Former OLPH pastor, Notre Dame teacher, Knoxville Catholic High School principal to prepare diocese for new bishop
By Theresa Laurence
Father Mike Johnston will be looking to answer one big question while he serves as administrator of the Diocese of Nashville: “What can we do together to prepare the diocese for the next bishop?”
“An administrator’s role is not to make any grand new initiatives,” Father Johnston said, but to “keep things in place, fine tune the rough edges.”
Father Johnston sees the interim between bishops as “self-reflection time” for the diocese, “time to look at, ‘Where are we strong, where are we weak? Is there anything we should do to get in a better place?’”
Father Johnston, a priest of the Diocese of Nashville for nearly 47 years, was elected as administrator June 6 by the College of Consultors, a group of 12 priests serving the diocese. The election was held, as required by canon law, after the diocesan see became vacant with the death of Bishop David Choby on June 3. The vote by the College of Consultors took place during the annual priest convocation held each June in conjunction with the priests of the Diocese of Knoxville.
Father Johnston assumed the duties for the administration of the diocese immediately and will serve until a new bishop is named by Pope Francis and is installed as bishop of the Diocese of Nashville.
There is no set timeline for a new bishop to be named. Before Bishop Choby’s appointment as bishop was announced in December 2005, the diocese was without a bishop for more than 13 months. Pope Francis has generally not waited that long to name new bishops; recently, some dioceses have had a new bishop named within six months of becoming vacant.
There are currently four other Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States waiting for a new bishop to be named.
Bishop Choby was elected as administrator of the diocese after Bishop Edward Kmiec was named Bishop of Buffalo, N.Y., in 2004, but it is rare for the elected administrator of the diocese to also be named its bishop. It is also somewhat rare for a bishop to come from inside the diocese; Bishop Choby and Bishop James Niedergeses were the only two native sons of the Diocese of Nashville in its 180-year history to be named its bishop.
“I certainly see this as a short-term endeavor,” Father Johnston, 71, said of his role in leading the diocese. “I’ll serve as best I can.
A diocesan administrator is tasked with maintaining the operation of a vacant diocesan see. He can fulfill most of the duties of a bishop but cannot undertake new initiatives. He cannot ordain clergy, and, for the first year that he serves as diocesan administrator, he can only appoint priests as parish administrators. If the diocesan administrator remains in office after a year, he may then appoint pastors.
According to canon law, “the status quo of the diocese must be maintained until the new diocesan bishop takes canonical possession of it.”
Father Johnston retired in 2015 after serving as pastor of St. Henry Parish for nearly 25 years. During his time there he oversaw the building of a new church and major renovations and expansions to the school. His goal was always “to get people to work together, to communicate with each other, make decisions and go on.”
Since his retirement, Father Johnston has continued to serve as a member of the Presbyteral Council and College of Consultors as well as the Diocesan Review Board. He is also a board member of Camp Marymount, where he was a former camper and counselor.
In retirement, Father Johnston continues to serve as a spiritual director to individuals, and helps with retreats. He also continues to preside at weddings and help prepare couples for marriage.
Father Johnston is a native of Nashville and a graduate of Christ the King School and Father Ryan High School.
He spent part of his seminary years studying in Rome, where he was ordained to the priesthood on Dec. 18, 1970, at the St. Peter’s Basilica. He taught at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga and served as associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, alongside Father James Niedergeses, who would later become bishop of Nashville. He was then named principal at Knoxville Catholic High School.
Father Johnston returned to Middle Tennessee and became pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory, where he oversaw the building of the parish’s first permanent church. At St. Stephen, he also served as vocations director for the diocese.
As the people of the diocese prepare for a new bishop, with a sense of expectation and waiting, “we need to remember what this is for,” Father Johnston said. “It’s about the Lord and bringing people closer to Him. Prayer has to be front and center.”