Ninety-one years young John Stramiello is among 65 from across the diocese confirmed at the annual liturgy
By Bill Brewer
John Stramiello had compelling reasons for missing his confirmation: the Great Depression and World War II.
At a time when most Catholic youth were studying their catechesis in preparation for the sacrament of confirmation, Mr. Stramiello’s family was crisscrossing the United States in search of employment as his father worked to put a roof over their heads and food on their table and his mother worked to care for the family.
Then at age 19, Uncle Sam came calling and Mr. Stramiello answered, spending the next two years serving in the Army in the South Pacific during WWII.
Life’s journey began early for the cradle Catholic from Brooklyn, N.Y.
He had lived in four states and another country by the time he was a teenager.
But after a lifetime of regret for never having received the last of three initiation rites (after baptism and first Holy Communion),
Mr. Stramiello decided to wait no longer.
So on June 25 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mr. Stramiello joined 64 other adults from around the Diocese of Knoxville gathered for the annual adult confirmation Mass.
If everything had gone according to plan and calendar, Mr. Stramiello would have received the sacrament of confirmation in 1941 or 1942.
But, as Bishop Richard F. Stika succinctly pointed out in his homily, life is a journey, especially the faith life.
Mr. Stramiello can relate. At the age of 91, he may be the oldest Diocese of Knoxville parishioner ever to be confirmed.
Mr. Stramiello felt somewhat at home among the adults receiving the sacrament from Bishop Stika, as comfortable as you could feel as the lone nonagenarian amid a confirmandi class dominated by millennials or generations X and Y, a.k.a. Echo Boomers or the Net Generation.
But his low-profile presence was quickly exposed by Bishop Stika.
“Normally I celebrate confirmation with young women and men, high school age or younger. But I hear a rumor that there’s someone here to be confirmed, who would be the oldest person I’ve confirmed. He’s over the age of 90,” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop then pointed out Mr. Stramiello of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville, who received applause.
“He’s the oldest kid I’ve ever confirmed.”
“That’s why I say life is a journey. It takes us to different places and different moments in life. One of the things that I’ve reminded all of the people I’ve confirmed this season is God doesn’t want us to fail. He doesn’t. God does not want us to fail. If we look at Genesis, Genesis tells us that we’re all created in the image and likeness of God. Now, when I look in the mirror and I see myself, I think ‘is that what God looks like?’ I certainly hope not,” Bishop Stika said.
“Life is so precious and beautiful. We’re created in the image and likeness of God. So why would God want us to fail? God loves us so much that he sent Jesus into our life to show that he does not want us to fail. He gives us the gifts, the talents, and all of the experiences of life. Some are quite challenging. Some are crosses to bear. But all of life’s experiences are part of who we are. Life ain’t perfect. I guess that’s why Jesus came into the world just to know what we have to go through as a person, as a part of humanity,” he added.
Mr. Stramiello and the other confirmandi personified Bishop Stika’s confirmation Mass message. They are on their own faith journeys and have made the decision to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.
“He (Jesus) got together a group of individuals, people just like yourselves. … And if you look at the first followers of Jesus, they don’t look a lot different than us. But they put their trust in Jesus. ‘Jesus, I trust in you,’ they said, when he said, ‘Come and follow me,’” Bishop Stika pointed out. “They followed Jesus. They staked their lives on Jesus.”
Bishop Stika described the joy the apostles must have felt as they followed Jesus in those three years of His ministry when He was cheered and beloved, such as when they entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; and the pain they must have felt when Jesus was jeered and taunted amid calls for his crucifixion only a few days later.
After Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection and ascension into heaven, the apostles went out into the world spreading the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“The rest is history, because we are here today. To me, that is one of the proofs of the Holy Spirit, we are here today, in this church, the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, Tenn., in the year of our Lord, 2017, despite what has happened to the Church and the world through all the centuries. We are here today,” Bishop Stika said.
“Jesus knew the apostles were going to need help. And Jesus knows that we need help. That’s why we have the sacrament of confirmation.
The seven sacraments we have as the Church are times when we are touched by Jesus in a particular way, such as baptism or marriage.
All seven sacraments are to give us help, to fortify us because God does not want us to fail.”
The bishop then told the confirmandi that the same Holy Spirit that came upon the apostles at Pentecost, the same Holy Spirit that comes upon people at baptism or ordinations as bishops or priests, that same Holy Spirit is going to come upon them.
“And anytime we open our hearts to God, He touches our life, He fills us up, He gives us help. It might not be the answer we want when we want it. But He wants to give us that help, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so that we might be transformed, so that we might do the things that we might think we can’t do.”
Bishop Stika then asked the confirmandi to renew their baptismal promises before he said the ancient Prayer of the Laying on of Hands.
He then anointed them with the holy Chrism, using the Chrism to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads while he said, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” as he placed his hand on their heads and was told the name of the saint they have chosen to honor and to whom they have a special devotion.
As he concluded his homily, the bishop inspired the confirmandi to continue their journey comforted by knowing God will be with them.
“You are eventually going to be walking out those doors, and you’re going to be making all kinds of choices and decisions that you’ve always made. But you’re going to be doing so now fortified by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Keep your relationship with God alive and real, and He will always be there with you,” he said.
Bishop Stika, who said it is one of the great joys of his life to give the sacrament of confirmation, informed the congregation that this will be the last group of confirmandi in the present cathedral. The new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus will be dedicated on March 3.
Father Richard Armstrong, assistant director of the diocesan Office of Christian Formation and pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Eastern (Byzantine) Catholic Mission in Knoxville, said the 2017 class of adult confirmandi was the largest the diocese has had, and he credited Bishop Stika and leaders in the Office of Christian Formation — director Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, and censor librorum Sister Mary Timothea Elliott, RSM — for making the sacrament of confirmation so available to adults in the diocese.
“More and more dioceses are doing what we are doing,” Father Armstrong said. “These strong adult numbers demonstrate the importance of faith in people’s lives. These are people who are freely choosing it.”
Father Armstrong said the increasing number of adult confirmandi also points to the strong network of parishes and DREs and the outreach they do.
As an example of the work the parish directors of religious education do, many of the adults had to have help in locating their baptismal certificates, and with many of the adult Hispanics, the DREs had to help them get their baptismal certificates from other countries, “which isn’t easy to do,” the Christian Formation assistant director said.
“That shows the level of commitment they have to the sacrament,” he said about the confirmandi and the DREs, noting that 36 of the 65 adult confirmandi, or 55 percent, were Hispanic.
Father Armstrong expects the number of adults being confirmed in the diocese to go down over time since the sacrament now is available to elementary/middle-school students.
There is a direct correlation among the decreasing number of teens receiving the sacrament, the increasing number of adults being confirmed, and the age at which confirmation has been offered in the diocese, according to Father Armstrong.
“In the 1970s and ’80s, confirmation was pushed to the high-school years in most places. Many adolescents did not receive the sacrament for various reasons, so the result is today we have many adult Catholics who have now been confirmed,” Father Armstrong said. “By lowering the age, we will see fewer people miss the sacrament.”
Father Armstrong urges any Catholic adult who has not been confirmed to contact their parish and begin the process. He said that process is not at all complicated, strenuous, or intimidating.
“We really try to make it as easy as possible. Very little is required,” he said, noting that there is some catechesis involved and a baptismal certificate is needed. “We try to make it as painless as possible. We don’t want to put an unnecessary burden on receiving a free gift from God. You are never too old for grace.”
Although clearly joyous in greeting each confirmand, Bishop Stika was especially joyous that Mr. Stramiello, who attends daily Mass and the Sunday Latin Mass at Holy Ghost, persevered in receiving the sacrament that had eluded him for nearly 80 years.
Mr. Stramiello was accompanied by his daughter, Giovanna Stramiello, who lives in Nashville, and Elizabeth Bunker, the director of religious education at Holy Ghost. In fact, Mr. Stramiello drove to Nashville to pick up his daughter so she could attend the confirmation Mass.
“I had been through confirmation, and he said he had not been confirmed,” Ms. Stramiello said. “I know the diocese offers adult confirmation, so I asked Dad to talk to (Holy Ghost pastor) Father (John) Dowling.”
After searching for his sacramental records, Father Dowling and Mrs. Bunker worked with Mr. Stramiello and his daughter to determine what sacraments he has received, when, and where. Mrs. Bunker admires his stick-to-itiveness.
“He knew he was baptized in New York, but he didn’t know where,” Mrs. Bunker said, adding that Church records for Mr. Stramiello were discovered at Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville.
“He is an inspiration and a blessing to Holy Ghost Church, no doubt about it.”
Mr. Stramiello noted that he was baptized at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Brooklyn and that he received his first Holy Communion in Knoxville. “I had a lot of help finding out when I was baptized and where I was baptized.”
“He received first Holy Communion at Immaculate Conception. He was married at Holy Ghost, and now he’s being confirmed at the cathedral,” Ms. Stramiello said.
“I think it’s wonderful. I actually pushed for it. When he told me, I said, ‘We can get this done.’”
As a child, Mr. Stramiello and his family moved from Brooklyn, relocating to Canada, Maryland, New Orleans, Nashville, and finally to Knoxville, where his father took a job with the Palm Beach apparel factory.
After serving in the Army, Mr. Stramiello joined Palm Beach and spent his career as a sewing-machine mechanic while raising three children with his wife. In addition to Giovanna, 41, Mr. Stramiello’s children are Deborah, 61, of Hixson, and John Jr., 62, of Spokane, Wash.
Now at age 91, Mr. Stramiello is resting easier after having been confirmed.
“It’s just great. It just gets everything done. I’ve received all the sacraments,” he said.
After Mass concluded, Bishop Stika approached Mr. Stramiello again with congratulations and to put the moment in perspective.
“I think you might be the oldest person I’ve ever confirmed. God bless you,” the bishop said.