Calling it ‘a very special time in our diocese,’ he welcomes more than 60 priests to the annual Holy Week liturgy
By Dan McWilliams
Bishop Richard F. Stika made an important announcement in his opening remarks at the 2017 Chrism Mass on April 11 at Sacred Heart Cathedral.
“This is a very special time in our diocese,” he said. “This will be the last time we gather together in this current cathedral to celebrate the Chrism Mass.”
With the new cathedral rising outside, more than 60 priests, more than 36 deacons, a large number of women religious as well as seminarians, seminary candidates, Knights of Columbus, and a few hundred of the faithful from throughout the diocese came together for the 29th and final Chrism Mass at the present cathedral. The new cathedral will be dedicated March 3, 2018.
A packed Sacred Heart, lined with banners from parishes old and new, saw the bishop consecrate the holy oils that will be used in churches throughout the year and witnessed the diocese’s shepherd as he heard the priests renew their vows of priestly service as they do every year at the annual Chrism Mass.
Bishop Stika consecrated an extra amount of sacred chrism this year because it will be needed for the dedication of the new cathedral.
Concelebrants at the Chrism Mass included Cardinal Justin Rigali, host rector Father David Boettner, and diocesan deans Father Charlie Burton, Father Doug Owens, Father Mike Cummins, and Father Ron Franco, CSP. The deacon of the Word was Christopher Floersh, who was ordained a priest on June 3. Freddy Vargas was deacon of the Eucharist. Seminarians and seminary candidates served at the altar.
Bishop Stika said the Chrism Mass was “also kind of a sad time,” as he spoke of absent friends: Monsignor Xavier Mankel, one of the diocese’s vicars general, who was recovering from hip surgery while also battling the effects of a stroke, and the late Monsignor George Schmidt and Father Joe Campbell, who passed away in recent months.
“Monsignor Mankel is not here,” the bishop said. “So it’s kind of sad that he’s not with us, but he assures us that he’s with us in spirit.”
In his homily, Bishop Stika called the occasion “a spectacular night for any diocese.”
“What a beautiful ceremony we celebrate this evening,” he said.
“For us, here in Knoxville, I think it’s always spectacular. We come from all over East Tennessee to celebrate as one Church, as the body of Christ, as a minority church, and yet as a Church filled with vigor and strength and the grace of God.
“Today we celebrate the priesthood in a special way because my brother priests will renew their priestly promises.”
Next “we celebrate the beauty of the oils,” the bishop said. “The blessing of the oil of the sick — the ritual tells us when there is someone sick, send for the priest that they might be anointed. The oil of catechumens, which reminds us there are brothers and sisters of humanity in the world who wish to be baptized, who wish to be one in the community of faith.
“And also the holy chrism, actually consecrated. Chrism, which we have twice as much of this year, because next year the chrism that I will consecrate tonight will be used for the dedication of the altar of the new cathedral, to anoint the walls and the baptismal font. But it will also be used for our deacon, Christopher Floersh, who will be ordained a priest. The chrism will be used in our parishes for confirmation or for the sacrament of baptism.”
Bishop Stika displayed both a chalice that belonged to Monsignor Schmidt, longtime pastor of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, and a crosier, first used by Knoxville’s founding bishop, Anthony J. O’Connell.
“At one time in the early 1970s, a family gave this [chalice] to a brother priest, Monsignor George Schmidt, God rest him,” the bishop said. “And for all those years of priesthood, he used this chalice.
Monsignor George Schmidt, who was called home to God [Dec. 29], was a priest who loved the priesthood.
He was the chairman for many years of the group that works with our priests for retirement. He was one of the founders of the diocese, one of the negotiators when our diocese was created, to make sure that we got a fair shake from our mother diocese, the Diocese of Nashville. In 1988, he and Monsignor Mankel and others were part of the beginning of our local Church.
“But I can think of many times Monsignor would have used this, because he was a priest of Jesus Christ in the order of Melchizedek. Not only did he love the basilica—I remember the first time I met him, he said, ‘Bishop, I’m obedient, but if you try to move me I’ll retire.’ He had a great love of the orange, always trying to attend as many football games as he could. He had a great love of the people of God. I remember I visited him on Christmas day. I had a Mass in Gatlinburg and then drove to Chattanooga to spend some time with him and commend him to God. Then a few days later in the presence of, I think it was Father Charlie [Burton], he passed from this life to the next.”
Father Campbell died Oct. 20.
“And the other priest who passed on this year was the Gentle Giant, 6-8 or 6-9, Father Joe Campbell, a late vocation,” Bishop Stika said. “He was the priest of the boat Mass.
“We looked for his chalice and we couldn’t find it, so I found one of his T-shirts, and that’s actually my alb. Father Joe was a big guy. At the end of his life the last couple of years he was quite sick and was trying to lose weight. He had heart disease. I remember the day he died we gathered up in the hospital with him. Father Joe, one of his favorite songs was ‘Big John.’ And after we did the ‘Salve Regina’ and some other religious songs, Father David [Boettner], through the technology of the cellphone, played next to Joe’s ear — because he wasn’t able to communicate much — ‘Big John,’ and at some point we commended him to almighty God.”
The late clergy were “two different kinds of priests,” the bishop said. “They didn’t exactly look alike. George was this tall, and Joe was twice as tall. But they had a love for Jesus Christ. They felt his call to the priesthood, George from an early age and Joe after a lifetime of ‘experiences.’”
Bishop Stika then addressed his fellow priests.
“My brothers, who I’m so privileged to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Nine years now, I’ve been able to witness this commitment,” he said. “But I see their commitment each and every day in a variety of different ways. And sometimes it’s a very thankless job, dealing with parishioners, who are not always the most easy to deal with, but also the priests sometimes aren’t always the easiest to deal with. But that’s life.
“The thing about the priests is, a lot is asked of them, and of the bishop . . . a lot is expected. But to those who are given much, much is expected. And you, my brothers, have been given the ability to confect the sacraments, to hold a chalice, like Monsignor George or Father Joe Campbell, and to hold that paten and say, ‘Take and eat all of you, for this is my body. Take and drink all of you, for this is my chalice, given for you.’ And all those times when you’re tired of dealing with situations. Remember that — it’s something special, because the people of God depend on you to feed them, not only in homilies and in counseling, but to be fed by the nourishment of the altar: the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
Priests are with parishioners “in moments of great happiness but also in those moments of challenge — what a privilege that is,” the bishop said. “And to know that we don’t represent ourselves; we represent the Church, the people of God. We act in the person of Jesus, but we’re not Jesus; we are merely his instruments.”
Bishop Stika commented on two longtime priests in attendance at the Chrism Mass, Monsignor Bob Hofstetter and Cardinal Rigali.
Monsignor Hofstetter, as the senior active priest of the diocese, would later bring forward the balsam for the chrism.
“Monsignor Bob has been a priest since 1954. He has seen a lot of life,” the bishop said. “The cardinal has been a priest since 1961. He’s had to live with me for a long time — he’s a true martyr of the Church. With all his vast international experiences, he has made his home with us.”
Bishop Stika then introduced seminary candidates and several priests who hail from around the country and around the world.
“We are greatly blessed to have brother priests, as different as we are, united by Jesus Christ,” he said.
“And for all of us, the people of God, isn’t that a privilege to be able to know Jesus in the Eucharist and in the sacraments, to be graced by the gift of baptism and confirmation, to be gifted in a very special way to be able to know Jesus, because you can’t give Jesus until you know Jesus. And so my sisters and brothers, continue to pray for your priests. They need your prayers.”
Those prayers are needed especially on occasions like Sunday nights, often a lonely time for a priest, the bishop said.
“Please pray for your priests in those moments of joy but also in those moments of challenge — it’s important,” he said. “Forgive them when they mess up, but hug them when they do well. And if they do make mistakes, help them learn to minister better. But you the people of God also have to cooperate a little bit sometimes, huh?”
Bishop Stika said that “we do together what we can’t do by ourselves, but we never do it by ourselves — we do it with Jesus, inspired by the Holy Spirit, loved by the Father, fortified by the communion of saints.
“Yes, my brother priests, we’re privileged, but all of us as Catholics, as Christians, we’re blessed, because we have the ability to know God through Jesus, to be nourished by that powerful spirit that nourishes this Church of Knoxville each and every moment of each and every day.”
Addressing remarks “to you, the people of God,” the bishop said,
“I just want to thank you for your generosity, in the Home Campaign and the Bishop’s Appeal. The weekend after the horrible tragic fires in Gatlinburg, the diocese that weekend we gathered together over $150,000. The Diocese of Nashville just sent me a check for almost $48,000.”
Bishop Stika asked the assembly to “please pray for vocations. Pray for each other. Pray for the religious sisters, who are so wonderfully represented here today. Pray for our deacons, especially our new deacons. And let’s just pray for ourselves, knowing that we do together what we can’t do by ourselves. We build the kingdom of God in East Tennessee.”
After the homily, the priests stood before the bishop to renew their commitment to the priesthood. They resolved “to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to Him” and “to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God in the Holy Eucharist . . . and to discharge faithfully the sacred office of teaching, following Christ the head and shepherd, not seeking any gain, but moved only by zeal for souls.”
The assembly promised to “pray for your priests, that the Lord may pour out His gifts abundantly upon them and keep them faithful as ministers of Christ, the high priest, so that they may lead you to Him, who is the source of salvation.”
The faithful also vowed to “pray also for” Bishop Stika, “that I may be faithful to the apostolic office entrusted to me in my lowliness and that in your midst I may be made day by day a living and more perfect image of Christ, the priest, the good shepherd, the teacher, and the servant of all.”