Mass of Celebration at All Saints Church held in honor of diocese’s recent papal designate
By Bill Brewer
Father Bill Gahagan was officially introduced as the Diocese of Knoxville’s new monsignor on Aug. 29 during a Mass in his honor at All Saints Church in Knoxville.
Parishioners from around the diocese joined more than 30 priests and more than two dozen deacons and women religious for the Mass in which Bishop Richard F. Stika presided.
Pope Francis designated Father Gahagan, who has served in the Diocese of Knoxville since its inception in 1988, with the title of monsignor. The papal honor comes at the recommendation of Bishop Stika, who first made the announcement at a meeting of diocesan priests on May 23 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, which is where Monsignor Gahagan’s investiture took place.
Father Gahagan is the fourth priest in the diocese to currently carry the honorific title of monsignor. He joins Monsignor Bob Hofstetter, Monsignor Al Humbrecht, and Monsignor Patrick Garrity. Prior to his elevation as leader of the Diocese of Knoxville, Bishop Stika served as a monsignor in his home diocese of St. Louis.
Other diocesan priests who have held the title and have since passed away include Monsignor Xavier Mankel, Monsignor George Schmidt, Monsignor Philip Thoni, Monsignor Leo Siener, and Monsignor Francis Pack.
Monsignor Gahagan was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Nashville in 1970. He was incardinated into the new Diocese of Knoxville on Sept. 8, 1988.
“A lot of the younger priests don’t know this, but Father Gahagan is from Maine, and he has been a chaplain in hospitals, he’s been in (our) high schools, he has been a dean, he has been a very successful pastor, and not to put any of you guys down, but I haven’t met a priest who has greater love for his brother priests than Father Gahagan,” Bishop Stika said at the investiture.
As he made the announcement to the priests, Bishop Stika noted Father Gahagan’s recent attempts to retire.
“You know, he’s been retired and not retired, off and on, right? I have a job for you. I was wondering if you would be a chaplain again, because His Holiness has named you a monsignor.”
The large meeting room at St. Thomas the Apostle erupted into applause, with the new Monsignor receiving a standing ovation.
“From this moment on (Monsignor Gahagan) is now a member of the papal household, a chaplain of His Holiness, and he doesn’t get a pay raise at all,” Bishop Stika joked.
In comments following the announcement, Monsignor Gahagan said he wanted to remember his parents and growing up in Lewiston, Maine.
“I share this expression from the Holy Father and Bishop Stika. I can only say that I just hope that I can continue to live with you, love with you, serve with you, and let’s always remember the strength and the power of God’s presence … love overcomes all things,” Monsignor Gahagan said.
He continued that theme at the Mass of Celebration at All Saints Church.
“To me the greatest challenge, through the grace of God, of my priesthood that I share with my brother priests, deacons, sisters religious, the greatest gift I have for 47 years is the overwhelming presence of that sense when you read sacred Scripture that jumps out at you. It says, ‘say this, think about this, they’re hungry for it, give it to them.’ The world is running around with its head cut off trying to find it.
“Find what? To find love. To find love, which means to find God. And that means, as we know by God’s grace, to find Jesus Christ, and to find his body, which we all are, of the universal Catholic Church,” Monsignor Gahagan said.
The diocese’s newest monsignor is quick with a quip, and his facial expressions often hint at his sense of humor. As he began his homily during the Mass, he referred to the second reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark, in which Herod ordered John the Baptist beheaded and his head brought to him on a platter.
Turning to Bishop Stika, who was seated at the altar behind the ambo, Monsignor Gahagan deadpanned,
“I don’t see a platter around here, Bishop, so I guess I’m safe.”
Then, in a moment of seriousness and heartfelt gratitude, Monsignor Gahagan again turned to Bishop Stika and said, “Thank you, Bishop, for what you’ve given to me, for what you’ve given to the people of the diocese, to my family and friends, and all those who I’ve been associated with.”
“This is what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s not me, it’s all of us. It is all of us that we recognize Christ’s presence in our lives and the love that’s there for us, through the sacraments, which are the real presence of Jesus and the sacraments that give us the bloodline of our lives, that runs through our veins and allows us to reach out and find that love in one another, whether that be in the priesthood, be in marriage, be in single life, be in the life you feel that the Spirit has spoken to you in your soul, in your heart,” Monsignor Gahagan said.
“This is what I think the world needs today now more than ever – getting back to the simplicity of listening, listening and being quiet to hear the recent Gospel when Eliakim was waiting to hear God’s voice, and it came in a whisper,” he added.
Monsignor Gahagan pointed out that people often don’t listen, but instead are too busy thinking how they’re going to respond to what others are saying.
“The greatest gift that we know Jesus gave was he listened. He listened to everyone who came to him. The Canaanite woman, for example, she would not leave. … There’s something she heard, something she saw in the face of Jesus Christ that made Him come alive. It also made him realize that wait a minute, maybe it’s more than the House of Israel that I’m all about. Jesus also said, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ We hear this year after year usually. We all know it. We belong to the club, we belong to the Church of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church, the universal Church throughout the world,” he said.
Monsignor Gahagan asked how do we find time to respond when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” He said the answer is finding time to listen.
He said the honor of monsignor has excited his neighbors in Norris, where he has resided for 13 years in “retirement.”
“They ask, ‘are you excited Bill?’ I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know how to respond to it. It just doesn’t fit my shoes, so I say. Then Jesus says, ‘it’s not you. It’s what you are receiving from me that they see in this title that bounces right back to them that they are loved.’
“We share in the ministerial priesthood of Jesus Christ. What would we do if we did not have the Eucharist? What would we do if we didn’t have the gift of the Holy Spirit? What would we do if we did not have the willingness to walk to Jerusalem with Jesus, to take up the cross however it comes to us in our lives. Be assured, we have to carry a cross. Jesus said, one way or another I’m going to get you. He doesn’t say that, that’s my phrasing.
“But the reality is there is no other way, there is no other gate. The only way is me, the love of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Monsignor Gahagan thanked Bishop Stika for his support in the papal designation.
“I thank Bishop Stika for the honor he has given to me,” he said, to which Bishop Stika responded, “it came from the pope.”
“Someone had to tell the pope, didn’t they? I didn’t hear that whisper, so it had to be you,” Monsignor Gahagan retorted. “I thank him for his love as my pastor, as my bishop.”
In closing, Bishop Stika offered a few observations about Monsignor Gahagan as well as tips for handling the new ecclesial role, including “watch the belt loops because they get stuck on doorknobs and it’s very unbecoming for a person who is in the pontifical household to get stuck on a doorknob and have a 4-year-old kid untie you from the doorknob.”
Bishop Stika said that upon the death of Monsignor George Schmidt in December, he began considering who might be honored by the Holy Father as a monsignor.
“It’s a special title; it’s a title of honor. It’s not like priest, or bishop, or deacon. It’s an honor which the Holy Father himself designates for a particular reason. So I was thinking maybe it’s time to ask the Holy Father to name another monsignor. I’ve been praying about that, and lo and behold about a month or two later I received a letter from a priest in the diocese who I respect a great deal, who said if you’re ever going to nominate someone to be a monsignor, think about Father Gahagan. That is the Holy Spirit because I had been thinking the same thing,” the bishop said.
“Monsignor Gahagan has a great, great, deep affection for his brothers in the priesthood. He really does. It’s authentic and it’s of the heart and it’s real. When we received the notice from the Holy See that he was designated a monsignor, chaplain of His Holiness, I began thinking how we would announce it,” he noted.
The bishop said when Father Hofstetter, Father Garrity, and Father Schmidt were named monsignors, he invited them to the bishop’s residence for a private ceremony and presented them with their official papal scroll.
“But I was thinking that was too private. So it occurred to me that Father Gahagan always attends the general priests meeting. We have them every other month and he never misses. There was a meeting in the spring at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lenoir City, and so it was scheduled to present him with the honor then. But guess who wasn’t going to attend that meeting? I really wanted to do it then because that was going to be our last meeting until fall,” Bishop Stika said.
As it turned out, Monsignor Gahagan was having laser treatment on his eye. The bishop asked him if there was any way he could attend part of the meeting.
“And he did. I introduced him to the priests and he got teary-eyed. And the priests all stood up and applauded him. That was authentic,” Bishop Stika said. “Monsignor, you represent our brothers in the priesthood because you have a love for Jesus, and you have a love for the Church, and you have a love for preaching. And he has a great love for people.”
Bishop Stika said Monsignor Gahagan has given his life in the priesthood to serve so many people since he left his native Maine and then served in the Navy.
His many assignments have included chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville, teacher at Knoxville Catholic High School, director of Catholic social services for the Knoxville area, and pastor or associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Norris, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in LaFollette, St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport, St. Mary Parish in Johnson City, St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, St. Therese Parish in Clinton, and St. Jude Parish in Helenwood.
The bishop also described him as “our most retired priest. He’s been retired five times.”
“So Monsignor Gahagan, in the name of all your friends and all they represent, and from the bottom of my heart, I just want to say thank you. You are probably the finest example of a vocation to the priesthood because it is authentic and people can see in you and hear in your words and just see in your actions a love of Jesus, a love of the priesthood, a love of the Church, and especially a love of God’s people. I just want to say thank you,” Bishop Stika said.