Bishop Richard F. Stika marks a decade of his episcopate as he becomes the diocese’s longest-serving bishop
By Bill Brewer
In celebrating the 10th anniversary of his ordination and installation as the third bishop of Knoxville, Bishop Richard F. Stika recalled one of the first questions he was asked by the media when he was introduced in Knoxville in March 2009: what major initiative was he going to undertake as the new bishop of Knoxville?
His reply was brief and to the point: to teach about Jesus.
Ten years later, his mission hasn’t changed.
On July 1, Bishop Stika will become the longest-serving of the Diocese of Knoxville’s bishops. After a decade of leading the Church in East Tennessee, he is reflective of his ministry and is looking ahead to a diocese that is 30 years old.
On the day of his 10th episcopal anniversary, Bishop Stika, who is no stranger to social media, offered this observation on Facebook: “On this day, March 19, 2009, I was given the gift of the fullness of the priesthood by Cardinal (Justin) Rigali and ordained the bishop of Knoxville. The Mass was celebrated with 5,500 people in attendance, along with over 100 priests and numerous deacons and 35 bishops. My co-consecrators were Archbishop Kurtz and my great mentor, the late Bishop Robert Shaheen. God has blessed me these 10 years and I look to many more!”
As the 61-year-old shepherd of the Diocese of Knoxville begins his second decade of ministry and service, he thanks all members of the diocese for their support of the Church and his request of them is simple.
“Please pray for me and the diocesan leadership. And if I have offended anyone, if I have disappointed anyone, if anyone has ever thought I have not listened to them, I apologize. It’s important to continue praying for me. One of my policies when I receive letters from people is I call them up. They’re always surprised. My goal is to always try to be approachable and be the face of Jesus. If I have failed anyone, I apologize for that,” he said.
Bishop Stika also shared his thoughts on the first 10 years of his episcopate and what he sees lying ahead as the Diocese of Knoxville approaches its 31st anniversary.
Q: When you were a young priest, did you ever see yourself as a bishop?
A: No. I can remember that leading up to my ordination, some people said that since I have a degree in business and marketing maybe some day I would be working in Church administration. It was unusual at that time to have a college degree in business administration.
My usual response was ‘no, I want to be a parish priest like the priests I grew up with.’ I was blessed because the first five years I was a parish priest I was fulltime at Mary Queen of Peace Parish. It had a busy school, a large school, about 700 students. It was a very active and social parish. I had good priests to live with.
I was happy. But as I closed in on five years, I knew I would be up for a transfer because that was the norm in St. Louis. Archbishop (John L.) May called me and assigned me to work in the youth office as the spiritual director. I think at the time in St. Louis, we had about 47,000 kids. I wasn’t part of the normal operations; I was the spiritual director — the contact between the youth office and the archbishop’s office. From then on, I was always involved in specialized ministry.
I think I’ve had great training to be a bishop because I’ve seen different aspects of it: fulltime parish work, administration work with young adults, vocations. Eventually I was moved to the cathedral, where I was in charge of all the ceremonies at the cathedral while still working with the vocations office.
And then 25 years ago in January 1994, I was appointed the secretary to Cardinal Rigali, the new archbishop of St. Louis. So, I had beautiful, wonderful experiences working with him. During my nearly 10 years working for the archdiocese in those capacities, secretary, chancellor, or vicar general, I visited all the parishes in the archdiocese and was able to coordinate Pope John Paul II’s visit and be involved in all kinds of other activities. It was a wonderful time in St. Louis.
I was able to assist Cardinal Rigali as the archbishop worked through major financial issues, which he was able to correct and return the archdiocese to solid financial footing. A former seminary building in the archdiocese was refurbished to house the headquarters for the diocese and was renamed after Cardinal Rigali.
Q: Who are the individuals who were key to your formation as a priest?
A: Monsignor (Boyd A.) Sullivan, who was the pastor of my boyhood parish. He was fundamental. Then there was Bishop Robert Shaheen, who was the pastor of St. Raymond’s Maronite Church in St. Louis, who eventually became their (Maronites’) bishop. He was very fundamental. And then there was his boss at the time, Archbishop Francis Zayek — two Maronite bishops. All three, who are now deceased, were very, very fundamental to me in terms of me eventually going into the seminary.
Since my ordination, I have a very close friend, Father James Swift, who is a Vincentian, long experienced in seminary work and a former provincial for the Vincentians who now is the rector for Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas. And then I would say Cardinal Rigali. Cardinal Rigali is like a father to me. We’ve been together 25 years this year.
Q: What was your first impression of the Diocese of Knoxville after arriving here?
A: I drove here from St. Louis, and I had already known for a month that I was going to be the bishop here. But it was not announced for a month. On my way I stopped and had dinner with Archbishop Kurtz in Louisville. Then I drove on in, arriving late at night, and I got a hotel room.
The next day I met with Deacon Sean (Smith) in my old house (the original bishop’s residence), and Monsignor Al (Humbrecht). We then had dinner. And then the announcement on Jan. 15. Normally, soon-to-be bishops go back to their diocese and officially arrive at their new assignment a couple of days before (their ordination). But I had some free time and I stayed here for a week. I wandered through the diocese and visited different parishes and priests and schools. I got a flavor of the diocese.
I was coming from an area, St. Louis, where Catholics are the predominant religious community, 26 percent, to a place where the Catholic Church is a small entity, a minority. My thought process was that everybody had been Catholic, but here, not so much.
What really impressed me was the fact it was a young diocese, at the time it was only 20 years old. I had been here for the 10th anniversary of the diocese on a quick visit with Cardinal Rigali for the celebration. Immediately, I witnessed the warmth, the openness, and the beauty of what it means for a diocese that is a minority — how strong their faith was.
Here, people in some ways really have to witness to their Catholic values to show their identity. I saw small parishes and large parishes. Everyone welcomed me with open arms.
People have asked the difference between St. Louis and Knoxville. The South and the Midwest values are very similar, except here I notice people are not as hesitant to pray at meetings, events, in the secular world and not just in the Catholic world. It’s very impressive. And we have this wonderful mix of people from other parts of the country who have moved here. Some of our parishes really reflect that, like Fairfield Glade and St. Thomas the Apostle.
Our presbyterate is very international. We have priests from Ireland, Africa, South America, and even Texas. I’ve increased the international makeup of our presbyterate, and now we have a priest from Poland. I think that is a beautiful thing. I tell people that because the Church is universal, and a lot of times if you are in an area that is only staffed by people whose families originated from Europe, you can get stuck in that mentality.
But here, the beauty of the culture of Africa and South America, and their languages, are something we have in our priests and deacons. It’s just a reflection of who we are as an international Church. We are the Church of the world.
Q: After you arrived in the Diocese of Knoxville, what did you see that needed immediate attention?
A: There had been no bishop here for 18 months. A bishop is important to a diocese and I believe the diocese had begun to fracture a bit.
One priest described it as the priests went into their own teepees and closed the doors. Everybody was just doing their own thing. They knew what the general direction was because Archbishop Kurtz gave good direction. Everybody was working together but it was starting to fragment a little bit. That was important to address, and I’ve been doing it for 10 years. One of my mantras is we do together what we can’t do by ourselves.
Part of that is to build a greater sense of unity in terms of we’re not the Church just in the Knoxville area, or the Tri-Cities area, or the Chattanooga area. We’re one Church. That’s why I always initially say that I am the bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville. Then usually in the same conversation I say I’m the bishop of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee, just to emphasize that it’s not just the metropolitan area of Knoxville.
Also, we immediately began to look at the finances. The finances were strong, but there also was some concern with the Bishop’s Stewardship Appeal, what is now called the annual Bishop’s Appeal. For about 10 years it averaged in the mid-$900,000 range. The very first thing I did was gather together with the priests to hear what they had to say because they are the local leaders.
We began to plan how to bring in more dollars so that we could do more work in terms of ministering to people. Now, this year, the Bishop’s Appeal has raised $2.4 million. That increase is only over about six years.
I always believe that if you present to the people the needs and they make sense, then the people will respond, and they have. The Sunday collections, even in the environment then in terms of business and the markets when I first came in 2009 — we were suffering from the Great Recession — contributions seemed to go up every year.
I wanted to look at the idea of vocations to the priesthood in which the entire diocese has been working together. I’ve ordained in 10 years now, with Mark Schuster coming up, 18 men to the priesthood. In looking at the deacons, we’ve had one deacon class to address the importance of the permanent diaconate. We’re continuing to look at that.
I believe in the power of contemplative prayer, so one of my priorities was to bring in a contemplative community to pray for the needs of the diocese. We now have the Handmaids of the Precious Blood in the diocese.
Also, we have worked to develop a stronger presence of consecrated men and women religious. As part of that, the Dominican Sisters returned to the school they founded — Notre Dame High School, founded also by Father Patrick Ryan, who, God willing, someday will be a saint in the Church. We also have the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., and the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary from Africa, who established their first house in the United States in our diocese.
All these different combinations of religious life, the diaconate, vocations to the priesthood, strengthening finances, and strengthening the ongoing formation of our current priests are among the goals we’ve worked to achieve.
Q: The next question was to identify key successes you’ve experienced over the past 10 years, but you just enumerated those.
A: The diocese is growing in population, in vocations, and our finances are good. They can always be better.
We’ve reorganized Catholic Charities because we expanded too much too fast. We’ve had to pull back a bit so we can be excellent at what we do as opposed to good but stretched too thin. I also saw a need for a retreat center, some place we can call home, that came to us through the great gift of the late Dr. John Grady and his wife, Carol. Now we have this beautiful facility in Benton. And, of course, we have the cathedral, which we’ve talked about for a long time and built it to last hundreds of years.
Q: Was a cathedral a top concern when you arrived, the fact that we didn’t have a dedicated cathedral?
A: No. I heard from Monsignor (Xavier) Mankel that when the diocese started, he went to the bishop and said we can start planning for a new cathedral. The bishop at the time said no, we first have to build a diocese.
Then there was another study done years later during Archbishop Kurtz’s time that raised the same question as they were getting ready for the first capital campaign in the history of the diocese. The response was we needed to build the diocese.
When I first came, the issue came up again. I saw it as a long-term goal, not an immediate goal. But the parish itself had outgrown the then current facility, and they were strangled by a lack of a parish hall. They were outgrowing the church. In order to allow the parish to grow, things had to be done for their facilities. Sacred Heart might even be the largest parish now.
Q: Is it possible now in the United States or anywhere in the world to build a cathedral?
A: Maybe for a while. They built a new cathedral in Raleigh, which they really needed. At one point, I think their cathedral was the smallest in the country. In some dioceses, what they do when they have a cathedral that becomes too small, they build another cathedral (often in another city) and call the older cathedral a co-cathedral to honor its presence. In a lot of the larger dioceses, they built these big cathedrals.
It’s only dioceses that were created in the last 50 years that had to go with parish churches. A number of places are restoring their older cathedrals. Boston is right now because it is over 100 years old. I’m just happy to say that we did (build our cathedral).
Q: What would you like to see in the next 10 years that you didn’t get to see in the first 10 years?
A: I think I’ve seen everything that I’ve wanted to do. What I would like to emphasize more now is … I have a great concern about the world. The amount of people who do not practice faith; the amount of divorces that happen in the world; the fragmentation and break-up of families; the lack of a moral center. In New York City, they recently instituted a new policy for birth records that identifies male, female, or other.
In our country there is so much fragmentation among the base and the political parties. The Democrats on a national level are so pro-choice. And so many of their platforms are really against what we believe as the Catholic Church. I think the Republicans have a very poor record on immigration, and I think both parties have a very poor record on fiscal responsibility. We’re $22 trillion in debt. Down the line there’s going to be a come-to-Jesus talk with the nation.
Here in the diocese, I would emphasize in the next two years Catholic education and adult formation. We have a couple of generations that were poorly catechized. Also, maintaining good financial stability with our schools and parishes, and continued emphasis on vocations as well.
We have a number of priests in their 60s, including myself. In 10 years they will be in their 70s and retired. So we must make sure there take their place. We need to continue reaching out if there is a religious community that is a good fit, I would like to see that.
The Church does well when it is counter-cultural. When you become too much a part of the culture you begin to take on negative aspects of that culture.
Around Christmas and probably for much of this year I’m talking about creep, how so much of the secular world has creeped into the Church. An example would be the whole idea of Christmas, when people rested and looked forward to Christmas.
Now, people aren’t looking forward to Christmas because of all the work. That is the shifting from a holy day to a holiday. That is just one aspect.
Another part of the creep is morality. There is pro-choice, but abortion is an abomination before God. It’s the killing of children. But in our society, we use terms like embryo or fetus because we don’t want to say human. We want to discount the fact that this is a human life.
We can do better to plan for marriages, to help people see how serious of a commitment this is. The divorce rate is close to 60 percent now in the first five years of marriage.
And I really like the term intentional discipleship. A priest or a deacon can preach all he wants from the pulpit about faith and a relationship with God. But unless all of us, everybody in the Church — lay person, cleric, everybody — unless we are willing to witness Jesus, we will fail in our ministry. Mass means dismissal. Take what you’ve been fed in the Eucharist and go out and make a difference teaching about Jesus.
At my very first press conference in Knoxville somebody asked me what my goal will be, what will guide me. I said to teach Jesus. I hope that’s what I’m doing. One of my other mantras is to be the face, the voice, the hands and feet, the smell, and especially the heart of Jesus, to be consistent and holistic in that approach.
Q: Is the Diocese of Knoxville facing the same challenges as other dioceses in the country?
A: You know what one of the beauties of Knoxville is? We’re facing some of the challenges of where the population has been moving, which is the South and the West. So the Catholic Church is growing in the South and in the West. But in a lot of places in the South and in the West, their growth is huge and they’re always playing catch-up.
If you look at Phoenix, there are over a million Catholics. Even Tucson. In Atlanta there are over a million Catholics now. They’ve really been pushing to get more churches built, more schools built, really stretching their personnel.
Where here it’s a nice, steady growth. And so we’re able to plan without over-leveraging ourselves. I like that we’re growing. Thirty years ago, we were 33,000 Catholics. Now we’re officially at 70,000, and if you look at the people who aren’t on the books but who we minister to, we’re way over 100,000.
I see a great, great, great future for the diocese here in East Tennessee. We have three population centers: the Tri-Cities, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. And then we have smaller communities. But there is a lot of our environment in East Tennessee that are lakes and mountains that will never be developed.
Somebody once told me that one day maybe we’ll be at 200,000 to 300,000 Catholics. Who knows. It depends on a lot of things. But we are growing. And I think we are growing at a nice, steady rate, but nothing that causes us to be stressed out by rapid growth. We can plan ahead in a very logical and good way.
Q: Do you expect the diocese to continue seeing a growing number of men join the priesthood and diaconate?
A: Yes. We have a steady number of guys in seminary. When I came we had nine. We went up to 22. Then we were back at nine. Now, we’re at 13 to 14. If we had this flood of vocations, for one it would stress us out financially because the average cost to educate a seminarian is $45,000 a year.
The other aspect is we only have 51 parishes, and only a certain number of parishes can handle a certain number of priests.
Even though I wish we had another 10 seminarians, again slow growth in vocations is important, as long as we can replace the people we have. My goal is to have two priests in each high school, and then priests at the college campuses. We can expand that ministry to areas where there are other institutions like Maryville and Carson-Newman. If I had another 10 priests, I could do so much more. Maybe in parish work but also in other specialized ministry.
Q: Do you think the Diocese of Knoxville will always be considered a mission diocese?
A: A mission diocese, according to Catholic Extension, has a Catholic population that is less than 10 percent of the general population. I hope so. They help us out. Plus I think there’s a mentality that it’s good to be considered a “mission” diocese because I think it makes you work harder.
You can become complacent when you are the majority. There’s more than 70 dioceses in the United States that are considered mission dioceses. Yes, I think we will always continue to be.
Q: Are there additional areas in East Tennessee where you think the Catholic Church can grow, whether it be in specialized outreach like the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic or new parishes?
A: On Feb. 2, I dedicated the new St. Teresa of Kolkata Church in Maynardville. And on Sept. 29 I blessed the new building for St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Erwin. They will continue to grow like many of our parishes have.
I can possibly see a new church in the Chattanooga area, where there has been explosive growth around Ooltewah. That’s been talked about for a long time. We’re starting to seriously look at acquiring some property there with the expansion of Volkswagen and other development. And then maybe in the Pikeville area, there’s a possibility of establishing a church.
The Church follows the population. We don’t build and they come. We go with them. I do think in the next 15 years or so some of our smaller church buildings are going to have to be replaced with larger facilities. They’re growing. In the beginning, we build what we can afford and then we expand. Eventually, you have to look at the cost of expansion versus the cost of building something new.
Knoxville Catholic High School would like to have additional space for fine arts and a gym. Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga has been running a deficit and has some debt that I hope to start addressing this year. Our high schools are in excellent shape in terms of leadership, and I’m very pleased with that. Our grade schools are, too. There’s always turnover with teachers, and we have two principals who are retiring this year, so we’ll have to address that.
And there’s the possibility of another Vietnamese parish. There’s a community growing in the Chattanooga area. They would love to be able to rent a building. Right now I’m working on additional help for them in terms of Vietnamese clergy.
Q: Speaking of Chattanooga, it has to be very gratifying to see the work that has gone into the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. What are your thoughts on the basilica?
A: First, it’s a historic structure. Sts. Peter and Paul and Immaculate Conception are the two oldest parishes in the diocese. And they’re both beautiful, older churches. The basilica was well taken care of. Monsignor George Schmidt took good care of that building. He had been sick the last couple of years he was pastor there before he died.
Now, Father David Carter has this great enthusiasm, and the parish is growing, the outreach is growing. I don’t want to say we renovated or remodeled the church. We restored it to how it looked in the past with some different nuances. I consecrated the altar there in December. It’s a beautiful church with beautiful stained-glass windows. It’s a beautiful parish.
It’s become the home for those who enjoy the more traditional music, which is fine. The Church is a big tent. All the parishes in Chattanooga, some of their buildings need to be renovated or restored because they’re getting to be 50-60 years of age. A place like Soddy-Daisy, they’ve been talking recently about a parish center. They have a beautiful piece of property there where Monsignor Al Humbrecht is.
Other parishes in the diocese are looking long term, looking to increase with a parish hall or adding on to a school. As an example, St. Joseph School. We had to reorganize it to make it a regional school. The school enrollment has been growing every year, and now they have a good number there. They recently added a new gym and new classroom space. And there are other schools.
Sacred Heart Cathedral School, where we spent a lot of money beginning to renovate in the first phase. St. John Neumann added some facilities, and All Saints. In Seymour, Holy Family has added a new parish center. In Athens, St. Mary has added a new parish center and new offices. In the Chattanooga area, again Holy Spirit Parish in Soddy-Daisy is looking at doing something. St. Augustine in Signal Mountain has spent a lot of funds restoring the church and adding on, too. St. Jude, I just signed a contract to renovate their bell tower.
There are things going on in terms of maintaining older buildings and building new structures. The Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., I think for the first time in their existence they actually built their own convent in the Diocese of Knoxville. They own the convent; I donated the property. They saw something beautiful about this diocese. Normally, they would inherit a convent from another community or get a house and restore it.
Q: Do you think you will ever be moved from the Diocese of Knoxville?
A: I hope not. People ask me that. I guess there’s this mindset when you’re in a smaller diocese that at some point you earn your points and they move you to a larger diocese. I guess that’s true in some places. When you are ordained a bishop, part of the regalia you wear is a ring that symbolizes the marriage of the bishop to the diocese. That’s the whole point of it — the relationship.
If they asked me to move, under obedience I would have to consider it. But I do have health issues, my heart and my diabetes, and I think this is a good fit for me. Over the years and now, I don’t even think about moving. Would I want to be asked? That’s a question I ask myself. To go to a larger place? Sure, it might be a personal stamp of approval from the pope to go to a bigger place. More challenges. And that would be nice. I always kid people that I use my diabetes and my heart disease to the best of my ability to stay here.
I love East Tennessee. I think the people generally like me and the priests respect me. I try to listen. This is my home. Rocky Top. Why would I want to leave?
Q: Are there other keys to growing the diocese?
A: There are parallel pieces here. One is re-catechizing Catholics. Thirty-five percent of Catholics believe that if they go to Mass twice a month they are faithful Catholics. We see huge numbers at Christmas and Easter. I believe there were some beautiful things that came out of the Second Vatican Council, and there were some things that never were actually acted upon. I think there were some mistakes in terms of liturgy. They tried to do too much with too little time and with very little education. Evangelization to re-catechize, to teach the faith to those who are Catholic by baptism but maybe not by practice.
The second is to make sure that those who have a desire to be Catholic feel a warmth and an openness from the Church to join us at the Eucharist. It’s all about the Eucharist. Other faith communities have great formation programs. They have liturgies and they have their dogmas. Some I would disagree with in some of the directions they are going, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and some pretty big theological differences. But for us, it’s about the Eucharist.
When I first entered the seminary in 1979, the advice we were given and advice I heard from other people was every day you need to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament. And you don’t have to talk much; just spend time with Jesus. I’ve made that a part of my priesthood. It’s nice to have my own chapel at the house; we have a chapel at the Chancery as well. And I usually go to the cathedral every day and spend some time there.
What makes us different from other faith communities? Theology, ecclesiology, but basically it’s the Eucharist. In this day and age you read on blogs and websites like Facebook and Twitter where people say “the (priest sexual abuse) scandal shocks me so much. I’m leaving the Church because of what people have done.”
A couple of times I’ll throw something out there, and I’ll say if you leave the Church, you leave the Eucharist. You’re punishing yourself. You’re not punishing me. The Eucharist is Jesus, and if you don’t believe that, then you’re really not Catholic.
Sometimes people will say, “I’m not going to church anymore because that priest looked at me funny, or that priest said something, or that priest ignored me.” You don’t go to church because of the priest. You go to church because of God.
You can fall into this mentality as a Catholic that I’ll just pray at home. You can’t pray at home in terms of the Eucharist because the Eucharist through the hands of the priest is this great miracle. So, if you’re angry and leave the Church, you’re only hurting yourself if you believe in the Eucharist. And if you can leave so easily, I guess you don’t believe in the Eucharist, the miracle of the Body and Blood of Jesus.
Q: Will the Catholic Church get beyond the abuse scandal?
A: Right now, we’re in that drip, drip, drip stage of reports coming out. We are dealing with the past. We really are. Most of the abuse cases happened before 2002. If you look at the number of current abuse cases reported since 2002, it’s nil. All the work, all the effort that we have put into place in terms of seminary formation, screening of candidates, vigilance, has been successful to make sure a child is not abused or a vulnerable adult.
This is not just a Catholic problem. This is happening in other faith traditions. We’re the largest Church in the world and we’re international, so that’s what we’re facing. We will never stop being vigilant. But I think the safe-environment procedures we’ve put in place are the right things to do. If we need to fine tune them, we will.
Most cases pre-existed 2002. I’ve been dealing with this since 2002 and even before. There are a lot of people who think the Church should be punished, and they will never accept the fact that we are changing because the drip, drip, drip of the past is here.
We’re not facing it here, but I used to have this discussion with SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) in St. Louis, where SNAP is headquartered. Some people would like us to kick priests out of the priesthood and not support them or have anything to do with them. My thought on this, and this is a disagreement I have with SNAP, if you have a priest who has been a priest for a while and he has no other sense of what he can do in life and you completely cut him loose, he’s out there. And if you completely cut him loose, he’s not accountable unless he’s been convicted of something. He’s a free person to wander around the world. Some people would love that. They say, “I’m not going to pay for a priest who’s done this.” But the flip side of it is if he is dependent on the Church, even in a minimal way, for housing, for a little bit of salary or stipend, and insurance, then he’s beholden to the person in charge. He’s dependent, and with that dependence there’s also control. At least I would know where he’s at and what he’s doing, and he’s accountable to me as opposed to completely cutting him loose and then he does it again, and again, and again. Maybe eventually he’s caught, arrested, and put in jail. But think of all the people he might have abused until that point. That’s a huge discussion.
One of the things I would love to emphasize is that in the diocese we had the Bill Casey situation a few years ago. I addressed it immediately. We cooperated with legal authorities and we followed the process we have. At the end of it, we were praised by the district attorney in Sullivan County and the Knoxville newspaper, which had a Sunday editorial that said “bishop restores confidence.”
It’s not because I was some exceptional person; it’s because I followed the announced process the diocese had in place. We have since tightened it up. Fortunately, we’ve had no other cases. There was another priest who was pulled out of ministry, Steve LaPrad, but it was never a legal matter. He died a few years ago.
Right now, if people are worried about where their money is going, the diocese is not paying out any costs, no lawsuits, because there are no cases. There are some people who are disenchanted with the Church, and I get these letters, not many, saying they will no longer contribute to the Church. They think they’re punishing me or they’re punishing the pope, or Archbishop (Theodore) McCarrick, or some other bishop. They’re not.
If they’re not giving to their parish, the impact is on the schools, on Catholic Charities, on formation of young adults, on the viability of our parishes. Even with this drip, drip, drip of abuse cases, the Catholic Church continues to feed the poor, heal the sick, to educate, care for the dying.
The Church still is functioning here in this diocese and all over because it’s made up of good people, and we continue to do the things we should do as the Church. But it’s real and it’s important to keep the pressure on the Church because we are people.
But the Church continues to do the good things it’s always done. So, if a person says they’re not going to give to the Church anymore, the impact will be felt by people in need, by children, by the programs we promote to safeguard children.
I want to reassure the diocese that the money they’re giving on a Sunday or to the Bishop’s Appeal or to other charitable works that go through the diocese is impacted. Most of the money that goes through the diocese impacts the parishes. The Bishop’s Appeal — it all goes back into the parishes one way or another.
Q: Have there been any failures while you’ve been bishop?
A: I made a commitment 10 years ago that I would learn Spanish. Right after I came to East Tennessee, I went to Texas for a summer course. And then one weekend after that I went to visit a friend who had a blood disorder, kind of like leukemia, and that is when I got sick, had a heart attack, and almost died. When I returned to the diocese, I never went back to school for Spanish. I don’t think I have the language gift that many people have. And I’m 61. I can stumble now through Mass in Spanish, but I’m very self-conscious. So, a personal commitment for me is to at least be comfortable celebrating Mass in Spanish. That’s a failure.
There is no school to be a bishop. Well, there is bishop’s boot camp where you go to Rome for three weeks when the Holy Father first appoints you. I was in administration for a long time in St. Louis. And now I’ve been here 10 years. I’m still learning what it means to be a bishop. If I think I know everything, I’m dead to growth.
I’m very comfortable being with myself, but I love being with other people, too. Being in a smaller diocese, you get to know people better. In New York with 3 million Catholics, how do you know the people, how do you know the priests? Here, I know the people although I’ve never been great with names. I don’t know why. Faces I recognize. I’m at a disadvantage because more people know me by name than I know them. I want to continue getting to know people in the diocese.
One thing I’m working to improve this year is visiting with our seminarians. Our vocations directors go to the seminaries and visit with our seminarians. Maybe with all that has been going on, I haven’t. Beginning this year, I’ve been visiting with our seminarians at their seminaries. I need to know our seminarians better. I think they’re comfortable around me, but as with laypeople, there’s a natural tendency to be stand-offish around me.
My goal every year, and I fail at that, too, is to spend more time at the high schools and grade schools. I was great at that, especially at sporting events, in the beginning, but with everything else that has been going on that went by the wayside. But I’ve recommitted myself to that.
My goal as a bishop, and I guess it was as a pastor, is for people to know that I’m a priest or the bishop and that they have respect for my office. I think automatically you get respect for your person from a majority of people. But my goal is to never be unapproachable. I want to be able to relate to folks.
Q: What is your take on social media — the good and the bad from both a general and personal perspective?
A: I was late in coming to an understanding of Twitter and Facebook, and now I’ve just started on Instagram. Those are the only three that I’m involved in. The pope really pushed the fact that bishops should use every means possible to evangelize.
And in the history of the Church, look at what the Gutenberg Bible did. It opened a whole new window for the Church to teach the Gospel. After I had been bishop here a couple of years I started on Facebook and Twitter. I hardly ever used them.
And I have a confession. Most of the time when I would go to Facebook I was spying on my nieces and nephews. But I never posted. We were friends and I would see what was going on in their lives. I just wanted to see what was going on in their lives and other people. And then I jumped into it.
For the most part on Facebook and Twitter, in the early days, I would post about parish visits and activities. Cardinal (Sean) O’Malley blogs every day about his day. To me, it’s just easier to post photographs and little quips about where I’ve been or what I was going to be doing.
I love politics. I grew up with it in St. Louis. My hobby is presidential history and I love history. Most of the time when I watch TV, I watch anything that has to do with history. I read three types of books: mystery novels, history and historical biographies, and spiritual books.
I look around the world, and as a religious leader there are great concerns I have about society and the future. I started getting a little more political, not in terms of favoring this party or that party. I would take shots at both parties because I think unfortunately the leadership of our nation today is not concerned No. 1 about the United States.
It’s concerned No. 1 about the party and to get re-elected. So I would make comments about different things. Most of the time my comments were based on historic fact. But there are trolls out there and people who like to attack. There are also good people out there who use it.
My goal was always to get people to think. I think our present leadership in the United States is atrocious across the board. I think they are more interested in getting re-elected and reaching out to their base. For instance, the president has made some good judicial picks. And I agree with those. The judicial system balances out politics. The House, the Senate, and the presidency change. But the judiciary, as it interprets the Constitution, balances it out.
President Trump’s actions on the wall and immigration are incorrect. I think he wants to get re-elected as does everybody. I have more issues with the Democrats. I look at the party platforms of both when they run for president. That’s how I evaluate things.
The Democrats are very, very, very pro-choice. Some states want to adopt unrestricted abortion from the moment of conception until birth. Late term? No problem. Partial birth? No problem. In New York, that legislation was proposed by Gov. Cuomo, who says he is Catholic. And there are some who want to make it illegal to be pro-life. Under some interpretations, if you say you are pro-life, that could be interpreted as hate speech if you follow that logic, which a lot of people are.
On social media, I would dip into the political realm a little bit to get people to think. I would never say you vote for this or you vote for that. During the election year, I threw out things that people should think about. But people would misinterpret them as I’m siding with one party or the other. That was never my intention.
And there were Catholic issues that I would post out there, such as when the pope reclassified capital punishment, which I’ve always been against. I’ve ministered to people on death row. He did that and I made the simple statement that I was glad he did that. The bishops of Tennessee have made statements against capital punishment. I was attacked all over the place by a segment that said how dare I say that and not know the difference between church and state. Or on immigration, don’t you know the difference between church and state?
My goal was to share with them in a balanced way a thought process, to think it out and not just knee-jerk it out. I’m a religious leader, so as long as I don’t tell people how to vote. At some point in the Chancery, a lot of my staff — people I work with — were saying they were getting complaints about how dare the bishop say those things. I came to the conclusion that you never change anybody’s mind on Facebook or Twitter. You don’t. Everybody is dead set. You can change somebody’s mind in a direct conversation. On social media, a lot of people just hide behind their handles and their goofy names. Mine is Bishop Stika.
I use social media, but I’ve pulled back in some areas unless it’s absolutely necessary. Abortion I won’t. I refuse because it has been the beginning of the slippery slope for a lot of moral issues that we have today.
I remember I got in trouble one time because I said I never believed the United States is the greatest country that ever existed. I believe we’re the most successful. How can we be this great country that was founded on the principles of slavery? Or the way we’ve treated Native Americans. That’s not a great thing. We had people that we owned and most of the treaties we had with the Native Americans we never lived up to.
But if you don’t know history, as most Americans seem not to anymore, you don’t understand the big picture. People have knee-jerk reactions: how do you say the United States is not a great country? Well, how do you define a great country? It’s how you take care of people; it’s how you live with each other.
But we’re a successful country. We’re a wealthy country. We have impact, more so since World War I. But we’re losing a lot of our values. And that concerns me.
But in terms of social media, I’ve pulled back a bit. I read a lot of it. I’m dismayed at some of the websites that people follow, Catholic websites that I think are very divisive, mean spirited, and full of hate. The Ku Klux Klan claimed to be Christian; they had cross-burnings. They weren’t Christian. The Know Nothing Party in the 19th century was anti-Catholic. They were attacking the Catholic Church in the name of Christianity.
Social media is important. But I think now it’s becoming a cesspool that encourages arguments and divisiveness. It’s not a healthy place. It’s about freedom of speech, but in the general realm of the world there are limitations on freedom of speech. Facebook and especially Twitter are filled with hate.
Q: Do you think 10 years from now you still will be on social media?
A: Yes, if it’s helpful. I’m going back to posting about when I visit parishes and congratulations to parishes, parishioners, and diocesan organizations. I won’t refrain from Church-related issues. I think that is important. People say, “Well, you’re getting political.” Is caring for immigrants a political or a moral issue? Abortion? Capital punishment? Those are all moral issues. So, I won’t hesitate on those.
My comment now to people who question the separation of church and state: I ask them if they know what amendment that is. Have you read the Constitution? Do you understand the Bill of Rights? Many of them don’t. Separation of church and state? “They should take away your tax-exempt status!” No.
The Catholic Church is balanced, I think. Many other faith communities bring in political candidates on a Sunday and have them preach. But we’re the big institution.
Q: How would you describe your impact on the Church in East Tennessee?
A: When I first arrived in the diocese, the priests were trying to figure out if I was conservative or liberal. At the first luncheon right before I was ordained, one of our priests sat with my closest friends in the priesthood from St. Louis. They said he was quizzing them trying to find out if I was a liberal or a conservative.
My goal was always for the priests to never know. On some issues, I would be considered more traditional. I hope I’m always orthodox. A lot of our priests like to wear cassocks. Some like to wear them more than others. I have no issue with that. That’s a traditional part of our dress.
Unfortunately, after the 1960s a lot of things were thrown out. It’s supposed to be a sign of simplicity unless you wear a thousand other cassocks. I tell the guys I’m comfortable wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt. And I’m comfortable wearing a cassock and everything in between. You’re not defined by what you wear. You’re defined by who you are.
I remember telling a priest once in St. Louis when I was vicar for priests, he always wore his cassock, but he wasn’t a great priest in terms of dealing with people. He was arrogant and standoffish. I told him the cassock doesn’t make the priest, the priest makes the cassock.
You can dress up like a priest and have the title, but if you don’t have the heart of St. John Vianney or a willingness to be of service and if you’re expecting people to treat you differently by placing you on a pedestal because of the title you hold, then you really aren’t a priest in the truest sense of the word. You can dress up. I can dress up like a police officer but that doesn’t mean I’m a police officer.
In all dioceses in the United States, there’s a tension — and hopefully it’s a healthy tension — between some of the guys ordained in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and even the ‘80s and the guys ordained more recently. Hopefully it’s a healthy tension and not a division. I’m speaking in broad terms here.
There are a lot of things we discarded in the ‘60s that were kind of tragic. We’ve destroyed a lot of beauty in terms of artwork in churches to simplify it, things like statues and icons.
A lot of that went out the window, and now it’s coming back in the window. Even Bishop Robert Barron in his series Catholicism talks about beauty and how it elevates.
My goal with our churches has always been that they elevate the mind and the person as soon as you walk in and also to be a place of prayer. I’ve asked all of our churches to place the tabernacle in the most prominent place behind the altar and not off to the side. That was a big liturgical discussion.
What did Jesus say: “My house is a house of prayer.” One of the difficulties, I think, for some of our parishes is that before Mass it is so noisy you could never pray. You see this especially at weddings. And then after Mass the same thing. So many of our parishes have beautiful narthexes and parish centers. That’s where you build another sense of community. There are a lot of values that we need to recapture that have been lost.
Those are things that I’m addressing with the priests. I’ve given a reflection on how I’ve seen the Church during my lifetime. I was baptized in 1964. I went through grade school in the 1960s with the Vietnam War and the 1970s when a lot of silliness happened in the Church in terms of clown Masses and polka Masses. OK, we went through that. Now we’ve grown up again.
A priority to me is really good liturgy, good preaching, good music, a sense of prayer in where we gather together. Also, a sense of charity, so that when we leave Mass we bring with us the command of Jesus to teach the faith.
Some of the things I’m proud of what we do are Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, the Ladies of Charity, the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, the Knights of Columbus, and KDCCW. To me, they go hand in hand, and they’re just excellent. I’m also asking parishes to form a St. Vincent de Paul Society if they don’t have one. It’s a spiritual entity but it also takes care of immediate needs of people.
And so many of our parishes have food pantries or they cooperate with other faith communities in food pantries. They have these great outreaches in Elizabethton and Crossville.
The charity aspect of who we are as a Church and the evangelization desire is a direct outcome of Mass, especially to be sent forth.
And one of the great lessons for this diocese is having Cardinal Rigali present with us. This year marks 25 years since he was installed as archbishop of St. Louis, which began my journey with him. We used to always kid that when he retired he was going to come live with me. But neither one of us ever thought that would be in Knoxville.
Having him live with me is just a great joy. I can share things with him. I know he’s like my dad, and I think he treats me like a son. I seek advice from him. I’ve learned a great deal from him about the universal Church. I love his stories about the popes and his experiences as a papal diplomat.
And he always tells me, “Whatever I can do to help the diocese, I’m willing to do.”
Over the years he’s saved some money and he’s given most of his money now to the building of the cathedral — a huge sum. He’s been a great blessing.
The past 10 years have been a great 10 years. I don’t want to celebrate the fact that it’s my 10th anniversary as much as I do that we work together and do together what we can’t do by ourselves. We’re not at a perfect place. We’re always going to have challenges. But we face them together.