Saving us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit
By Bill Brewer
Easter Masses were again teeming with people two years after pews were last full for the holiest of liturgical celebrations.
And the Catholic Church in East Tennessee welcomed nearly 200 new members who joined in Communion with the risen Lord at Easter Vigil despite going through RCIA during a year of pandemic.
Bishop Richard F. Stika welcomed 39 of the Church’s newest members as he celebrated Easter Vigil at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, where parishioners turned out in strong number to attend Mass in person April 3.
Bishop Stika acknowledged the challenges catechumens and candidates faced as they went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults during a socially distanced year.
He informed the congregation that pastors throughout the Diocese of Knoxville would be inviting some 186 adults into the Church during Easter Vigil despite the pandemic, a remarkable number given the self-imposed isolation and quarantining that drastically altered the way homes, churches, businesses, schools, and most any organization operated.
“Despite the frailty of the human condition, we invite these, our sisters and brothers, to share in the eucharistic sacrifice. Please pray for them. My sisters and brothers who are received this night, pray. It is the most powerful gift that God has given to us. Don’t ever forget that God is love, and the very name of Jesus is to love others as He has loved us,” Bishop Stika told the new cathedral members.
Sister Maria Juan Anderson, RSM, director of Christian Formation for the diocese, was encouraged by the continued strong numbers of people joining the Catholic faith, especially amid COVID-19.
“I think its verification to all of us that the Holy Spirit works no matter what is going on in the world, and that our faith can be put in God no matter what is going on. It’s a great sign of hope for us, it’s a beautiful gift, and I think it makes us all grateful for the gift of faith,” Sister Maria Juan said.
When asked if she thought the number of RCIA catechumens and candidates would be strong in a year in which everything in society is different and distanced, Sister Maria Juan believes it to be a godsend.
“I don’t know if anyone knew what was going to come. But I think we’re all pleasantly surprised by what the Lord has done. And I think this year more than ever we see the strength and the power of God because everything was against these people,” she said.
“They had to be on Zoom or maybe not at all. They couldn’t see the faces of the people who were teaching them. And I think with everything going on in our culture, in our country, the division,
even with the wounds of our own Church, even amid all that, these people are coming because they’ve been called by Jesus Christ,” she continued. “That is where they see the greatest stability they can find, the greatest anchor, the rock on which they can lean no matter what the storm might be. I think that is the beauty of these 186 people coming to know our Lord this year.”
Colin Brice was one of the 39 who entered into full Communion with the Church at Sacred Heart’s Easter Vigil. Mr. Brice was baptized and confirmed by Bishop Stika, something the young man had been looking forward to for months.
Mr. Brice described going through RCIA during a year of pandemic as “expectedly surreal.”
“The experience was expectedly surreal compared to what one would expect in absence of the pandemic. There was a heavy emphasis on social distancing, wearing masks. They [RCIA leaders] made as many adjustments as possible that are needed adjustments. Despite that, there still has been such attention to wholeheartedly and fully explaining and teaching the vast, detailed history and tradition behind the Church and why the Church teaches and believes what it does,” Mr. Brice said.
“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the attention they’ve taken, and the diligence they’ve taken, not only to prepare us for baptism and confirmation but also to really abide by the CDC guidelines and local mandates. They’ve really outdone what I could have ever expected,” he added.
He noted that some RCIA study was done by Zoom and some was in person, and when they were in person, the RCIA leaders took temperatures, confirmed that everyone was able to answer no to symptomatology questions, and they were socially distanced in small groups at different tables.
Following the Vigil, Mr. Brice felt renewed by the experience. He shared his excitement with Bishop Stika, who blessed a rosary and St. Francis of Assisi medal Mr. Brice was clutching.
“I feel like I have literally been washed by the grace of Jesus Christ. And that the Holy Spirit has come to dwell within me. I know up until the moment, I had felt a great sense of preparatory rigor in terms of preparing myself in my daily life and rituals to really feel that I deserved it. Then at the moment of it occurring, all of that preparation felt completely fulfilled. And I really truly feel that now I can go out into the world and have to preserve a sanctity that I am now blessed with. Before, I had to work to deserve it, and after receiving it, now I really cherish that in going out with a shield of St. Michael to really protect myself against falling back into my old ways of being a sinner,” Mr. Brice shared.
Bishop Stika, who in March entered his 13th year as the Diocese of Knoxville shepherd, announced that on the weekend of Pentecost, May 22-23, he plans to lift the yearlong dispensation from attending Mass because of the coronavirus.
“That is unless there is a rapid, life-threatening recurrence. Last year we opened public Mass again on Pentecost. It’s the birth of the Church, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so I think it’s appropriate. Hopefully around Sept. 8 maybe we’ll have celebrations in all of our churches as we continue to reopen,” he said.
Sept. 8 is the anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988.
God is love
To begin his homily, the bishop asked who among the congregation were the catechumens and candidates entering the Church “in a very unusual year.”
As they raised their hands, he said, “I’m going to ask you a couple of questions now. Please explain God. Some of you were Baptist, so you can probably quote Scripture to me…much better than Catholics.”
Bishop Stika then reminded them of the burning bush, when God said to Moses, “I am who am.”
“You see, you really can’t figure out God. The mind of God. There’s just no way. Theologians have been doing it for centuries. And other faith traditions, too. They’ve been trying to figure out God. … It says the universe was created as something like a sugar cube. And then it exploded. And the universe was growing and growing into nothingness. Go figure that one. And eventually it will begin to shrink when matter and antimatter collide, and it will all cease to exist … except for God,” Bishop Stika said.
“But we do have a definition. It comes to us from the Gospel of St. John. It says God is love. It’s as simple as that. You can have all kinds of definitions and ways we can describe love. But God is love. Do you want to see what God’s love is like? He sent His only Son, Jesus, part of the Trinity—don’t ask me how to explain that part either—but part of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One God. Three persons. The love of the Father and the Son is kind of the creation of the Holy Spirit. That’s my answer.
“God speaks to us all the time. One of the basic principles I remind the young adults or whoever I’m confirming, one of the basic principles is God has not created us to be in this world to fail. Why would He want us to fail? Genesis says we are all created in the image and likeness of God. Why would He want us to fail? We are a beautiful creation. We can reason and think. I want to say the most powerful gift that God has given us is faith. But the second most powerful gift that God has given to us is the ability to make choices. Free choices. We’re not robots. God does not want us to be robots,” the bishop added.
Pointing to the lesson learned at the beginning of creation with Adam and Eve and original sin, Bishop Stika said God gave them choices, and they made those choices that went against God’s love.
“They are contrary to the existence of a God who is omnipotent, a God who wants to draw us closer to Himself. That’s called sin. And sin is that which separates us, not because it’s God that separates us, but we turn the other way. We ignore. That’s sin. We ignore the concept that God is love,” he noted.
“And if you look through all of human existence, since the earliest of creation of humanity, sometimes we don’t do such a good job. War. Ignoring other people. Condemnation. You can break it down to some of the simplest of categories like gossip, whatever it might be; it’s turning from God. You know the Ten Commandments? ‘I am the Lord, your God. You shall not have other gods before Me.’ I bet you do: money, people, possessions, your own time.”
He emphasized that difficult times have shadowed humanity since the beginning of time, but through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit there is hope and love. All that is needed is faith.
“These last days we show the demonstration of His love. That He gave His only Son, Jesus Christ, so that we might have the ability to know God better and to receive that precious gift: life eternal in His presence.”
And receiving that precious gift was the pinnacle of the catechumens’ and candidates’ discernment and year of study.
“As we fulfill the mission of the Church tonight at this cathedral and churches throughout the world, we will welcome new members into our community. We will welcome those who aren’t yet baptized or confirmed. We also welcome the holy sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharist, for Jesus said, ‘take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body. Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the cup of my blood, given for you.’ The Eucharist, the body and blood, the soul and divinity of Jesus,” Bishop Stika said.
“This is my body given for you. Do this in memory of me. That is what we’re doing tonight and anytime we’re asked to celebrate, do this in memory of Jesus. That’s why this night, for all eternity, this night for you who will receive the Eucharist for the first time, will receive the body and blood of Jesus. Never take it for granted, for any time you take something for granted you fail to acknowledge that which is extraordinary; we make it ordinary.”
A special joy
Bishop Stika acknowledged a special joy he has in baptizing and confirming adults, people who have made a choice pleasing to God to join in full communion with Jesus and His Church through the holy Eucharist.
“There is something special about receiving and baptizing an adult. With children, you bring them in and baptize them at an early age. But an adult; I’m just so, so honored and blessed to be able to do that. I hope this is a very special moment for you, and that you carry this within you, in your heart as you begin this magnificent journey with Jesus and His Church,” he said.
He let the new Catholics know that the Church is not perfect, which they will come to find after joining. But they become part of the body of Christ, which is perfect.
“It’s a perfect Church as the body of Christ. But we, as members, are not perfect. That’s why we have the sacraments of confession, the healing of the sick, and the Eucharist itself. All of those very special things that remind us of the relationship we have with Jesus, the relationship we have with the Father, inspired by the Holy Spirit,” the bishop said.
Concelebrating the Easter Vigil Mass were cathedral rector and vicar general Father David Boettner and cathedral associate pastors Father Martin Gładysz and Father Jhon Mario Garcia. Deacon Walt Otey served as master of ceremonies, with Deacon Fredy Vargas serving as deacon of the Eucharist and Deacon Joel Livingston Jr. serving as deacon of the Word.
Worshiping in person
Bishop Stika announced a plenary indulgence for the remission of sins to all of those who go to confession soon, pray for the intentions of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church, and receive the Eucharist.
He was encouraged by the strong turnout for Easter Vigil at the cathedral and churches across the diocese as well as at Easter Sunday Masses.
“It’s nice to see people again at Mass. Someday I’ll see the rest of your heads,” he said in a nod to the masks still being worn. He informed the congregation that he has received both vaccinations for COVID-19. “If you’re wondering why I’m not wearing a mask, sometimes I don’t since I got my two vaccinations. Hopefully you all will, too. I know there are political considerations and some people just have problems with vaccinations. But it’s one of the ways we can eradicate this virus, which has caused so much disruption in the world.”
He noted that many places in Europe are closing again because of a recurrence of the COVID outbreak.
“If we want to get rid of this, we have to work toward it. We have to pray and we have to do what’s necessary. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and a lack of common sense,” he added.
“God calls us through disease and war and peaceful times. He calls people, talks to them, invites them, and people respond. The world has seen very difficult moments. Think about what happened during World War II. People of London were getting bombed every day and every night. And what happened to people in Berlin after the war. God is faithful. He just invites us to be faithful as well.”
For many in the cathedral congregation, Easter Vigil was as inspirational to them as it was to the catechumens and candidates. Enthusiasm among parishioners about being in public worship again was visible throughout the cathedral.
Kathy Kearse was one of those who was excited to return to Easter Mass after two years.
“I thought it was a great turnout. I was really pleased with it. The whole Mass was beautiful, powerful, and inspirational. It’s just not the same doing it at home. As much as I was grateful to have the opportunity to do it by Internet, you just can’t compare it to being here in person and experiencing it,” Mrs. Kearse said, noting that she had no concerns about returning to church services and felt safe and comfortable doing it.
Likewise, Chester Pun-Chuen felt renewed to be back at Easter Mass.
“At Easter Vigil it was so exciting to witness the strength of our faith. Witnessing the number of people attending was a symbol of hope. It was great to see the huge number of our community come and celebrate the risen Lord, especially being a part of welcoming our new members in our Catholic family,” Mr. Pun-Chuen said. “I strongly feel that the community is ready to come back in person. We have been constrained too long and we do miss our personal relationships with our parishioners and pastors. Just like what Bishop Stika said during the Vigil, all we have to fear is fear itself. If we are determined we can overcome everything.”
Missing Easter Masses last year amid the pandemic had a profound impact on Lisa Morris, who looked forward to attending Easter Vigil.
“After not having Easter services last year, I pray I never take for granted what a blessing and precious gift it is to be able to join with others at the holy sacrifice of the Mass, especially on the most holy night of the year, in person, in church with our church family. It was a joyous night of welcoming those coming into the Church,” Mrs. Morris said. “The spirit of all who were able to attend was one of awe and reverence, a tangible spirit of hope and joy, knowing we have all been through a lot this year, but God is with us in it all, and His love will sustain us.
“The size of the crowd was absolutely wonderful… a full church… overflowing with the light of Christ, people ready to spread His love and mercy to all they meet. We are one in heart with Him and each other; the unity of the body of Christ was evident. It truly was a gift straight from above.”