A Joyful Witness

How the Bishop’s Appeal transforms lives in the Diocese of Knoxville

Story by Jim Wogan
Photography by Stephanie Richer

In early February, Bishop Richard F. Stika’s voice boomed across the Diocese of Knoxville with a message for all parishioners.

“It is a joy to be with you on this feast of the Presentation of the Lord,” Bishop Stika said. “I use the word ‘joy’ intentionally, because today I’d like to talk to you about joy.”

Each year since 2013, Bishop Stika has recorded a homily, inspired by Scripture, which explains the purpose of the annual Bishop’s Appeal. On Commitment Weekend, Feb. 1-2, parishioners around the diocese heard Bishop Stika speak from his heart about the 2020 Bishop’s Appeal theme, being “A Joyful Witness.”

“In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we hear about Mary and Joseph, faithful to God, taking Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, as was the custom of the times. I expect that they were filled with joy,” Bishop Stika said in his recorded homily.

“Joy is a gift and, as with any gift that we are given, we are meant to share it with others,” he said.

An annual fundraising effort to support ministries in the Diocese of Knoxville has been around for decades, but in 2012 it became known as the Bishop’s Appeal.

It has become the largest and most important annual fundraising effort in the diocese, and in 2019 it distributed close to $3 million to help support vital ministries, including: Catholic Charities of East Tennessee; clergy formation and seminarian education; Christian formation; youth, young adult, and campus ministries; the St. Mary’s mobile medical clinic; and other important diocesan efforts.

“We simply could not afford to do all of this work if it wasn’t for the annual Bishop’s Appeal,” Bishop Stika said.

The continued growth of the appeal, especially in recent years, has been dramatic.

In 2010, it raised just over $900,000. In 2019, parishioners in the diocese contributed a record $2.75 million.

“The generosity of our parishioners has been overwhelming, and all of their kindness has directly and profoundly impacted the growth of the Church and what we can do for those in need,” said John Deinhart, director of stewardship and strategic planning for the Diocese of Knoxville.

Giving new parents a chance

Norah knew that she and her husband faced a unique challenge when they decided to start a family in 2017. Norah lost both of her parents when she was 22. Her husband was in a similar situation; his parents also were deceased. The couple had little in the way of resources and no parental advice to fall back on when they learned that Norah was pregnant.

“It was really scary; I didn’t have a support system,” Norah said.

After reaching out to a government agency, Norah was told about Catholic Charities of East Tennessee and its Pregnancy Help Centers that operate in five locations across the diocese.

“The Internet is full of things and you can go onto forums, but it’s so impersonal. When you’re bringing another life into the world, you need to have a personal relationship with somebody,” she said.

Norah participated in the Earn While You Learn program offered by Catholic Charities, which combines classroom education with an opportunity to purchase clothing and other items for her children.

“Catholic Charities gave me the foundation to build my confidence…where I knew that I’d be able to be a good mother to a newborn,” she added.

The couple now has two children, and Norah continues to attend classes at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee in Knoxville.

The Bishop’s Appeal’s recent growth has had a positive impact on Catholic Charities’ ability to expand programs. In 2011, the agency received just over $336,000 from the appeal. In recent years, that amount has increased to $500,000 annually and has meant a cumulative additional impact of more than $1.05 million for the agency’s missions since then.

Supporting students, youth, and young adults

The walk from the main campus of East Tennessee State University (ETSU) to the Diocese of Knoxville’s Catholic Center is just a few blocks. But in some ways, they are worlds apart.

Campus life offers plenty of challenges. Academic demands are part of the package. But young people, away from home for the first time, often are challenged in the ways in which they think about their faith. That’s why Casey Keeley, a journalism student from Piney Flats, Tenn., is happy to treat the Catholic Center at ETSU as a home away from home.

“As a college student who wants to remain close to her faith, I am very appreciative that the Catholic Center exists near the campus at ETSU,” Ms. Keeley said. “I can come over and study between classes. You can just come here and hang out with Catholics, and that is very much appreciated.”

In a stately, Victorian-style home with a wraparound porch, the Catholic Center has curb appeal. Inside, it is just as inviting. Students have areas to study, socialize, eat, pray, and attend Masses.

“One night a week, usually a few of us will meet. We will go over a video series and we will discuss it and pray the Divine Mercy. I can just go downstairs (to the chapel) and pray if I need to,” Ms. Keeley said.

“You know the feeling when it’s peaceful and you’re calm when you go into a church? That’s how I feel when I come in here,” she added.

The ETSU Catholic Center is one of three campus ministries supported by the Bishop’s Appeal. The others are at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and UT-Chattanooga.

“When I think of our joyful witness in action, I think of the many youth and young adults participating in various ministries throughout our diocese,” said Brittany Garcia, a ministry coordinator for the diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adults.

“It is a priority for our diocese to engage young people, especially in a time when we are hearing about young people leaving the Church,” Mrs. Garcia added.

In 2020, the Bishop’s Appeal will contribute $465,000 to support youth, young adult, and campus ministry programs in parishes, schools, and on college campuses across the Diocese of Knoxville.

Forming future priests

On May 30, Bishop Stika is expected to ordain two new priests for the Diocese of Knoxville. Those men, Alex Hernandez of Maryville and Zach Griffith of Johnson City, have been studying diligently for the priesthood at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and School of Theology in St. Louis. Last summer, during a Mass celebrated by Bishop Stika at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, both men were ordained to the transitional diaconate.

“The greatest motivation for a seminarian to go into seminary is wanting to bring Christ to others, and the first step is understanding how Christ works in my life,” Deacon Hernandez said.

The Diocese of Knoxville has ordained 53 priests since 1990. With the anticipated ordinations this year, the diocese will have ordained 20 men to the priesthood since 2009. More are coming.

“We are blessed to have 13 men studying in seminary right now,” Bishop Stika said. “And we may have six more, God willing, who will join their ranks in seminary next fall. Before Christmas, I had dinner with all of them, and they are filled with joy.”

The current cost to educate a diocesan seminarian exceeds $47,000 a year. Last year, the Diocese of Knoxville spent more than $800,000 — the second-largest line item in the diocesan budget — to fund seminarian education.

This year, through the Bishop’s Appeal, parishioners will contribute $500,000 to help fund seminarian education.

“I really want the lay faithful of the Diocese of Knoxville to know that they play an integral part of the building up and the spreading of Christ’s message and Christ’s kingdom, and that they’re not on the sidelines,” said Deacon Hernandez.

“If it weren’t for them, I and my brother seminarians wouldn’t have a hope.”

Building the Catholic Church

Last year at two separate Masses, Bishop Stika welcomed more than 250 people into the Catholic faith in the Diocese of Knoxville. Among them was Brian Kephart, who grew up in the Southern Baptist faith in East Tennessee and later, living in New Orleans, 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 told The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper in 2019.

Mr. Kephart, who started attending Mass at St. James the Apostle Church in Sneedville, was among those welcomed into full communion with the Catholic Church thanks to the Diocese of Knoxville’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program.

Since 2015, more than 1,200 people have entered the Church through the diocese’s RCIA programs in its 50 parishes and one Catholic mission.

Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, director of Christian formation for the diocese, says that her office tries to cast a wide net.

“We’re dedicated to the formation of all of the Christians in the diocese. That means people in the parishes, people who are interested in becoming Catholics, so RCIA, adult faith formation, children’s faith formation. We do a lot of outreach through workshops, through retreats, and those are open to people of all faiths,” Sister Anna Marie said.

The 2020 Bishop’s Appeal will provide more than $550,000 to build the Catholic Church in East Tennessee through the Christian formation ministry.

“People want to know who Christ is. The image of a path or a journey is a good one in terms of speaking about the life of the faith because the idea is that you always want to be moving forward,” Sister Anna Marie said.

Defining what stewardship is

The Bishop’s Appeal impacts many diocesan ministries and set another high mark last year when parishioners gave a record $2.75 million. The appeal has seen record levels of parishioner giving for three consecutive years, and in seven of the last nine years.

“It is not just about the money. It is about how many people participate in the work of the Church,” Mr. Deinhart said. “As Bishop Stika mentioned in his homily, recognizing all that we have been blessed with, we are called to joyfully serve others. That is the heart of stewardship. It can transform lives.”

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