‘I give thanks and praise to God for the many people he has graced my life and my ministry with,’ the jubilarian says
By Dan McWilliams
Father Peter Iorio is known as one of the more joyful priests in the Diocese of Knoxville, and on Aug. 3 that joy came back to him in the form of hundreds of well-wishers who gathered for the celebration of his 25th anniversary as a priest.
The air conditioning at St. Mary Church in Johnson City, where Father Iorio has served as pastor for the last seven years, did not make an appearance at the anniversary Mass, prompting several “warm” puns from the speakers.
“Welcome to St. Mary. It is a very ‘warm’ and welcoming community,” Father Iorio said in his greeting. “We’re glad that you are here. As Murphy’s Law goes, just when you think everything is in place, something breaks down. Today it happens to be the air conditioning in the church. So we bear with it. We offer our sacrifice to the Lord and give thanks and praise to God for the many ways in which he manifests Himself to us.
“As a priest now for 25 years come Monday, Aug. 6, I give thanks and praise to God for the many people he has graced my life and my ministry with, including all of you. Thank you for your presence and prayers today that have sustained me and continue to sustain me and build up God’s holy people.”
Father Iorio was the principal celebrant of his anniversary Mass. Bishop Richard F. Stika attended in choir. Monsignor Al Humbrecht, a longtime friend of the silver jubilarian, gave the homily. Deacons George Fredericks, John Hackett, Don Griffith, and Mike Jacobs assisted.
More than two dozen priests and many members of Father Iorio’s family filled the front pews. Friends from his former assignments, including his home parish of St. Augustine in Signal Mountain, also attended.
“He’s friendly and joyful and really dedicated to whatever ministry he’s called to do,” Bishop Stika said of Father Iorio, “whether he worked in the seminary, in vocation work, high school work, or parish work. Everywhere he’s been he’s excelled because he believes in the power of God.”
Monsignor Humbrecht began his homily by saying he was told that Father Iorio shut off the air conditioning “in hopes that I would be quicker with my homily. It didn’t work.”
The homilist said he has “known Father Pete for a long time,” dating back to the 1980s when Monsignor Humbrecht taught the future priest in religion at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.
Monsignor Humbrecht produced a valuable document containing the testimony he gave to Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell as to then-Deacon Iorio’s suitability to be a priest, in the ordination Mass on Aug. 6, 1993, at St. Augustine.
Then-Father Humbrecht said “it is with a great sense of joy” that he testifies “to Peter’s readiness for ordained ministry. I have known Peter from his youth and been privileged to be a part of his life and the life of his family.”
An anniversary Mass reading from Colossians called upon Christians to “bear with one another and forgive one another.”
“Those of us who know Father Peter know that one hallmark of his ministry has been that of striving to be a peacemaker, a reconciler,” Monsignor Humbrecht said. “And so to bear with one another and forgive one another. That has been kind of his mantra and the witness he gives, and it’s a challenge to all of us to continue that.
“When the author of Colossians says to let the Word of God dwell richly in your home, that is so much a part of Father Peter’s Focolare commitment and community, the Word of Life, to take that Word of Life each month, a short part of Scripture, but to pray it every day for the month so that it can take root deeply in our lives and begin to affect how we live that Word of Life in our interactions with one another.”
Commenting on the trend his homily was taking, Monsignor Humbrecht joked, “Lest anybody think that I’m ready to canonize Father Peter, I do know too much to do that.”
One tale from the homilist about Father Iorio came from his high school days.
“As a high school senior, the parish pastoral council at St. Augustine selected Pete, then, to accompany Father Charlie Burton and I to Haiti on a mission trip to St. Augustine Parish’s sister parish in Petite-Rivierede-Nippes,” Monsignor Humbrecht said. “Father Peter, Peter at the time, was fluent as a high school senior in French, so he was our translator.”
The trio took part in a long meeting one evening with the local Haiti pastor, who didn’t speak English.
“Pete translated all night,” Monsignor Humbrecht said. “When we finished and went upstairs to get ready to go to bed, this high school senior looked at Father Charlie and I and said, ‘And what would the two of you have done if I hadn’t been here?’”
Monsignor Humbrecht answered the question in his homily.
“We would have gone to bed early.”
In customs in Miami on the way home from Haiti, an agent wanted to search Monsignor Humbrecht because he didn’t think he was a real priest. Father Pete was tempted to let the search go on, until he was reminded by then-Father Humbrecht that he needed him to pass his high school senior religion class to graduate, “at which point he assured the customs agent I was real, and we were able to pass through,” the monsignor said.
The future priest’s mission work in Haiti didn’t end with the trip home.
“Father Peter came back and challenged the students at Notre Dame High School to build a school in one of the missions there in Haiti. For $500, they could build a cinderblock school at this mission,” Monsignor Humbrecht said. “Father Peter spearheaded that and designed a cross that he could put bricks in to show how close they were to getting the school built. And those high school students raised, during Lent, the whole $500 to build that school in Haiti. And that was because of the initiative of one high school student bringing that back and sharing that with them.”
The monsignor ended his homily by quoting a French priest’s prayer that stated he was told by God to open his door but was not told that people would at first get a foot in the door. Eventually so many people would get in that the priest could not close the door again.
“God told him, ‘Not to worry. When all of those people came in, I slipped in in their midst and was with you,’” Monsignor Humbrecht said. “Peter, that’s the witness that you continue to give and for which I am grateful, and I know that I express the gratitude of all of us here in the same way.”
The prayers of the faithful were given by several young members of the St. Mary family.
At the end of Mass, Bishop Stika commented on the temperature insidethe nave.
“First of all I just want to say, in the name of the diocese, the parish of St. Mary’s, thank you for the ‘warm, warm’ embrace that you have given to all of us today,” he said. “But in a very special way, the warm embrace that you’ve given to Peter, who is your pastor. Or maybe you came from another place in the diocese where he touched your life in a significant way.”
The bishop added that “in this day and age when again you see tragedy in the Church with abuse and allegations, you might wonder why anyone would want to become a priest, or a bishop, or even a cardinal.
“Because priests like Father Peter are guys I am so privileged to serve with as a priest, and a bishop, and a deacon, people who are faithful, not perfect, but are trying to make a difference in all of our lives. To celebrate the sacraments, to be there when they’re needed, to be there when you lose someone, or when someone is married, or when a child is asking a question about who is God. And so I’m very edified by the 25 years of service that Father Peter has given to the Church.
“Peter, ad multos annos, many more years of service, and just thank you for your ministry in the name of all the people, in the name of all the parishes and all the assignments that God has given to you through the bishops for your service to the Church. Don’t you think so?”
A long ovation followed the bishop’s remarks.
After the bishop spoke, special blessings of Father Iorio were led by Deacon Fredericks and representatives of Hispanic ministry, the parish pastoral council, St. Mary School, and others.
Father Iorio ended the liturgy by hearkening back to Monsignor Humbrecht’s homily.
“What comes to my heart to say is, a lot changes since you’re a high school senior,” he said. “I feel very humbled and grateful to all of you, a beautiful celebration tonight.”
Father Iorio has served over the years at St. Dominic in Kingsport (as an associate pastor), at Notre Dame High School (as spiritual director), as diocesan youth ministry coordinator, as associate dean of formation at Mundelein Seminary, as diocesan vocation director and director of priestly life and ministry, and as pastor of St. Augustine, St. Joseph the Worker in Madisonville, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland.
After Mass and before a dinner in a large tent outside, Father Iorio called the occasion “overwhelming, all the priest brothers, the bishop, my family, friends from many different parishes—parishioners that I served: almost all of them are represented.”
Father Iorio said he thinks it’s “the love of Christ that always comes through” in his personality.
“I love what is affirmed by Pope Francis in ‘The Joy of the Gospel’: if you live the words of Jesus and try to be him, be in persona christi as a priest, that joy comes through. I know if you give love, then you draw love back in return. I think that’s kind of a paraphrase of St. John of the Cross. I always try to remember that.”
One significant person in Father Iorio’s life was missing from the anniversary celebration: his mother, Susan, who died unexpectedly in June 2017.
“This parish community has been just amazing in their love and care for me, and really for my family, because she died actually here in Johnson City,” Father Iorio said. “The committee had a bouquet of red roses that were there on the pew with my family representing Mom.”