Sending of the Neophytes Mass resumes as East Tennessee’s newest Catholics pick up the cross
By Dan McWilliams
Many of the nearly 200 people who came into the Catholic Church at this year’s Easter Vigil in the Diocese of Knoxville were formally sent forth in the annual Sending of the Neophytes Mass on April 25 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Bishop Stika celebrated the Mass, with Father Martin Gładysz of the cathedral parish and Father Peter Iorio of Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa concelebrating. Deacon Butch Feldhaus of St. Jude in Chattanooga was deacon of the Word, and Deacon Jack Raymond of Holy Trinity in Jefferson City was deacon of the Eucharist. Deacon Walt Otey of the cathedral was master of ceremonies.
Last year’s Neophytes Mass wasn’t held because of COVID-19.
“I’ve been looking forward to this Mass for over a year. It’s a great, great privilege,” the bishop said. “The Mass is the summit of everything that we do. There’s no greater prayer, because it’s the sacrifice of Jesus, and that’s what we celebrate.”
He was inspired by the neophytes’ dedication to joining the universal Church during a universal pandemic when social distancing restrictions were an obstacle to attending Mass and Church-related activities.
“It was a strong commitment both on their part and on the catechists. Walking hand-in-hand and seeking to be one with the Church at the altar to receive the Eucharist demonstrates the commitment of someone who follows Jesus and is willing to witness to another that strong conviction about the importance of the Eucharist,” the bishop said.
Bishop Stika began his homily by talking about the role of a bishop, and he spoke of the crosier he carries and the cathedra, the bishop’s chair that gives “cathedral” its name. He said he thought of a new way to display his crosier, which resembles a shepherd’s crook.
“My car was on the fritz for about two weeks, and I was using the diocesan truck that we have over at the Chancery, and I was thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if I put a gun rack on the back window and hang this on it? People would know, ‘Don’t mess with that guy.’”
On a more serious note, the bishop referenced a homily given by Cardinal Justin Rigali, who recently celebrated his 60th anniversary as a priest.
“The cardinal talked about what it was like to be a shepherd. He said a shepherd has to take care of the sheep,” the bishop said. “A true shepherd doesn’t do it for the money. A true bishop doesn’t do it for the money. He does it for the love of people.”
Bishop Stika then made one of his favorite quotations about new Catholics.
“Nothing’s perfect in life. Did you become Catholic because you wanted to join a perfect Church? As soon as you joined, it ain’t so perfect anymore. Same for me,” he said. “Pope Francis talks about the Catholic Church being almost like a hospital for people who are sick.”
The bishop mentioned the sacraments of initiation: baptism, first Communion, and confirmation. Many of the neophytes received all three of those sacraments.
“Now all of you are card-carrying members of the Roman Catholic Church,” Bishop Stika said. “If your family’s with you and they aren’t Catholic yet, give them the old elbow and say, ‘Hey, come on, oin me, too,’ because the greatest witness we can give in terms of people who aren’t Catholic is by our personal witness of how much we love Jesus. Right? We can say who we are, but if we don’t practice that, what happens? People will look at us and say, ‘They’re fake.’”
God “does not want us to fail,” the bishop said.
“Genesis tells us that we’re all created in the image and in the likeness of God,” he said. “If God wanted us to fail, why would He send Jesus into our lives so that we might know His mercy and his support and His friendship? Why would He give us the sacraments? Why would He give us the Gospels and the letters of St. Paul if he didn’t want us to be nourished?”
Bishop Stika spoke of his being named a bishop by Pope Benedict XVI versus becoming a new Catholic. The Holy Spirit was involved in both decisions, he said.
“That in many ways is no different than you. The Holy Spirit is there to enliven you. The Holy Spirit wants to be a part of the decisions and all the choices that you make. Remember the old wristband, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ That’s not a bad thing to think of.”
The bishop also quoted two saints.
“A good suggestion is from St. Teresa of Kolkata. She said, ‘Every day, do something beautiful for God,’” he said. “St. Faustina said, ‘Every day, do an act of mercy, and give that to God as a gift.’ Because after all, isn’t God merciful for us?”
In his role as shepherd of the diocese, the bishop issued a welcome to the newcomers.
“You enrich the Church. You have responded to the Holy Spirit to join us at the altar,” he said. “You have a desire for the Eucharist, the body and blood, the soul and divinity, of Christ. It is an honor for me . . . being the bishop of this diocese, I could not think of something more filled with a sense of awe and wonder and faith than when I see this missionary Diocese of Knoxville continue to grow and to live and to be vibrant, to make a difference.
“But you as adults, you made a conscious choice, and I think the Lord thanks you. Pope Francis thanks you. Especially on this day, I thank you. God bless you on your continued journey of life and faith.”
Later in the Mass, the neophytes were called forward and received gifts of holy water and a rosary, along with instruction cards for each, from Bishop Stika. Sister Maria Juan Anderson, RSM, then the director of the Office of Christian Formation, called the neophytes by parish.
One of those neophytes was Carolyn Storrs, newly received into the Church through St. Jude Parish in Chattanooga.
“It’s wonderful, wonderful. It’s awesome,” she said of her decision.
Mrs. Storrs spoke of her call to join the Church.
“I went to the Holy Land last November and saw all the churches and religious sites, and it affected me. I have a very good friend who sponsored me, and my godson, Joseph, in Cincinnati is a very devout Catholic. I’ve seen what it did for his wife, from his example, the change in him,” she said.
Mrs. Storrs enjoys her parish and its pastor, Father Charlie Burton.
“He’s wonderful. He’s funny and friendly, and the church is a very friendly church,” she said.
And what is she looking forward to the most as a new Catholic?
“Attending Mass of course,” Mrs. Storrs said. “My patron saint is St. Teresa of Calcutta, and I thought she did wonderful work. I’ve got a couple of books by her, and so I’ll follow through with that.”
The cathedral’s Harry Meiners and his son, Trip, also came into the Church this spring.
“It started when my wife converted back in 2016, Ashley Meiners. I was just not ready at the time,” Mr. Meiners said. “It was a long five-year journey from 2016 to now. It really started when I started reading Church fathers and learning more about the Eucharist and the beliefs of the Catholic Church going back to the first century. I felt it was something I had to do at that point.”
Trip Meiners is a 13-year-old eighth-grader.
“Once my father started looking into it, I looked as well, and eventually we joined together.”
Trip says he “likes confession a lot” and “the fact that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ is a big change from Protestant beliefs, so that’s cool as well.”