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Going forth to live the faith

Diocese’s newest members embrace Catholicism as they complete their RCIA formation  

By Bill Brewer

John Patterson has been sent forth to proclaim the faith as a new Catholic—and as an octogenarian.

So, does Mr. Patterson feel like a neophyte at age 80?

“Sure, I’m a rookie. I told the bishop I may be the oldest rookie on your team. He said, ‘No, I have one who’s 95,’” Mr. Patterson quipped following the Sending of the Neophytes Mass on May 15 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus that was celebrated by Bishop Richard F. Stika.

Deacon Walt Otey, who serves at the cathedral, emceed the special Mass. Deacon Doug Bitzer, who serves at Immaculate Conception Church, was deacon of the Word, and Deacon Robert Rust, who serves at All Saints Church, was deacon of the Eucharist.

Mr. Patterson, who is from St. Alphonsus Parish in Crossville, is one of more than 180 people who joined the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil in the Diocese of Knoxville.

He attended the Sending of the Neophytes Mass, where Bishop Stika formally sent into the community the newest members of the Church who participated in faith formation through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in order to live their faith through their parishes in full communion with the Church.

Each parish in the diocese with catechumens and candidates who entered the Church at Easter was represented at the Sending of the Neophytes service. Bishop Stika greeted and congratulated each parishioner as he or she processed to the front of the cathedral. And each person was presented a welcome-to-the-Catholic-Church kit by the bishop that included a bottle of holy water, a rosary in a small carrying case, and guides for praying the rosary and using holy water.

All those who became new Catholics at the April 16 Easter Vigil, as well as their godparents and sponsors, were invited to attend the May 15 Mass and ceremony, where Bishop Stika encouraged them to continue their lifelong journey of conversion and discipleship in their parishes.

Also among those who went forth to proclaim the faith were the Conley family of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Madisonville and mother-daughter neophytes Marie and Stephanie Barr of St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport.

Mr. Patterson, the Conleys, and the Barrs agreed that they were drawn to the Catholic Church because it felt like home, and it was a good fit.

That is welcome news to Bishop Stika, who gave the catechumens and candidates a warm welcome.

“It is such a joy and a gift for me to be able to celebrate this Eucharist as we gather together as new members of this Church, united in faith, united in the Eucharist itself,” Bishop Stika said.

“So, how does it feel to be a Catholic? Good? I would hope so, for all those months that you studied, and prayed, and discovered more about the Catholic Church. Do any of you still believe that we pray to the saints, statues, and that Mary is equal to God? I hope not. Sometimes there are misconceptions,” he added, seeking to answer common questions non-Catholics typically have.

“In my own life, I have been a bishop for 14-plus years, a priest for almost 37 years, and a Catholic for almost 65 years, and I still don’t know everything about the Church. And that is true for all of us. If you have been a Catholic for years and years, or only just for a few months or a few weeks, it’s like life itself. We never have all the answers to life. We have to experience it in order to figure out all the questions,” the bishop continued. “I think that is true for all of us.”

In his homily, Bishop Stika related the stories of Jesus’ early followers, who often had to shield their faith from persecutors. He compared those experiences to modern-day Christians, who often are criticized for their beliefs. Now, as then, it can be challenging to express the faith and receive the Eucharist.

“During this Easter season, we’ve been hearing stories about the early Church. From the Acts of the Apostles, my favorite book in the New Testament, about how the Apostles, the first followers of Jesus, had to begin to ascertain what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian?

Stephanie Barr, left, and her mother, Marie Barr, center, joined the Catholic Church through St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport. They attended the Sending of the Neophytes Mass with mother and grandmother Irene McNelly, right

“What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in easy times? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in those challenging times? Remember, in those first three centuries of the Christian faith, the Church was an underground Church. If you were a believer in Jesus, you had to know the secret passwords in order to identify with another person. And there was a real risk if someone found out that you were a believer,” the bishop explained.

“It wasn’t until the time of Constantine that the pressures on the Church began to lessen but never, never disappear. Even in our own day and age, the Church, the believers of Jesus, are still pursued. Just recently, 90-year-old Cardinal (Joseph) Zen, former archbishop of Hong Kong, was arrested by the Chinese government because of who he was. Not because he was a cardinal of the Church, but because he is a Christian. He is Catholic.

“The treasure you have been given, the ability to receive the Eucharist—the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ—always hold precious to your heart. In many places, in the sacristy where the priest will vest, you see these small plaques that say, ‘O priest of God, celebrate this Mass as if it were your first Mass. Celebrate this Mass as if it were your last Mass. Celebrate this Mass as if it were your only Mass,’ which means treasure it,” Bishop Stika said.

He then imparted some bishop-ly advice to the neophytes along the lines of the popular sacristy plaque.

“I can say the same thing to you. O Catholic, O Christian, receive the Eucharist as if it were the first time you received the Eucharist. Receive the Eucharist as if it were the last time you receive the Eucharist. Receive the Eucharist as if it were the only time because it is precious,” Bishop Stika advised.

He agreed that faith can be confusing, notably the Holy Trinity and the Eucharist: “For on the night He was betrayed, He took bread, and giving thanks He broke the bread, and He gave it to His disciples saying, ‘Take this all of you and eat of it for this is My Body. And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My Blood of the covenant, which is being poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.’”

“You’re never going to know all the answers because the questions are many. Questions about what the Church is and the sacraments, but also questions that you might ask yourself: ‘Who am I, Lord, in front of You? Who am I, Lord, in this world in which I live? Who am I, Lord, surrounded by other people, some who agree with me in faith and others who ignore faith? Who am I, Lord?’ But also, in the Scriptures we hear ‘Who am I, Lord? I come to do Your will,’” the bishop told the neophytes. “So, my friends, this day remember that Jesus died for you.”

Bishop Stika reminded them that Holy Communion is not a gift that is just given to individuals. It’s a gift that is given to individuals to share with others so that they, too, might join in.

The shepherd of the diocese emphasized his delight in welcoming the new Catholics into the Church.

“It has been a great joy to see you all. I sincerely mean that. In the life of a bishop, there are many moments of great joy. Some are real significant like the ordination of a priest or deacon. Others are different ceremonies. But today, to welcome you into the Church as you have gone through this long process, in a very particular way you are special to my heart. Thank you for being here to celebrate Jesus in our midst,” he said.

Stephanie Barr credited her young son for leading her and her mother into the Church. She explained that she became interested in the Catholic Church through her son, who started pre-school and kindergarten at St. Dominic School. She wanted the same small-class-size environment for him that she had growing up in Virginia and attending a small public school.

Ms. Barr, whose son is a rising second-grader at St. Dominic and was baptized in the Catholic Church at Easter, praised St. Dominic pastor Father Michael Cummins and associate pastor Father Emmanuel Massawe, AJ.

“Both are such great priests,” she said. “I always considered myself a religious person, but not a church person. Going to the school and meeting the people there at St. Dominic, they were so warm and welcoming. I was a church-hopper growing up, so I went to all of them. And it never felt very homey. You never felt a good sense of community like you do at St. Dominic.”

“I do now feel very Catholic in the community. It’s great, especially being in our parish. I love St. Dominic. The people there are so wonderful,” she added. “So, we just decided to join, too. It was through the school.”

Stephanie was attending the Sending of the Neophytes Mass with her mother and grandmother. In addition to Stephanie and her son joining the Church, her mother, Marie, also joined the Church at Easter Vigil.

“It has been the warmest feeling. It just feels like coming home. I get very emotional talking about it. We’ve been to all kinds of churches, and it never felt right. But we found a home at St. Dominic,” Marie said. “We went to the school. And what really sold me was this little girl coming down the hill to go to school. A siren went off and an ambulance went by, and she crossed herself. I was, like, wow! And then it hit me. It made sense to me. It just hit home. She was just a little-bitty kid. She had no parents there knocking her on the head saying, ‘Do this!’ She just did it because it was right.”

The Conleys also shared their unique path to the Catholic Church. The family was Baptist for 40 years before converting to Catholicism. Their son was attending Lee University in Cleveland and took a course in the early Catholic Church, which prompted their conversion process.

“I remember (my son) saying, ‘I think there’s something to this Catholic stuff.’ I said, ‘No way.’ And he said, ‘Really!’ I said, ‘Even the Mary stuff?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And then I said, ‘Ben, no,’” Matt Conley recalled.

He explained that the conversation continued, and at the time the pandemic shutdown had just begun. He and wife Elisha are in education in Monroe County, so as schools closed they had time on their hands.

“I began to Google for information, and I put in ‘evangelical conversion to Catholicism’ or something like that, and Scott Hahn popped up. I began to read about him and got his book, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism. Then, we did what everybody else does. We started watching YouTube, and I began watching Father Mike Schmitz (Catholic priest in the Diocese of Duluth, Minn.). She and I began watching some of his videos. It went from there. We started reading. We started studying. We started talking,” he said.

Mrs. Conley pointed out that the talking began to take form.

“It just kept evolving. Over a year ago we started going to St. Joseph the Worker Church and getting involved with people and talking to them. Then we started in the RCIA program. [Daughter] Madlen joined us. It was just a fit. It felt right,” she said.

Bishop Richard F. Stika is shown with Matt and Elisha Conley and their daughter Madlen, who is a University of Tennessee student. The Conleys, who attend St. Joseph the Worker Church in Madisonville, entered the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil 2022 and took part in the Sending of the Neophytes Mass that Bishop Stika celebrated on May 15 at the cathedral.

Mrs. Conley indicated that her path to Catholicism was smoother than her husband’s. “I think he struggled with it more than I did because he was doing a lot of the research and telling me. Then we would all talk about it. By the time he was ready to get into it I was ready to go.”

Mr. Conley agreed, saying the newfound faith wasn’t a perfect fit for him at first.

“When this was going on, it was a struggle. I was a deacon in the Baptist church. It was different, and I was just praying, ‘Lord, take this away if this is what You want.’ It was a struggle,” he said. “It was easy, but it was hard. Our whole social life was wrapped up in our Baptist church.”

Madlen said she was very interested in joining the Catholic Church after spending time talking about it with her parents.

Madlen, who is a junior at the University of Tennessee studying geography, usually attends Mass with her parents at St. Joseph the Worker but occasionally attends St. John XXIII University Parish on the UT-Knoxville campus.

“They talked about it so much that I was excited to keep progressing with it. He would tell me something about Mass, and then I would go to Mass and see it in person. It was really cool to see it all,” she said.

The Conleys’ son has yet to join the Catholic Church after introducing his parents and sister to the faith.

“That’s the running joke. He’s the only one who hasn’t converted. He’s the holdout,” Mr. Conley said with a smile on his face.

He pointed out that his son was married in May, and a relative who is a Presbyterian minister officiated the wedding.

“I looked over at (my son) during the prayer, and after the prayer he crossed himself. As I was looking at him, I thought this is a sign. We went to adoration before he got married, and we prayed together,” Mr. Conley said.

Like r. and Mrs. Conley, Mr. Patterson, the octogenarian from St. Alphonsus, was a longtime Protestant who found the Catholic Church later in life. He indicated that his church left him instead of him leaving his church. Also like the Conleys, research was an essential part of his conversion.

“I was raised Presbyterian, and that church has evolved beyond what I could accept. Late-term abortion and same-sex marriage are not part of my beliefs. I did a lot of research. The more research I did, the more I became attracted to the Catholic Church,” he said.

Mr. Patterson noted that his wife, who is in a nursing home, is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, but the closest location is an hour-and-20-minute drive from Cumberland County and in a different time zone.

However, St. Alphonsus and St. Francis of Assisi parishes are less than 12 miles from them.

He enjoys the relationships he and his wife have built at St. Alphonsus.

“I’ve learned to worship with our physician, which is more than a doctor-patient relationship. We’re honorary grandparents, so I just felt drawn. I like the feeling of community, and the sacrament of the Eucharist means a lot to me. Actually, it’s very similar to the Greek Orthodox Church. I just felt right at home,” Mr. Patterson said.

The Virginia Tech graduate who is a self-described “computer geek” spent his career as a finance executive, serving as a chief financial officer. He was born in McKeesport, Pa., but his father was in the U.S. Navy, so the family lived in different locations.

He is appreciative of the St. Alphonsus RCIA leaders for guiding him through his conversion. He and five others from St. Alphonsus who entered the Church this spring were accompanied to the Sending of the Neophytes Mass by RCIA director Sara Carey.

Ms. Carey said Mr. Patterson’s entrance into the Catholic Church has been inspirational as evidenced by his presence at the Sending of the Neophytes Mass, which he gladly attended.

“It’s just a joyous occasion, and it was a pleasure to meet the bishop,” Mr. Patterson said.

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