Faith in the risen Lord

Holiest week of the year arrives as Bishop Stika celebrates Chrism, Easter Masses 

By Dan McWilliams

Calling it a “great joy” at one Mass, Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated the liturgies and services of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, the Chrism Mass, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Good Friday service, the Easter Vigil, and an Easter Sunday morning Mass, all at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

More than 50 catechumens and more than 130 candidates came into the Church at the Easter Vigil across the diocese.

Chrism Mass

At the Chrism Mass on April 12, Bishop Stika blessed the holy oils used in the Church throughout the year, and he heard diocesan priests make their annual renewal of commitment to priestly service.

More than 70 priests and 25 deacons took part in the Chrism Mass, the 14th for Bishop Stika as the Diocese of Knoxville’s shepherd. Principal concelebrants were Cardinal Justin Rigali, cathedral rector and vicar general Father David Boettner, vicar general Father Doug Owens, and diocesan deans Father Michael Cummins, Father Peter Iorio, Father Mike Nolan, and Father Brent Shelton. Deacon Sean Smith was deacon of the Word, and Deacon Ken Conklin served as deacon of the Eucharist. Diocesan seminarians were among the altar servers.

“One of my favorite Masses to celebrate besides ordination is the Mass of the Holy Chrism, and I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Bishop Stika said. “So, it’s with great joy that we gather together as priests, deacons, and religious, people from different places in this diocese, to celebrate the Mass of the Holy Chrism. For it is a foundational thing for our Church, an activity, something so beautiful because it reminds us of the priesthood, it reminds us of people coming into the Church: baptized and confirmed, and all the oils that we bless and the chrism that I consecrate. This is special for the diocese as we gather together.”

In his homily at the Chrism Mass, Bishop Stika addressed many of his remarks to his brother priests.

“When you are a seminarian or when you are a priest who remembers his days in the seminary, there are these two terms that we speak of the identity of a priest: to act in the person of Christ and to be another Christ,” he said. “That’s why at Mass we can say, ‘Take this, all of you, and eat. This is my body.’ We do so as Christ. The same in the sacrament of reconciliation or confession: ‘I absolve you of all of your sins.’ And other moments, too: the anointing of the sick and such. To act in the person of Christ and to be another Christ. It’s the foundational aspect of the ontological change that has occurred in the soul of a priest: to be another Christ.”

The bishop said in the past year he has been reflecting “a lot” on that last point.

“As I look at the Scriptures, the Gospels, it always seems that Jesus does three things when he enters a town: He preaches, He feeds, and He heals. If we look at that in our ministry, we teach, and that which we teach is what the Church believes. We reflect on the Scriptures before we preach, and we pray over them so that we might authentically be able to convey the message of God to the people who stand or sit or people that we interact with, to preach. And as St. Francis of Assisi said, sometimes you can even use words. That’s the witness of who we are as priests, who knelt before the bishop—it depends on what era you are from—and through the laying on of hands, changed, authentically changed in an ontological sense. Same with the diaconate and in the case of the cardinal and I, our episcopal consecration, to preach and to teach—they go hand in hand.”

“And we can only do that effectively if we actually live that out so that we can witness, so that we study, so that we pray over those readings, and to heal. . . . I would ask my brother priests, do you see that in your life, in the ordinary moments of your life; life is busy, when you might not be feeling better, when you might be challenged by that particular personality of another person? It’s a good thing to reflect on throughout the course of the year, to see if all of us, the cardinal and myself, all of us, and even the deacons—do we authentically represent Christ, to heal, to break open the Word, and to preach authentically?”

Bishop Stika spoke of the renewal of priestly promises that takes place during the Chrism Mass.

“To say yes, that you will faithfully proclaim the Church as it is taught, that you will seek to be in union with each other and to be in union with me, that we work together, that we strive together, to build the kingdom of God in East Tennessee,” he said. “And that can be challenging. You might disagree with each other. You might disagree with me. You might disagree with the teachings of the Church. And yet that’s what we are called to, and in a very practical way, that’s what we get paid for. Because the people need that; in fact, the Church demands that of each of us. And that’s why this is such a mystical moment in our day, to once again make a pledge of that which we did on the day of our ordination, when we were all ordained priests.”

The bishop then addressed the assembly that filled the cathedral.

“But what does that mean for you lay folks and religious? You, too, are called to do the same thing: the priesthood of the laity, to witness to Jesus, in an authentic way, to teach the message of Jesus, to preach the message, my words, how we treat each other, and how we speak to each other, and even how we disagree with each other,” he said. “And sometimes that’s in a literal sense … to heal broken families and broken relationships in a broken world, a world right now in which we hear what happened in New York on a subway, the devastation in Ukraine, what’s going on in Sudan or Yemen or Syria, or all the places the media has forgotten about and yet still represents a broken world. Even in our cities of Knoxville or Chattanooga or whatever town or municipality we might be called to preach and to teach and to heal. The beauty of a diocese, as I’ve said so often, we do together what we can’t do ourselves, cooperating with the grace of God to build, to cooperate, to love and to serve.

“Today that’s demonstrated in a very powerful way in the renewal of commitments by the priests . . . to renew, to seek forgiveness of maybe those that you have wronged, my brother priests and deacons. And today in a very spectacular way, as we prepare for this weekend and for the course of the year, when we welcome people who wish to be joined together in what happens on this altar, to be nourished by the Holy Eucharist. And God forbid we ever take that for granted, that gift of Jesus. And for the priests, that prayer: let this be my first Mass, my last Mass, my only Mass. To participate with Jesus, as we offer the Eucharist, as we bring healing to other people.”

The bishop mentioned the oil of catechumens and the oil of the sick, which he blessed at the Chrism Mass.

“The oil of the sick reflects what Jesus did when he entered a home, when he entered a village or a city: the healing presence of Jesus. How strange it was the last couple of years [with the pandemic] with the space suits and the masks and all the protective devices and rooms. And I give credit to our priests, who were willing because their health would allow it, to go into those situations to be another Christ, to act in the person of Jesus.”

Bishop Stika also consecrated the chrism that night.

“The consecration of the chrism, in which we invite, demand, plead that the Holy Spirit might be enfleshed in that chrism, that holy chrism that will be used for baptisms and confirmations and ordinations. The Holy Spirit manifests itself in that chrism,” he said.

To the assembly, the bishop said, “all of you, who represent the entire Diocese of Knoxville, 70,000-plus, to all the parishes that you come from: thank you for being here today, because you represent people of faith. Never be afraid to intentionally witness the faith that has been given to you, to another, for God is always with us.”

To his fellow priests, he said, “the commitments you made in ordination, to work with the bishop, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, to be true persons acting in the presence of Jesus. Remember that when you get that call late in the night … to be with somebody and to bring them comfort, to anoint them, to hear their confessions, whether it’s a person you enjoy to be with or it’s a person when you see them it’s like fingernails on chalkboards. . . . To know that the sacraments that we as priests are privileged to celebrate bring life so that every confession, every Mass, every anointing, every conversation with another: let them see Jesus, let them continue to see Jesus in your lives, especially in this world that is broken, that is hurting, that is in pain. They want to see Jesus, for all of us—they want to see Jesus. We see that in the Scriptures: ‘I want to see Jesus.’

“And so today, as we celebrate priesthood, as we celebrate people coming into the Church, let us also be reminded that we’re never by ourselves, for there is Christ, there is the Holy Spirit, there is God. And so let us rejoice this night, this night of the Holy Chrism, for God has brought us all together in this moment of mystery, in this moment of faith.”

In the renewal of commitment to priestly service, Bishop Stika asked the priests “are you resolved to renew, in the presence of your bishop and God’s holy people, the promises you once made? Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to Him, denying yourselves and confirming those promises about sacred duties toward Christ’s Church which, prompted by love of Him, you willingly and joyfully pledged on the day of your priestly ordination? Are you resolved to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God in the Holy Eucharist and other liturgical rites and to discharge faithfully the sacred office of teaching, following Christ the Head and Shepherd, not seeking any gain, but moved only by zeal for souls?” The priests responded “I am” to each question.

The bishop then addressed the assembly, asking them to “pray for your priests, that the Lord may pour out His gifts abundantly upon them and keep them faithful as ministers of Christ, the High Priest, so that they may lead you to Him, who is the source of salvation.” Bishop Stika asked those in the pews to “pray also for me [and for Cardinal Rigali], that I may be faithful to the apostolic office entrusted to me in my lowliness and that in your midst I may be made day by day a living and more perfect image of Christ, the Priest, the Good Shepherd, the Teacher and Servant of all.”

In the procession of oils, Monsignor Al Humbrecht brought forward the balsam for the chrism. Father Michael Sweeney and Father John Orr presented the oil of the catechumens. Father Michael Maples and Father Mike Creson brought up the oil of the sick. Father Alex Hernandez and Father Matthew Donahue, representing two of the most newly ordained priests, brought forward the sacred chrism.

The bishop blessed the oils of catechumens and the sick. He consecrated the holy chrism by breathing over it, praying that the Holy Spirit would be present in the oil.

In his closing remarks, he thanked “my brother priests.”

“Maybe I don’t say that enough, but we are really blessed with a wonderful diocese, a growing diocese, across the board in so many ways. And that would not be possible without all the work that you do: the work that other people might know about, but all the things that are behind the scenes, the phone calls and the messages, just the willingness to go beyond yourself, to be truly Christ to other people,” he said.

Bishop Stika added that “we are in a culture that’s not real helpful to faith, and yet why are we growing? We’re growing because of the work that you do and your staffs and all the people who are your co-workers in Christ. Just know of my gratitude. . . . I just want to say thanks and keep up the good work, all the things that you do, and to my brother deacons the same thing. I appreciate everything that you do. To all my sister and brothers in Christ in this diocese, I say thanks as well. We do together what we can’t do by ourselves. I just want you to know of my gratitude. To the religious and the sisters who are here and if there are any religious brothers, and to my brother, Cardinal Rigali . . . I say thank you for your witness to the faith.”

The bishop then asked all of the seminarians to join him at the head of the altar steps. The seminarians’ images are on posters that are distributed around the diocese.

“These are the people who are part of those posters. . . . These are the faces that are on those posters,” Bishop Stika said. “These guys come from various backgrounds. We’ve got computer geeks and military. A.J. Houston here, he’s a 1st lieutenant in the Army. We’re going to get him, and then the military archdiocese is going to get him. He’s not only going to serve the people of God here but also the people of God in a ministry that is so necessary to the Archdiocese of Military Services, which is the largest diocese in the world.”

The bishop said “we are blessed” with the young men studying for the priesthood. “How about if you continue to pray for them and to be with them? Also this year I’m going to ordain 24 permanent deacons.”

Easter Vigil

Bishop Stika celebrated Easter Vigil Mass on April 16 at the cathedral, where three young men and a young woman were baptized. Following their baptisms, Bishop Stika confirmed 24 catechumens and candidates as they entered the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

In his Easter Vigil homily, Bishop Stika told the story of two peers of Jesus’ Apostles, Isaiah and David, who stood by passively and watched the events of Jesus’ ministry unfold, from persuading fishermen to become fishers of men and His miracles, to Jesus entering Jerusalem and His crucifixion on Calvary before His resurrection.

“Faith is crazy. You can’t taste it. You can’t bottle it. You can’t ignore it. The call of Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, the suffering Jesus, the Jesus who is the Son of God who guaranteed that God the Father loves everyone with His mercy. And Jesus, who knows so much about the human condition, also knows that we make mistakes. We can feel alone. We can feel confused, especially in 2022, with war, famine, political problems, troubles in our streets, troubles in our families, troubles in our hearts,” the bishop said.

“The gift of Jesus because He said I will never abandon you. The gift of the Eucharist. Do this in memory of Me, for this is My Body, this is My Blood, given for you. It’s just the craziest thing. But sometimes crazy is good, because we see it as one way, and God sees it as another way. We might see it as crazy and chaotic, but God sees the reality,” he continued.

Bishop Stika offered some pastoral insight for those entering the Church at the cathedral, sharing with them the prayers and plight of all Catholics, and continuing on the theme that faith is crazy.

“To my sisters and brothers who will now join us in our Church at the sacrifice. Did anybody ever tell you that you are crazy to join those Catholics? They like fish. They honor saints. They pray to statues. They listen to a guy from Argentina named Francis. It has scandal. Why?” he asked. “I’m sure that’s a question that you have asked yourself. Probably all of us have asked that question. Then why do we follow this Church? It’s because of what we do at that altar. Sacrifice. Sacrifice to Jesus day in and day out. The sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the beautiful sacrament that so many people ignore: confession. The fact that we are not God, and we make mistakes. In this day and age, we don’t like to admit that.”

The bishop explained to those entering the Church that they would be receiving the Eucharist for the first time, something that separates Catholics from other faiths because Catholics know the Eucharist is the Real Presence of God.

“It’s not a symbol for us. It’s Jesus. That’s crazy. The Real Presence is shared by 1.4 billion Catholics around the world. You won’t get to know them all. But all you need to do is meet one person of faith, and you will know them all. Faith is crazy, you know?

“I pray this night will always be special to you. I pray that the Lord will continue to bless you, and that your eyes may be opened to the love of God, even in those moments when you turn from Him, when you make those mistakes that we call sin, and when you wonder, like Isaiah and David, about all the craziness of faith. Faith, indeed, is crazy. But in actuality it’s reality because it’s God,” Bishop Stika said.

Easter Sunday Mass

Bishop Stika celebrated the 9 a.m. Mass on Easter Sunday at the cathedral. In his opening remarks, he said, “We welcome you all today as we celebrate this great feast of Easter.”

In his homily at the Easter Mass, he again expounded on his theme of faith being crazy.

“We come together and we worship a God who we cannot see, and yet we know He exists. How? Look around—creation, Genesis, people who give their lives in charity and in kindness, who try to live the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes. It’s the craziest thing. Isn’t it crazy to turn the other cheek? That is just crazy. Or as Catholics, the thing that separates us from our Protestant brothers and sisters, we believe that the Eucharist, the Mass, really is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Why? Because He said to us on that Passover night, ‘This is My Body, this is My Blood, given for you. Do this in memory of me.’ And so now for thousands of years, that’s what we celebrate. Baptism and the other sacraments—it’s all circled around the Eucharist. And it’s crazy to believe that that is the body and blood of Jesus, but aren’t other things kind of crazy? Have you ever fallen in love? It makes you crazy, especially when it goes from infatuation to love itself.”

Faith “is like walking into a room that’s completely dark,” Bishop Stika said. “We don’t know what’s there. We might see the light of Jesus. We might hear the invitation of Jesus, who wants to be one with us.”

The bishop referenced a traditional artwork of Jesus in a garden knocking on the door.

“If you really look at it, there’s no doorknob on the outside of the door. The only way that Jesus can get into that house is if somebody on the other side opens the door, and that’s faith,” he said. “Jesus is with us. The risen Jesus is with us, and He’s just waiting for us to open the door and leave it open, because He wants to be with us. He wants to walk with us. He wants to push us. He wants to challenge us, and there are going to be other times He might even carry us along the way. He wants us to know His Father, the creator of everything. He wants us to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, so that we might be willing to take a risk and go beyond ourselves, to witness our faith.”

Most things in a broken world “do not bring us solace, and for the most part they don’t work. Faith is simple. It’s to believe,” Bishop Stika said. He spoke of how he once considered buying a flashy stereo receiver.

“Sometimes we in our lives, we like the flash,” he said. “We like the gizmos and the dials and the colors, but it doesn’t make it any better in terms of sound. That’s the invitation of faith to all of us. It’s as simple as this: to believe in Jesus. But also, what does that mean? To go beyond ourselves. To be intentional in our witness to others that we do believe in Jesus, that we go out of our way weekly to honor God in the Eucharist, to be nourished and fed so that the emptiness of our life can be transformed. Give it a shot, my dad used to say.

“Today, we celebrate Easter, and we’ve seen the sufferings of Jesus these last few days. Last night as we have welcomed in this diocese almost 200 people who now have joined us at the Eucharist, either baptized or received into the Church . . . Let us always know that we have been given a gift, a gift of faith that will make us crazy at times, because we want to control, we want to understand. But sometimes the gift of faith that comes to us from God is just receiving it.”

After the homily, Bishop Stika led the assembly in the renewal of their baptismal promises, and he blessed them with holy water. Bishop Stika asked the faithful if they “renounced Satan and all his work and all his empty promises” and if they believed in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit,” to which they replied, “I do.”

In his closing remarks at Mass, the bishop reminded people “not to forget God loves you. That’s why Jesus came into the world. That’s why we have this church, this community of faith, in order to understand what God is asking us to do on an individual basis.”

He then gave an apostolic blessing to the assembly.

“There’s a special prayer that only the bishop can grant a couple of times a year. It’s called the apostolic blessing. It means that if you go to confession and receive the Eucharist and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father, you get a special grace, a special blessing. I’m going to do that after Mass, so it’s kind of a neat thing. I want to wish you all a happy Easter.”

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