Neophytes are sent forth with a fresh perspective to share their newfound faith with the masses
By Bill Brewer
“Do you all smell?”
And with that risky query that begs a certain amount of self-awareness among those being questioned, Bishop Richard F. Stika sent the Diocese of Knoxville’s newest members out into East Tennessee to proclaim the Gospel.
The Mass and Sending of the Neophytes service May 12 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was the final phase for the 2018-19 class of RCIA participants that marks the completion of their conversion and a beginning of their faith journey as Catholics.
Many of the 225-plus catechumens and candidates who entered the Diocese of Knoxville at the Easter Vigil joined Bishop Stika for the Mass and ceremony, in which he welcomed them into the fullness of the Holy Spirit and gave them a collective “hug.”
Bishop Stika asked those new to the faith gathered for the Mass why they had a new appearance from when he spoke to them as a group during the Rite of Election ceremonies in March. He answered that they now are filled with the Holy Spirit after receiving their first Holy Communion at Easter Vigil.
“You look different from the last time I saw you. Maybe some of you were not yet baptized. But now you are. Some of you were not yet received into the fullness of the Catholic Church, to receive the Eucharist and the other sacraments. But now you have,” he said. “You see, a lot of that isn’t a physical thing. It’s not on your forehead, and you don’t have a glow about yourself, but hopefully there is something different about you today because you’ve received the Eucharist, the body and the blood and the soul and the divinity of Jesus Christ, that which makes us Catholic.”
The bishop noted that centering our lives on the altar reminds us of when we hear the words “take and eat and take and drink all of you for this is my body, this is my blood given for you,” which should make us different.
“Did you ever hear the adage you are what you eat? If that is true, then I would have a White Castle hanging around my neck,” he said, drawing laughs. “We are what we eat. We know that when we eat something, it can make us more thin or maybe not as thin. Or if you’re like me, a diabetic, and you’re tempted to eat something that has a lot of sugar, an hour or two later you know it. You are what you eat.”
To give a more theological emphasis to his nourishment point, he then reminded them that “now you can receive Jesus in the Eucharist,” which nourishes us spiritually, making us one with Christ.
Bishop Stika also pointed out that the neophytes are joining the Church at a time of turmoil, both within the Church and from external forces around the world.
Even so, the U.S. Catholic Church welcomed more than 37,000 new faithful at Easter, which blunts the criticism that the Church’s membership is dwindling amid the priest sex abuse scandal as well as attacks on Christianity and freedom of religion.
As dioceses across the country reported triple-digit—and even quadruple-digit—gains in membership at the Easter Vigil, the Diocese of Knoxville continued a multi-year trend in the hundreds as the Church in East Tennessee continues to grow.
Criticism of the Church has been felt locally in recent days, prompting Bishop Stika to respond to an April 23 USA Today story that concluded the Catholic Church is at a crossroads.
In a May 12 column, the bishop said that after reading a USA Today story on the front page of the Knoxville News Sentinel on April 23 that also ran in other newspapers across the country he was compelled after much reflection and prayer to respond to the statement posed by the News Sentinel in the story headlined “Catholic Church at a crossroads.”
“The Catholic Church, founded by St. Peter at the direction of Jesus shortly before His crucifixion, and grown at great risk by His apostles who evangelized through the power of the Holy Spirit, now includes more than 1.2 billion faithful followers of Christ around the world,” Bishop Stika wrote. “The Catholic Church has been at many crossroads in its 2,000 years of existence. Throughout history, we have survived violent and even subtle persecution at the hands of others—both individuals and governments. Our Church was founded on the teachings of Christ, and we value our sacred worship traditions, which remain true to His word even after 20 centuries.”
The bishop went on to write, “The Church is also human, and throughout our history we have made human mistakes that are egregious and regrettable. I, personally, have apologized on behalf of the Church for the sin of clergy abuse. Church leaders did not do enough to address these evil acts when they were made aware of them decades ago. We continue to bear the shame of these transgressions. Church leadership in the United States, especially since 2002, has demonstrated a firm commitment to correcting these past mistakes.
“The News Sentinel article cited a recent Gallup poll showing an increase in the number of Catholics who say they are considering leaving the Church due to the abuse crisis. Anecdotally, it also shared the views of some around the country who have expressed uncertainty about why they continue to worship as Catholics. Remarkably, despite the murky picture painted by this article, I remain encouraged by the strength, resolve, and faithfulness of the Church and the millions of Catholics who fill the pews during the celebration of Mass in the United States each week. Our Church is alive and vibrant and continues to grow.”
Nowhere is that growth more evident than in the Diocese of Knoxville, which has been recognized for an explosion of Catholic faith, evidenced by new parishes and a new cathedral in addition to healthy numbers of converts.
Speaking to the neophytes, Bishop Stika emphasized that as they are now one with the Church, he is one with them. And as their shepherd, he will watch over them and pray for them as they go forth to witness about Jesus Christ.
He referred to the day’s Gospel reading from John 10:27-30: “My sheep hear my voice: and I know them, and they follow me. And I give them life everlasting; and they shall not perish forever, and no man shall pluck them out of my hand. That which my Father hath given me, is greater than all: and no one can snatch them out of the hand of my Father. I and the Father are one.”
He then noted that Pope Francis, earlier in his pontificate, said a bishop should smell like the sheep.
“Do you all smell? Hopefully you smell of grace, charity, of compassion, love, forgiveness. All of those ingredients that in one way or another serve as the teachings of Jesus,” he said. “Hopefully my leadership over the past 10 years in the Diocese of Knoxville has stimulated a sense of a call to holiness. Do you know where I locate a lot of my spiritual energy, and who I pray for every time I pray? The people I’m supposed to smell like. Because you teach me by your commitment to the Church, your commitment to the world in which we live, a commitment—a sense of purpose—that is given to us to remind us that we are called to love, to care for, to accept the goodness of other people. That’s what we celebrate when we celebrate the gifts and graces of the sacraments.”
The bishop pointed out that we all want to get to heaven and that God does not want us to fail in any endeavor.
“Genesis reminds us that we’re all created in the image, the likeness of God. But Jesus, during the time that he walked on Earth—during those 33 years—he witnessed people. He witnessed the interaction of people. He listened and watched, listened and watched. He knew that it is difficult to be a human many times when we’re faced with difficulties and tragedies and challenges that seem insurmountable. That’s why Jesus promises the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” he continued.
Noting that the neophytes are now confirmed, he said they will celebrate Pentecost, when a gust of wind came upon people who were nervous and fearful because they felt their humanity, yet when they received the Holy Spirit they left the Upper Room and greeted the world in the name of Jesus.
“I do believe in the depths of my heart that one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is you being here today. You see, the Church has survived a lot. It’s always confronted with something because humans can really mess up. It’s part of our condition. Yet the Church survives, and proclaims, and believes, and teaches the teachings of Jesus, especially teaching of the Eucharist as the Second Vatican Councils says is the greatest form of worship that exists for us—it is the summit. That’s what we celebrate today.
“I welcome you to the Diocese of Knoxville, to the Catholic Church, to people who express their faith throughout East Tennessee and the world. For Mass is celebrated, sometimes on the hood of a jeep in Afghanistan, or in the coldest place in the world in Siberia, or somewhere in the desert. Every moment of every day somewhere the great sacrifice that we call the Eucharist, the holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated because of the commission of Jesus—do this in memory of Me,” he said.
Bishop Stika then commissioned them as Jesus commissioned all of us, to be the face, the heart, the hands, and the feet of Jesus, and to see in others the presence of God.
“I’m one with you. Pray for me as I pray for you. Pray for the world. Pray for the Catholic Church that is persecuted throughout the world, where churches are destroyed and people are killed because they believe in Jesus. Be open to Jesus’ love. Be open to the Holy Spirit. Pray for the intercession of the angels and saints, especially in the name of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he concluded.