Police Department honor guard processing in ahead of the Knights of Columbus. The honor guard carried the U.S. flag, the state of Tennessee flag, and the Knoxville Police Department flag.
Bishop Stika celebrated the Mass, with Father David Boettner, rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral, concelebrating. Father Arthur Torres, associate pastor at Sacred Heart, served as Mass emcee, and Deacon Dan Alexander served as deacon of the Word, with Deacon Joel Livingston serving as deacon of the Eucharist.
A number of firefighters and emergency medical responders who were in attendance were on call, sitting or standing near cathedral exits in case they had to respond to an emergency. A bagpipe player greeted the safety officers as they and church members arrived.
Bishop Stika told those in attendance the Blue Mass celebration is a reminder that there are men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who serve our community so that we may enjoy liberty, “so that wemay able to experience the freedom to live lives, love our families, to meet strangers along our journey in life.”
“Today, we honor those men and women in law enforcement, firefighting, and the EMTs, all those in our community who so often we don’t pay much attention to unless we have a need. This day, we ask the Lord’s blessing upon them, to strengthen them and protect them. I am grateful for all the different representations from the public safety community we have here. We even have firefighters who are on duty and may have to leave Mass to help someone in need. We ask God to bless them, to protect them, and to always give them the strength of service to the community,” Bishop Stika said.
Bishop Stika began his homily on faith by referring to the University of Tennessee’s “Hail Mary” pass for a touchdown that defeated Georgia as time in the football game expired on Oct. 1. The bishop was amused and encouraged that so many non-Catholics placed their faith in a “Hail Mary.”
“This is a beautiful Gospel because it talks about faith. It fits in today because we all are here because of faith. And it’s an amazing thing what faith and trust in a God that has created us can do. But also trust in a God that has instilled in us and given us many good gifts; that allows us to sometimes do things that we think we can’t do — faith,” Bishop Stika said. “We live in a world where so often faith is being challenged, where people are walking away from the faith and question the existence of God. Throughout history, humanity sometimes begins to declare itself God in so many different ways, like we are totally in control of our lives.
“As I said, today we celebrate the Blue Mass in thanksgiving for the service of so many men and women who have a faith and a belief in a system that allows them to do things that the rest of us probably would not do,” he added.
Bishop Stika said he served as a police chaplain in St. Louis and worked with officers involved in shootings to help them cope. He also was called on to offer support to the families of two slain police officers. Those experiences always will be with him, he said.
He recalled 9/11 and the extraordinary acts police officers, firefighters, emergency medical responders, and civilians did to save lives; people rushing in to places where they would rather not be. “Faith. They had trust in something greater than themselves. That’s what we give thanks to almighty God for today, for those kinds of experiences,” the bishop said.
He explained that, as a St. Louis native, he is very familiar with St. Louis suburb Ferguson, Mo., a place that never thought it would be the focus of a national conversation on race relations. Bishop Stika said unlike media reports that mischaracterized Ferguson, the town is small and peaceful, and historically has enjoyed a positive spirit of community.
And while there are places where concerns about policing are valid and widely covered by the media, there are recent tragic instances where police officers have been killed in the line of duty that have received little attention.
“I dare say that there is not one police officer I have ever met who had the intention of killing another person. There has never been a firefighter who has walked away, as far as I know, from running into a building that is on fire to reach another person,”
Bishop Stika said. “They say black lives matter. I think it is valid to say that in some ways, because our nation is based on a prejudice that has been around a long time, not only against African Americans.”
The bishop explained that his family emigrated from Poland at the end of the 19th century; they encountered prejudice, and many families had to change their names. Bishop Stika’s aunt and uncle changed their name from a Polish derivation to a very American derivation because his uncle could not get a job under his Polish name. He noted that the Irish faced the same prejudice in parts of the United States. “But the African Americans are different because many of them came from slavery.
It’s a different thing. But I dare say for a police officer, or EMT, or firefighter, all lives matter. They don’t run into a building with a survey or poll and say, ‘How many Latinos, how many Americans, how many immigrants, how many Caucasians,’ and then say, ‘Who do I save?’ For them, it’s all lives matter.”
“It’s the same for anyone and anything that exists in our community,” he added. That doesn’t excuse public servants who should not be in their positions, Bishop Stika pointed out.
“Just as I know that there are priests who should not have been priests. We all know that situation. And priests were all judged by the sins of a few. The same is true of individuals. That’s what the word ‘prejudice’ is. Prejudice is not just about color or faith. It’s also about positions, and vocations, and jobs,” he said.
“For God has given each and every one of us the ability to make a difference, to make a change for a positive … or a negative. The greatest thing, I’ve always said, besides the gift of faith that God has given to us, is the gift of free choice — to run into a building to save a life or to run out of a building; to assist a person on the street like the story of the good Samaritan, or to walk by them because we don’t want to be bothered. That’s the test of our faith, the faith that reminds us to not only listen to those words of Jesus because they’re nice or they give us warm fuzzies, especially when He says, ‘Love your neighbor.’
But then when we actually have to love our neighbor, are we willing to turn the other cheek? Do you think Jesus made that up, too? Those are the things we are invited to reflect on by the readings we have today, faith; the gift of faith,” he noted.
Bishop Stika said he, in a very special way, wanted to thank all the brothers and sisters in law enforcement, emergency medical response, firefighting, and everyone who serves the country and its communities.
The bishop then led the congregation in a standing ovation for the public safety servants in attendance, who numbered about 25.
“You see,” he told the special guests, “all lives matter, and your lives matter to us. In the name of the community I’m privileged to serve, from Chattanooga and South Pittsburg, to Crossville, to Johnson City and Kingsport, all of the communities big and small, to my brothers and sisters who help us, and serve us, and protect us, and give their lives for us, God bless you, and thank you.”
Chief Rausch and his colleagues in public safety appeared moved by the Blue Mass.
“The Blue Mass did have a special meaning to me, because it was a special service for first responders in our community and an opportunity to recognize them and pray for them. Especially in the atmosphere we find ourselves today, specifically police officers, where our actions are being hyper-scrutinized. Riots are breaking out when officers are defending their lives and the lives of others. That message is really impacting those who work in our communities. My take-away from the service was that the Knoxville community cares deeply for our first responders and they are appreciated,” Chief Rausch said.
“I and the officers who attended appreciate the bishop’s statements and agree that all lives matter. He was exactly right that no police officer goes out on duty with the intention to ever hurt anyone. We are just members of this community who have answered our call to service as police officers for this community. Our families accept this service, but they want us to come home safe and secure every day. We were humbled and honored by the ovations and felt the love that was being expressed,” he added. “These services are more proof of the wonderful support that officers receive from this great community that we live in. Knoxville is a special place, and we are blessed to live here. This and many other expressions of support are vital to the outlook, attitude, and health of our officers. We are so appreciative for the support.”
Oak Ridge Police Chief Akagi agreed that it’s currently a difficult time to be a police officer.
“Right now, it’s particularly tough for law enforcement given what’s going on nationally. But to be appreciated in such a great setting as this means a lot to us,” Chief Akagi said.
Knoxville Fire Chief Sharp said he and the Knoxville Fire Department personnel were grateful for the Blue Mass and the goodwill it inspired.
“This was a really great honor for all of our police and firefighters and our emergency responders. It’s nice that this community is showing appreciation for what we do. And it’s also very nice to know that we have people praying for us, for our safety as we do our job,” Chief Sharp said.