Bishop Stika nominates St. John Neumann couple for induction into the Order of St. Gregory the Great; Pope Francis approves the recommendation
By Dan McWilliams
Alan and Sally Sefton said they felt stunned as they became the first people in the Diocese of Knoxville to be inducted into the Order of St. Gregory the Great in a presentation that took place Sept. 14 in the Seftons’ home church of St. John Neumann in Farragut.
The honor fell on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a special feast day for the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, of which the Seftons are members as Knight and Dame Commanders. Many Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre order in the Diocese of Knoxville were in attendance at St. John Neumann.
At the end of Mass, Bishop Richard F. Stika presented eight-pointed crosses bearing an image of Pope St. Gregory XVI to Mr. and Mrs. Sefton. The honor is awarded to those individuals recognized by the Holy See for their superior dedication and exceptional zeal and service to the Church. On June 10, Pope Francis accepted the recommendation of Bishop Stika and declared the bestowal of the title of Knight Commander and Dame Commander to Mr. and Mrs. Sefton in the Order of St. Gregory the Great.
“We were both extremely surprised to learn about this prestigious papal award. It was one of the best kept secrets ever!” Mrs. Sefton said.
Her husband agreed.
“It was a great surprise. I knew nothing about it,” Mr. Sefton said. “We’re so proud. I think it’s the only one, [the bishop] said in Knoxville, but I think it’s the only one in Tennessee.”
The bishop was celebrant of the Mass. Principal concelebrants were Cardinal Justin Rigali, whose 34th anniversary of ordination as a bishop fell on that day; Father Valentin Iurochkin, a Russian-born priest who is new to the Diocese of Knoxville; Father Mark Schuster; and Father Christopher Floersh. St. John Neumann pastor Father Joe Reed served as master of ceremonies. Deacons Al Forsythe and Sean Smith assisted.
“We do love the Church, absolutely,” Mrs. Sefton said, a comment also echoed by Mr. Sefton: “We’re very committed to the Church.”
The Seftons grew up in England and began life in a different faith tradition.
“We were both brought up in the Church of England’s primary school, a little school in England,” Mr. Sefton said. “Sally’s three years younger than me, so we went there at different times. It was a great introduction to our Lord, but then we really found what the Catholic faith meant to us.”
The couple joined the Catholic Church after coming to East Tennessee.
“We have been coming to St. John Neumann for about 15 years, even before we were Catholic,” Mr. Sefton said. “When Father [John] Dowling was there, he stayed in our garage apartment for two and a half years while we built this church, because we’d sold the rectory. We got to know Father Dowling very well, so you could probably—I won’t say blame him—for us being Catholic, but he certainly had an effect on us,” he added with a laugh. “He is a great one. I speak to him at least twice a week, even now. He’s a great part of our life.”
The Seftons said they were surprised to be the first in the diocese to receive the Order of St. Gregory the Great honor.
“It’s all a bit of a shock, really, so I don’t really know [how to react],” Mrs. Sefton said. “Haven’t had time to take it in. Obviously this is a huge honor, and we both feel very humbled to have been chosen to be Knight Commander and Dame Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great. . . . Neither of us had ever considered that we would have been selected to receive this incredibly amazing papal award.”
Mr. Sefton said he “was absolutely amazed” to be the first in the diocese to be awarded the honor.
“I thought initially, why me? Why us? But obviously the bishop chose us for what we’ve done and what we try to do,” he said.
He said he never thought about receiving such an honor simply by being a member of the Church.
“I mean, I think a lot of people could do more than us, but obviously the bishop acknowledged what we do do, and we’re very proud of that,” Mr. Sefton said.
Bishop Stika spoke of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in his homily.
“It’s kind of a weird thing, huh? We celebrate a weapon of capital punishment,” he said. “Jesus was convicted, and the most torturous way for a person to die, they say, is crucifixion.
“We all have our crosses to bear, right?” the bishop said, upon which microphone feedback occurred, and he ad-libbed: “Like that. I know Lord, [the homily] is going to be short.”
Some people “like to show off their crosses,” Bishop Stika said.
“‘I am having such a horrible day, and not only do I want to be miserable, I want you to be miserable with me.’ Sometimes it’s a good thing to share the pains of life or the disappointments, but I think most of us bear our crosses silently,” he said.
The bishop spoke of the Church’s operation of hospitals and schools, of St. John Neumann’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, and of the Knights of Columbus and the Ladies of Charity.
“These are ways that the Church reaches out, but it’s the Church as the people of God. It’s not the institution,” he said. “It’s the people of God who have picked up the cross and acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God, the Savior. The one who would challenge us to turn the other cheek, not to walk by our neighbor who is suffering and in pain, not to proclaim ourselves as the center of the universe, but to know there’s a greater purpose and what it means to be a human.”
The Equestrian Order is the oldest order of Knighthood under the protection of the Holy See, dating back to the end of the 11th century. The order was originally given the honor of guarding the Tomb of Christ.
“Their life [today] is dedicated to taking care of an area of the world where Christianity I think is less than 1 percent now, to take care of the shrines, where Jesus was baptized, where he died, where he healed and visited. It’s a wonderful group,” Bishop Stika said. “So I want to thank the Ladies and Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. I belong to that group. So does the cardinal. This is one of their twice-yearly celebrations. The other feast is Our Lady of Palestine. It’s a wonderful organization, to make sure that there’s a Christian Catholic presence in the Middle East.”
The bishop then introduced the presentation of the St. Gregory crosses to the Seftons.
“Tonight there are two people who are in the church, members of your parish, who have been knighted by the Holy See, by the Vatican, by the pope himself: Alan and Sally Sefton,” Bishop Stika said. “Alan is now a Knight Commander of St. Gregory, the highest award the Church can give unless you’re a king or head of state. His wife, Sally, is a Dame Commander. They’ve been designated by the Holy Father to receive this. They’ve been a great blessing to the work of the diocese, so I nominated them, and the pope accepted.”
The bishop concluded by speaking of the future Cardinal Rigali’s ordination as a bishop by Pope John Paul II on Sept. 14, 1985.
“A man named Monsignor Justin Rigali stood before St. John Paul, and he had the very distinct honor of being the only one to be ordained a bishop [that day]. . . . I just want to wish him a very happy 34th anniversary,” Bishop Stika said, after which a round of applause followed.