Frs. Hernandez, Griffith join the Catholic presbyterate in East Tennessee, take on new assignments
By Dan McWilliams
Two new priests entered the Diocese of Knoxville ranks Aug. 29 as Bishop Richard F. Stika ordained Father Zachary Griffith and Father Alexander Hernandez at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The ordination was postponed from June because of the coronavirus situation but took place in August before a socially distanced assembly in the cathedral.
“What a great joy it is for all of us to gather together this day,” the bishop said in his opening remarks. “It was postponed for a little bit because of the virus, which is still with us. We gather together to give praise and glory to God for our two deacons who soon will be priests of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
The new priests were the 19th and 20th ordained by Bishop Stika in his more than 11 years as the diocese’s third shepherd, and they were the 54th and 55th priests ordained in the diocese’s history. The ceremony was the first multiple ordination of priests in the diocese since four were ordained in June 2015.
Bishop Stika presided at the ordination Mass. Cardinal Justin Rigali attended in choir. The concelebrants included cathedral rector and vicar general Father David Boettner, vicar general Father Doug Owens—and the two new priests themselves. More than 20 priests attended, including Father Hernandez’s spiritual director from Kenrick School of Theology in St. Louis, Father Mirco Socio, AVI. Both newly ordained men attended Kenrick.
Deacon Don Griffith, Father Griffith’s father, was deacon of the Word at the ordination. Recently ordained Deacon Matthew Donahue was deacon of the Eucharist. Father Griffith’s mother, Patricia, proclaimed the first reading, and Father Hernandez’s father, Juan, proclaimed the second.
Before the homily, diocesan chancellor Deacon Sean Smith called forward the priesthood candidates, and each responded “present.” Diocesan director of vocations Father Christopher Floersh declared them worthy of ordination.
“We choose these, our brothers, for the order of the priesthood,” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop opened his homily by referring to the age-old rite of ordaining priests.
“Today we gather together not just to celebrate priesthood, but we gather together today to celebrate the Church, how Jesus Christ is indeed present in our Church,” he said. “And what has occurred for centuries, relying on the help of God—choosing these, our brothers, for service—back to the apostolic times.”
Bishop Stika joked about the long period of study for the two ordinands.
“What do I say to these two, whom I’ve known for a long time? In fact, it seems like they’ve been in the seminary for 25 years,” he said. “First of all, before I say something to them, I want to thank their parents. In a very special way, I remember Alex’s mother, who died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer. Alex stepped out of the seminary for a semester or so to be with his father to take care of his mother.
“What do I say to you today? Maybe it’s a reflection on the feast day that we celebrate today, the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. Maybe to the two of you I say this, in all sincerity: don’t let your head be separated from your heart. You spent a lot of time in the seminary learning about all kinds of things: Scripture and sacraments and preaching and dogma, prayer, reflection, priesthood, celibacy—whatever it might be. But don’t forget: don’t separate the intellect from the heart.”
The priesthood of Jesus Christ “is associated with the heart of Jesus,” the bishop said. “Our cathedral is named the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. But you also need a balance because if you go too much with your heart, you can lose a certain sense of credibility. You might want to be just a nice guy and say yes to everything or no to everything because you don’t want to find yourself in a difficult situation. There are so many times in pastoral ministry that you want to give a different answer, but it might be in conflict with who we are as a Church, with our teaching. That’s why it’s so important to keep that balance: the heart and the brain, the intellect and a sense of care and love.”
Bishop Stika spoke of all the sacraments the new priests would celebrate.
“You will say, ‘Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is my body.’ You will take the cup: ‘take this all of you and drink from this, for this is the chalice, not of his blood but of my blood, not of his body but this is my body, because you will act in the person of Jesus as another Christ. Never allow that to become ordinary.”
When each priest preaches, “you preach the Word of God. Don’t be afraid to preach the Word of God,” the bishop said.
Bishop Stika said “we live in complicated times. You’re entering the priesthood of Jesus in a very complicated time, when so many people deny the existence of God or look the other way or don’t feel that they need to gather together as a community to celebrate faith. There are going to be people who look at you with anger when you talk about the holiness of life and how abortion is the killing of the most vulnerable. They will look at you a little funny when you might talk about the beautiful sacrament of marriage when so many people are divorced. . . . But my brothers, Zach and Alex, you enter into this world in the person of Jesus, as another Christ.”
The bishop wore at the ordination a pectoral cross that belonged to the late Cardinal John J. Carberry, a former archbishop of St. Louis. The pectoral cross contains a relic of the true cross.
“The true cross—you will bear it in one way or another,” Bishop Stika said. “There may be times of great happiness or joy when you look forward to doing this or that, but there are also times when you carry the cross and you enter a room where somebody is dying or someone is angry or someone is lost.
“You’ll carry the cross in your own life, on the loneliness of a Sunday night when everyone is with their family, maybe, and you go home to a rectory. Or as for me, I always wanted to get married and have kids and now grandkids—to miss the joy of having your own children and spouse. But you give this as a gift for the sake of the kingdom of God.”
Priesthood “is not something that is such a difficult cross to bear, because just like Simon helped Jesus carry His cross, the love and the affection and the friendship of the people that you are called to serve will help you bear the burdens,” the bishop said. “So in your life, don’t be afraid to be a reflection of Jesus, because He, too, walks with you on the journey.”
The new priests are public people now, Bishop Stika said.
“Wherever you go, you are a priest,” he said. “And the more that you’re a public person, even though you might know all the people, so many will know you. Carry yourselves with dignity. Realize the potential of your holiness and know that the Church today, universally . . . living and deceased, celebrates with you, for you are given the mission of the sacraments of healing ministry and of Jesus himself.”
The bishop closed his homily by saying, “my brothers, we rejoice with you today. We rejoice with your family, living and deceased. We rejoice with your parishes that you came from and you have served. We rejoice with the Church and all the people who know you, because you give to us a gift, the gift of your life, and today the Church gives you the gift of priesthood. Continue in your journey, striving for holiness, for you now indeed will be a priest of Jesus Christ.”
The ordination rite followed and included the promises of the elect, in which the future fathers pledged in part “to discharge the office of priesthood in the presbyteral rank, as a worthy fellow worker with the order of bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock”; “to exercise the ministry of the Word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith”; and “to pray without ceasing.”
The ordinands promised respect and obedience to Bishop Stika and his successors, then prostrated themselves before the altar for the Litany of Saints.
The bishop then, through the laying on of hands, prayed the prayer of ordination for each.
The newly ordained were then vested with a stole and chasuble, Father Griffith by Father Dustin Collins and Father Hernandez by Father Joe Reed.
As each new priest knelt before Bishop Stika, the bishop anointed his hands with holy chrism and then placed the gifts of bread and wine in his hands.
“Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God,” Bishop Stika said. “Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”
After receiving a greeting from the bishop and concelebrating priests, the newly ordained took part in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
At the end of Mass, the new priests gave blessings to their parents and to Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Stika.
Father Griffith said ordination day “has been nine years in the coming—a lot of waves in that nine years. But really, it’s great to see the beginning of your work come about. This isn’t the goal; this is the gift of God to not send idiots like me into the field unprepared,” he said.
He said the title “Father” would sound “weird” at first.
“I think it’ll still be weirder not to try to call someone a brother instead of a father,” he said.
Father Griffith’s vestor, Father Collins, went to the same high school, David Crockett in Jonesborough, and is Father Griffith’s home pastor at St. Mary Church in Johnson City.
Father Griffith said he is looking forward to his first assignment as an associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Chattanooga, and he referred to OLPH’s outgoing pastor when he said, “as Father [Jim] Vick likes to call it, Our Lady of Perpetual Activity.”
On serving at the altar, Father Griffith said “it still feels wrong to be standing at some parts and not kneeling at other parts. I’ll get used to it, I’m sure.”
Father Hernandez said his new title sounds “a little surreal. I’m going to have to get used to it.”
To say he was anticipating ordination day would be an understatement.
“I woke up super early this morning because I was looking forward to it so much,” he said.
Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa is Father Hernandez’s home parish.
Father Hernandez said his mother, who died three years ago, was looking down from heaven on his ordination day.
“Absolutely. That’s definite,” he said.
Father Reed, his vestor, is the former director of vocations for the diocese.
“He was vocations director for me for quite some time,” Father Hernandez said. “He especially took care of making sure to visit me and my mom and my dad when my mom was sick. He was there for us for quite a good time.”
Father Hernandez is bound for All Saints Parish in Knoxville as an associate pastor. He is looking forward to the assignment “very much,” he said.
As his father proclaimed the second reading, Father Hernandez said, “it took a bit for me to not get super
emotional, but it was good. I loved it.”
Both new priests had plenty of family members attending the ordination. Some of Father Hernandez’s family came to Sacred Heart from Puerto Rico, his parents’ native land.
Being a concelebrant at the ordination Mass was something that is “going to take a little getting used to, but I was happy to finally be able to do it,” Father Hernandez said.
Among the many visitors to Sacred Heart on ordination day was MaryEllen Snyder, a parishioner of Our Lady of Fatima who has known Father Hernandez since he was in the eighth grade, when his family moved to East Tennessee from Florida.
“It was a true blessing,” she said of the ordination.
“I know his mother was looking down from heaven. I made a promise to her that I would watch him go through this. He’s like a brother to me. There are no words to describe it. It’s God’s will. I’m very proud of Alex. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”