Chosen to serve

The Diocese of Knoxville welcomes three new transitional deacons as it celebrates a triple ordination 

By Gabrielle Nolan

Three Diocese of Knoxville seminarians are one step closer to priesthood after being ordained to the diaconate on Sunday, May 29, at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville.

Bishop Richard F. Stika was the celebrant of the afternoon Mass that featured transitional deacons Joseph Daniel Austin, Neil Patrick Blatchford, and Andrew Christian Crabtree.

“What a joy it is for me as bishop to be here with all of you . . . to celebrate this historic event in the life of the Church of East Tennessee, but also in the Austin family, in the Blatchford family, as well as the Crabtree family,” Bishop Stika said at the beginning of the Mass.

The bishop asked for special prayers for Deacon Crabtree’s father, who was unable to attend the ordination Mass.

“Pray for Andrew’s father, who is quite ill. He’s in the hospital, something very serious. So, Andrew and to your family, we pray for your dad,” Bishop Stika said.

Bishop Richard F. Stika prays the prayer of ordination over Deacon Neil Blatchford as deacon candidate Andrew Crabtree awaits at right. At left is Deacon Sean Smith with Deacon Walt Otey.

Also present for the Mass was Cardinal Justin Rigali, in choir. Several priests of the diocese concelebrated.

The first reading was proclaimed by Rhett Austin, father of Deacon Austin, while the second reading was proclaimed by Brendan Blatchford, brother of Deacon Blatchford. Deacon Sean Smith served as deacon of the Word.

The rite of ordination followed the Gospel reading, where each ordinand was called by name to stand before the bishop, to which each replied “present.”

Father Christopher Floersh, director of vocations, presented the elect to Bishop Stika.

“Most Reverend Father, Holy Mother Church asks you to ordain these men, our brothers, to the responsibility of the diaconate,” Father Floersh said.

To which the bishop replied, “Do you know them to be worthy?”

“After inquiry among the Christian people and upon recommendation of those concerned with their formation, I testify that they have been found worthy,” Father Floersh responded.

Bishop Stika approved the elect by saying, “Relying on the help of our Lord God and our Savior, Jesus Christ, we choose these, our brothers, for the order of the diaconate,” to which the congregation responded, “Thanks be to God.”

Bishop Stika began his homily by recounting his morning in Rutledge, “dedicating a new church under the patronage of the title of St. John Paul II.”

“St. John Paul II reminds us not to be afraid,” he said. “And I’m filled with great joy that Joe and Andrew and Neil were not afraid to say ‘present’ for their moment since the time of their baptism, since the time of their creation. They now are here before me and my brother deacons and priests and the people of God of the Catholic Church scattered throughout all of East Tennessee.”

Deacon candidate Joseph Austin places his hands in those of Bishop Richard F. Stika during the ordination Mass. Also pictured are (from left) deacons Walt Otey, Sean Smith, and Hicks Armor.

The bishop’s homily largely focused on the vesture or uniform of the clergy, noting that it is not uncommon for workers in society to wear “certain uniforms or things that designate who we are or what we might be about.”

“The same is true for a person of service to the Church,” Bishop Stika said. “The same is true of that which designates the roles that we fulfill.

“The white garment that we wear, the alb, usually under a vestment for us, designates that we are baptized, that we are a new creation, that we have died to self,” the bishop continued. “And so you wear an alb and a cincture . . . at some point a stole crossed over your heart, and a dalmatic, a chasuble almost with sleeves, to be about the work of the Lord.”

In particular, the bishop focused on the cincture, or belt, that the clergy wear.

“Some are very simple, and some are very ornate, but they should be very strong in texture,” he said. “For the most part they’re a rope, right, intertwined to give it more and more and more strength that binds the alb, that symbol that you are baptized. I was thinking about a cincture, and how so much it relates to what you are going to do today.”

“What are those strands of the diaconate?” the bishop continued. “One of those strands is what you’ve just done: you’ve presented yourself to the Church, in all the complexities of your life, in all your journeys that brought you to a time when you met with me, and you said you wanted to be a priest, God willing, someday.”

Bishop Stika proceeded to talk about three main “ingredients” or “certain components” of the ordination of a deacon, priest, or bishop.

The first ingredient he mentioned was praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church.

“Anytime you pray, be assured there’s somebody in the world at that moment that is praying with you,” Bishop Stika said. “Don’t take it lightly. And if you miss, for whatever reason, don’t beat yourself up over it; there’s always tomorrow. There’s always the next hour.”

The second ingredient was the promise of obedience and respect for the ordinary, which the bishop described as “something that is greatly misunderstood.”

“What it means is that there’s something greater than yourself. I represent the diocese as a successor of the Apostles,” Bishop Stika said.

He mentioned obedience to the magisterium and the teaching of the Church, as well as the obedience to pray, continue formation, respect the bishop, and proclaim the Gospel.

“You will preach to the people of God, and that’s important, that’s the challenge,” the bishop said. “It seems time and time again what do the people in the pews ask for? Homilies that make a difference in their lives, to teach. You’ll have your own way to teach and preach.”

Deacon candidates Austin, Blatchford, and Crabtree prostrate themselves before the altar as the Litany of Saints is sung. With Bishop Stika are Deacon Walt Otey (left) and Deacon Sean Smith.

Bishop Stika also discussed the various responsibilities the new deacons would have, such as setting the altar for Mass and participating more fully in the sacraments.

“You can baptize, you can witness marriages, you can bury the dead, and to assist those in the presbyteral order, as well as the bishops in the work that we’re all called to do: to teach Jesus and to celebrate the sacraments faithfully,” he said.

The third ingredient the bishop highlighted was celibacy.

“At the beginning of this ritual, you presented yourself in the totality that you are: the mind, the spirit, the soul, the person,” he said. “And there’s a gift that you give besides your life itself: the commitment to the Church to remain celibate for the rest of your life.”

“If we are making that statement that celibacy is the way we believe that God is asking us to live our lives, then that’s the gift we give to the Church,” the bishop continued. “And it’s part of all those ropes coming together. Celibacy is reinforced by prayer, which is reinforced by humility; it is reinforced by sacraments.”

Bishop Stika concluded his homily by noting that there are other components of ordination, such as “surprises, disappointments, challenges.”

“Again, the twine that makes the cincture that binds your alb together, your baptismal promise. You’ll get through it,” he said. “The people of God will continue to pray for you. Never forget to pray for them. May God bless you as you move into this new ontological moment in your life. For God indeed is good and He has chosen you. Amen.”

After the homily, the three elect stood before the bishop, who questioned them to declare their intent to undertake the office of deacon before the people of God.

Bishop Stika asked the following questions:

  • Do you resolve to be consecrated for the Church’s ministry by the laying on of my hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit?
  • Do you resolve to discharge with humble charity the office of the diaconate, so as to assist the priestly order and to benefit the Christian people?
  • Do you resolve to hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, as the Apostle says, and to proclaim this faith by word and deed according to the Gospel and the Church’s tradition?
  • Those of you who are prepared to embrace the celibate state: Do you resolve to keep this commitment perpetually as a sign of the dedication of your life to Christ the Lord for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, in service to God and others?
  • Do you resolve to guard and increase the spirit of prayer proper to your way of life and, in keeping with this spirit and the circumstances of your life, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours, with and for the people of God and indeed for the whole world?
  • Do you resolve to conform your manner of life always to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will handle at the altar?

The elect responded “I do” to each question.

Deacon Hicks Armor prepares to vest Deacon Andrew Crabtree as Father David Carter (second from left) vests Deacon Neil Blatchford and Deacon Frank Fischer vests Deacon Joseph Austin.

Immediately following came the promise of respect and obedience to the bishop, where each of the elect knelt before the bishop, placing his hands in the bishop’s.

Afterward, the three men lay prostrate before the bishop as the congregation sang the Litany of the Saints.

Rising once more to kneel before the bishop, one by one they approached Bishop Stika for the laying on of hands and prayer of ordination.

Once the ordination prayer was completed, the three new deacons received the vestments of a diaconal stole and dalmatic from a clergy member who was influential in their lives.

Deacon Austin was vested by Deacon Frank Fischer; Deacon Blatchford was vested by Father David Carter; and Deacon Crabtree was vested by Deacon Hicks Armor.

Once vested, each deacon knelt before the bishop to place his hands upon the Book of the Gospels, to which Bishop Stika said, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

Shirley Austin, mother of Deacon Austin, and Virginia Blatchford, mother of Deacon Blatchford, brought forth the gifts for Communion.

Deacon Austin served as deacon of the altar, and all three of the newly ordained deacons distributed Holy Communion to the congregation.

At the conclusion of Mass, Bishop Stika offered his thanks to those who contributed to the liturgy.

“And to the families, you know they say the first seminary is the home. So, to all the families, especially to Andrew’s family as we pray for his father, that the healing spirit of God might be with him and that he might be with us next year at the ordination as a priest, that’s what we pray for. To our brothers, thank you for being here today. I know Sunday is a very busy day. We’re proud to have all of our seminarians with us. Especially a word of thanks to all the people here at the cathedral, especially the choir; they always elevate our prayer.”

A reception followed in the cathedral hall with drinks and desserts, where family and friends both took photos with and received blessings from the newly ordained.

“It was overwhelming,” Deacon Austin said about the family and friends present to support him.

“I was deacon of the altar, so being able to tell the congregation to extend the sign of peace and just seeing my family and everything, it was amazing,” he said.

Newly ordained deacons (from left) Joseph Austin and Andrew Crabtree and (far right) Neil Blatchford assist Bishop Stika at the altar. With them are Father David Boettner (third from left), Father Michael Cummins, and Deacon Walt Otey.

“It’s kind of a whirlwind experience . . . just recognizing that I’m becoming a part of something that’s much bigger than myself,” Deacon Austin continued. “I just need to always have this constant awareness that God is in control, and I need to allow Him to be the one who’s in control of what I’m doing because if I start trying to be the driver of this thing, it may not go where it needs to go.”

For Deacon Crabtree, the day was full of mixed emotions.

“My dad is in the hospital right now, and so he’s not doing too well, so he wasn’t able to be here, so for me it was very emotional in that part,” he said. “But also very joyful, so a very conflicting thing.”

“I was very nervous beforehand, but excited at the same time,” Deacon Crabtree continued. “When everything started it became very peaceful. I really felt the Holy Spirit just grant me joy and peace during the whole thing.”

Deacon Crabtree especially enjoyed the praying of the Litany of Saints.

“When I was praying and they were praying, I could really feel just the blessings of the people, and I’m so grateful for the people of Knoxville and for the priests and my brother deacons,” he said.

Two things in particular stood out to Deacon Blatchford during the ordination Mass.

“One thing that really stuck with me was the priest who vested me, Father Carter,” he said. “When he was vesting me he said, ‘Now you’re in God’s hands.’”

New deacons (from left) Neil Blatchford, Andrew Crabtree, and Joseph Austin stand with Bishop Stika following the ordination Mass.

“And that really kind of struck me hard,” Deacon Blatchford continued. “It moved me and made me realize that I am in God’s hands, and that if I ever need to ask for anything, He’s the one I go to first now.”

The second thing that came to mind: a life of service.

“During ordination, I was really thinking of how the diaconate is like a service to others, and the first place you learn that service is from the family,” Deacon Blatchford said. “I really thought about everything that I learned from my family and how I’m going to carry that into my diaconate and then eventually to my priesthood.”

The newly ordained deacons will have summer assignments at the following parishes:

  • Deacon Austin, Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Office of Youth, Young Adult, and Pastoral Juvenil Ministries (Knoxville);
  • Deacon Blatchford, Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Chattanooga);
  • Deacon Crabtree, St. Alphonsus (Crossville).

In the fall, the deacons will return to St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana for their final year of studies before being ordained to the priesthood in 2023.

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