More than 225 people will enter the Catholic Church in East Tennessee at Easter Vigil Masses
By Bill Brewer
History may have been made twice March 9-10 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
For the first time, the Rite of Election of Catechumens and Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates services were held in the new cathedral, where more than 225 individuals were welcomed into the Catholic Church by Bishop Richard F. Stika.
And also for the first time, one of those candidates was a native of Hancock County who attends St. James the Apostle Church in Sneedville.
Brian Kephart grew up in the Southern Baptist faith in Sneedville, and after work took him to New Orleans following high school he was introduced to the Catholic Church.
“A friend who was Catholic invited me to Mass in New Orleans. I knew right then I was home. I felt the love and decided to look into the faith,” Mr. Kephart said.
Mr. Kephart’s life journey eventually led back to Hancock County, where Father Bart Okere is pastor of St. James the Apostle. He also is pastor of nearby St. Henry Parish in Rogersville.
Mr. Kephart feels at home at St. James, a small parish with about 25 members. He said he is the first convert from the parish to join the Catholic Church, something of which he is especially proud.
“I’m so thankful God has led me on this journey. It’s going to be my journey for the rest of my life,” he said. “I will never be able to thank God and Jesus enough for my life and my faith.”
Although he is coming into the Church at the Easter Vigil, Mr. Kephart already is active at St. James the Apostle. He said each Sunday after Mass the members gather to discuss affairs of the parish. He said the small but active membership has modest plans to upgrade the church, a converted commercial building.
“We don’t have a bathroom, so that’s one of the areas we want to address. We’re also repairing and expanding out the roof. I put up $5,000, and a St. Henry parishioner gave us a blank check,” said Mr. Kephart, who is 37. “God is working in our church. We are growing and planning to expand. St. James is a nice little parish, and Father Bart is selfless.”
Mr. Kephart gives praise to the Holy Spirit and St. Mary for the gifts the parish is receiving, and he feels a part of the parish’s growth. “My journey has just begun.”
Bishop Stika emphasized to the newest members of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee who will enter the Church during Easter Vigil Masses that the Holy Spirit will always lead them on their faith journey and to remember that their parish and the cathedral are their home.
“I want to offer you a warm welcome to the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the mother church of all the Catholic churches in East Tennessee. We celebrate with you, we bless you, we pray for you, and we pray together as we offer our prayers to Jesus and to His Father through Christ. We pray for the Holy Spirit to be upon us so that we always might be enlightened in our faith,” Bishop Stika said. “The Holy Father, Pope Francis, often reminds us that the Church is actually a hospital for sinners.”
“As we gather together, let’s acknowledge the fact that Christ is indeed with us, for where two or three are gathered in His name, He is present,” the bishop added.
Bishop Stika told the candidates and catechumens that the cathedral was like the county seat for all the parishes, akin to a courthouse in the middle of town.
“The cathedral is like the county seat for 51 parishes scattered throughout all of East Tennessee. Although it’s our new cathedral, it’s like what my mom used to call our home place,” he said.
He pointed out the detailed elements of the cathedral, such as the pulpit where the Word of God is proclaimed, the St. Mary and St. Joseph chapels on either side of the sanctuary, the images of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and other saints that adorn the cathedral dome that remind us of our heritage, our faith, and the cathedra, or the chair where the bishop sits, a symbol of the teaching authority of the bishop.
“But the main focal points are there behind me: the crucifix, the altar of sacrifice, and the tabernacle. They reveal the Eucharist, which is what we believe Jesus taught the apostles. Take and eat all of you, for this is my Body. He didn’t say this represents my Body. He said this is my Body,” Bishop Stika said. “In the same way he took the cup and said again, ‘take this cup all of you and drink from it, for this is the cup, the chalice of my Blood.’
“And we have the tabernacle, which holds the Eucharist, which is Jesus. So any time you go to a Catholic church, understanding that the Eucharist is always the Eucharist. It doesn’t cease to be in its divinity. So when you come to pray, there is Jesus.”
He also pointed to the large sanctuary lamp hanging above the altar that signifies Jesus is present as the Body of Christ gathers together.
“All of you are here by your choice. All of you are at a moment in your life when you are responding to God. You have chosen to respond to Jesus and God in this particular moment in your life,” the bishop said. “Maybe you were baptized in another faith tradition, but Jesus is inviting you to this Eucharist. To believe. When we receive the Eucharist, what is our response? ‘Amen.’ What does that word mean? ‘I believe.’”
He emphasized that the catechumens and candidates are joining the Church, which is a hospital for sinners. And he acknowledged they are coming into the Church at a time when the
Church itself is calling for healing.
“My challenge to you who are becoming Catholic. Don’t be like so many cradle Catholics who were born and raised in the Church. They can get lazy and take their faith for granted,” Bishop Stika said. “I challenge them. Don’t think just because somebody pours water on your head, or anoints you with chrism, or tells you ‘welcome to the Church’ that it’s all over. It’s a journey.
“And it’s like the GPS. You can think you’re at a place and wonder why. But you’re kind of lost until you look deeper. God is talking to you. Jesus is reaching into your heart. Please, never shut that out. Keep focused on Jesus and God. That is my prayer for you.”
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, director of the Office of Christian Formation for the Diocese of Knoxville, said more than 225 catechumens and candidates have gone through Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults programs at their parishes in the 2018-19 RCIA year. She is very encouraged by that number.
“The growth of the Church in East Tennessee has been steady over the past several years; our number of new Catholics, including those already baptized and those who are not, hovers around 220,” she said.
Bishop Stika has said adult faith formation is an emphasis of his ministry, and the Office of Christian Formation is working closely with all parishes to make the Catholic Church in East Tennessee welcoming to everyone.
Bishop Stika and Sister Anna Marie are encouraged by the strong numbers of candidates and catechumens, especially at a time when the Catholic Church is dealing with issues like the abuse scandal.
“I was glad to see that, in the midst of the abuse scandal, the number of those joining the Church did not decrease. I think this alone testifies to the fact that the truth in and of itself is compelling. People understand that there are saints and sinners in the Church, and you don’t join the Church because of another person, no matter how good he or she is,” Sister Anna Marie said.
“You join the Church because you believe in Jesus Christ and that He Himself founded the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church upon Peter the Apostle. We are still in communion with Peter to this day, despite sins and scandals over the centuries. Those are painful, for sure, but they do not alter the fact that the Church is beautiful, God is beautiful and good, and He desires us to be in communion with Him,” she added. “It is God who draws people into communion, and it is God who will make them saints. We have to keep praying for each other, that each one of us can respond to God’s grace fully, so that each one of us can become saints.”