Monsignor Humbrecht celebrates 50th anniversary

Bishop Stika, Cardinal Rigali, more than 20 priests, and many others join in for the occasion

By Dan McWilliams

When a church is filled with the faithful at a priest’s 50th-anniversary celebration, and when some two dozen priests turn out for the occasion, it speaks to the love for the jubilarian that all of them have.

Such was the case May 6 as Monsignor Al Humbrecht celebrated his golden anniversary of priestly ordination at Holy Spirit Church in Soddy-Daisy, where he serves as pastor.

That love for him “has been a support throughout my whole priesthood,” he said afterward.

Monsignor Humbrecht speaks to the assembly at the beginning of his anniversary Mass. Also pictured are Deacon Mick Spencer and Father Peter Iorio.

Monsignor Humbrecht, known for his commitment to social justice and to the poor and for the many classes he has taught about the faith at various events, was the principal celebrant of his anniversary Mass. Concelebrants were Father David Boettner, Father Mike Nolan, Father Peter Iorio, and Father Joe McMahon of the Diocese of Nashville. Along with about 18 other priests were several deacons. Deacon Jim Lawson and Deacon Mick Spencer assisted at Mass. Bishop Richard F. Stika and Cardinal Justin Rigali attended in choir.

Monsignor Humbrecht, who has served as pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Chattanooga, and St. Augustine in Signal Mountain as well as at Notre Dame High School and in many assignments as an associate pastor, was with Deacon Lawson for 12 1/2 years at the cathedral parish.

The monsignor, ordained May 6, 1972, at St. Henry Church in Nashville by Bishop Joseph A. Durick, thanked Bishop Stika, Cardinal Rigali, and all those who “braved some unbelievable weather to be here” as severe storms hit the area on his anniversary day.

Monsignor Humbrecht has twice served the Diocese of Knoxville as administrator, an honor voted on by his fellow priests, during the times when the diocese has been in between bishops.

He spoke of what was going through his head on a special day like May 6: “What a blessing the people of God are. And it’s really a day to celebrate the ministry in the Church among all of God’s people.”

Monsignor Humbrecht said in his homily that the anniversary Mass was about as intimidating for him as his first Mass as a priest, which he had to celebrate before an audience that included the priest who gave him his first holy Communion and the priests who had taught him.

“Now, it’s not the priests who taught me and watched me grow up, it’s the ones who watched me in ministry that’s equally as intimidating to think about,” he said.

He talked of the day’s first reading from Jeremiah 1:4-10, when the Lord calls Jeremiah and says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

“I chose that reading because every one of us here, by virtue of our baptism, is called to be a prophet—priest, prophet, king,” Monsignor Humbrecht said. “Every one of us here, the Lord says to us what He said to Jeremiah: ‘I will put My Word on your lips, if you let me. But you have to let me. I won’t force you, but I’ll put it there, and I will be with you when you speak that word, no matter what reaction that word may bring, I will be with you.’ It’s a reminder to all of us, because ministry is something that we all share, again, by virtue of our baptism.”

Monsignor Humbrecht looked in the pews and saw Monsignor Bill Gahagan, who was with him in what Monsignor Humbrecht called the “olden days” of his time in seminary. The jubilarian also referred to the day’s second reading, from Philippians 1:2-11 (“the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus”), proclaimed from the ambo by his sister, Libby Clifton.

Bishop Richard F. Stika, speaking at the end of Monsignor Humbrecht’s anniversary Mass, praised the jubilarian. The bishop also teasingly hinted that the monsignor may yet lead the Diocese of Knoxville again when he (Bishop Stika) retires. Monsignor Humbrecht has served as diocesan administrator twice in his priestly career.

“[Monsignor Gahagan] will remember us having been told there are three classes of people: priests, seminarians, and laypeople, and the three are not to mix, which immediately discounted 50 percent of the world’s population. I didn’t believe it then, and I know Bill didn’t believe it then either, and I don’t believe it today,” Monsignor Humbrecht said. “We all need one another. That’s why I chose that reading from Philippians. It is a reading I chose for my first Mass, but I chose it this time for a different reason to a degree. For my first Mass, I chose it as a sense of thank-you to the people who supported me during those eight years of seminary, by their prayers, by their presence. . . .

“We all need to support one another. Priests need the support of the people of God. I’d only been ordained a couple of years, and there are a couple of people here this evening who were part of a small group that took me under their wing as a young priest. One of that group reminded me several years later when I was her pastor and she was director of religious education, and Janet said to me, ‘Don’t you forget: we taught you how to be a priest. The seminary taught you theology. We taught you how to be a pastoral person.’”

Everyone has “a vocation to holiness,” Monsignor Humbrecht said.

“The Second Vatican Council reminded us of that very strongly, that that’s the common vocation, and within that vocation there are other vocations: priesthood, religious life, diaconate, married life, single life,” he said. “But I would also say that I believe that all of those others, not priesthood but all the others, have an avocation. They have a second vocation, and that’s to teach us how to be good pastoral priests. That’s your responsibility, and I thank so many of you who have been a part of that formation of many of us gathered here tonight. But it’s important that we all continue to share that ministry together.”

The day’s Gospel reading was from John 1:35-42, where Jesus told the two disciples of John following him to “come and see” where he was staying.

“Because if we are going to do the ministry that God calls each and every one of us to, we have to come and see,” Monsignor Humbrecht said. “We have to go and spend time with Jesus so that He can form us into the ministers He needs in the world today. We also have to let Him form us so that we can then lead others to Him. . . . We have to live lives that will call others and allow others to experience the risen Lord present in and through us.

Monsignor Al Humbrecht distributes Holy Communion at his anniversary Mass.

“If we come and spend time with Jesus, He’s going to make sure we have opportunities to serve. Now at the time we’re doing some of that service, we may not feel like saying thank you. But I believe that when we look back, we will say thank you, because I believe so firmly with St. Paul, for to those who love God all things work for good. They may not seem like a good at the time, but God will bring a good out of it as long as we strive to love God and love our neighbor.”

Monsignor Humbrecht concluded his homily by thanking “all of you for your presence here tonight but also for your support in the ministry that I share, but also many of you have helped support the ministry of these priests and deacons and religious who are here among us this evening as well. On behalf of all of them, I say to you, thank you and keep it up.”

Bishop Stika spoke at the end of Mass.

“For 50 years Monsignor Al has faithfully served both the Diocese of Nashville and the Diocese of Knoxville as an administrator, as a teacher, as a pastor, as one who has great concern for not only the poor but also ecumenical activities,” the bishop said. “And he likes to cook and to garden and to read and to teach, both by witness as well as by various classes—so many people have benefited from his excellent teaching ability just on Scriptures and other issues that surround us in faith and in the world in which we live. We give thanks to Almighty God. A few years ago, he told me he wanted to stay here until he couldn’t stay here anymore, and that’s fine with me,” a remark that drew a round of applause from the assembly.

Bishop Stika said Monsignor Humbrecht’s experience at running a diocese may not be completely done with.

“On July 4, 2032, I turn 75, and I will have to turn in my request to retire,” the bishop said. “I will turn in a second letter, and it will read something like this: ‘Most Holy Father, as I have tendered my request to retire, I also offer a suggestion. We have a talented priest in the Diocese of Knoxville. He is very young and vigorous. He’s well-schooled in Catholic theology and Scripture. He likes to cook and garden, and he has a wonderful parish in a beautiful, beautiful metropolitan area called Soddy-Daisy. He’s also served, by the way, Holy Father, when our founding bishop was transferred and when our second bishop was transferred, so he’s quite experienced at running a diocese. And so as I sail off into the sunset, I heartily recommend Thomas Allen’—what’s your last name?”

Smiling at Monsignor Humbrecht, the bishop said, “Isn’t he a good priest? Every place he’s been. When I arrived 14 years ago, he was so very helpful in the beginning. . . . And he’s always been so helpful. From time to time he’ll send me these DVDs and these CDs on a regular basis about Scripture and Catholic teaching and social action and such. He’ll send me these pamphlets and books, and I always appreciate them. So, Al, in the name of His Eminence—who would have thought 50 years ago that you’d have a non-baseball-player cardinal here? In the name of His Eminence, myself, and all of the people of the Diocese of Knoxville whom you’ve touched in one way or another, in the name of your brother priests and deacons who are here today, I just want to say thank you. You are a special priest. And your family, I’m sure, is very proud.”

When the bishop was getting ready to move Monsignor Humbrecht from his assignment at the cathedral, he asked him “‘Where do you want to be?’ And he said he would like to be in Chattanooga, so he could get to his sister and to his family. . . . It seemed like a perfect fit.”

The bishop’s last comment elicited a long ovation from the faithful.

“Ad multos annos, many more years, God bless you, and especially: thank you,” he said.

Monsignor Humbrecht then told the bishop a secret about his sister, Ms. Clifton.

“Bishop, I would never tell my sister’s age, but she was 5 when I was ordained,” he said to laughter. “I’ll pay for that later,” he added.

The monsignor singled out the visiting priest from the Nashville Diocese.

“Also, I should have acknowledged besides all of our own priests, Father Joe McMahon, who came from that other diocese, our mother diocese, to be with us today. I’ve known Joe for 49 of the 50 years. Thank you for coming over.”

Monsignor Humbrecht asked a certain segment of the priests attending to stand up: “all of those who I was your field education supervisor during seminary, or you were an associate with me, please stand,” he said as a number of priests in attendance stood. “These are the people you should be praying for,” he told a laughing assembly.

His next remark about veteran deacons Lawson and Spencer drew oohs and ahs from the pews.

“I chose two deacons who could make me look young,” he said.

Afterward, Monsignor Humbrecht spoke of Ms. Clifton, who led the blessing before a post-Mass meal at the Holy Spirit pavilion, and another family member.

“Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, so 20 years he’s been in heaven watching over,” he said.

Father Michael Woods was among many priests who praised Monsignor Humbrecht following Mass.

“I came because he’s a special guy,” Father Woods said. “He’s an example to all of the priests. I really got to know him especially when the diocese didn’t have a bishop at the time, and he was chosen by the priests because he was pastoral not only to the people but also to the priests, so it’s great to celebrate with him.”

Father John Dowling said Monsignor Humbrecht’s anniversary was “a big thrill.”

Monsignor Humbrecht stands with Bishop Richard F. Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, and all the priests and deacons who came to his anniversary Mass.

“I’ve known Monsignor Al for just about the entire 50 years of his priesthood. He came to St. Jude [in Chattanooga] when I was a parishioner there, and he was there with Father Jim Murray and also was there with a priest who came from up north named Father [Joseph Patrick] Herlihy,” Father Dowling said. “They were three very different personalities, but just really were able to tap into all the energy at St. Jude at that particular time. Around that time I graduated from college and then I worked for Coca-Cola, and Father Al was very instrumental in getting people very active in the church, and he and Father Jim Murray worked hand in glove together to build that parish, to get it off to a great start. They had some good priests who came before them, but they certainly were very vivacious and enthusiastic. Father Jim Murray was a great preacher, and Father Al also would preach.

“I remember him preaching quite a bit about Jeremiah, and then I noticed in the program today in the first reading hearing about the call of God given to Jeremiah in the first chapter, verses 4 to 10. It was just wonderful. I thought, that’s the Father Al I know. He loves to preach on Jeremiah the prophet. He was very active and got a lot of young people enthusiastic about the Church and involved in the Church, very much so.”

Father Boettner, now rector of the cathedral, has known Monsignor Humbrecht since the latter’s days at St. Augustine Parish.

“I first met Monsignor Al when I was probably a junior in high school and went on a retreat called Search for Vocations, and Monsignor Al was running that along with the parents of Father Pete Iorio. That’s when I first met Father Al,” Father Boettner recalled.

Monsignor Humbrecht “definitely” had an influence on his vocation, staying in touch with him and his fellow seminarians as they were studying to be priests, Father Boettner said.

“He was one of those priests—we had so many good priests who made a concerted effort to visit the seminarians, stay in touch with the seminarians, and encourage them along the way,” he said. “He was one of those, and he always brought members of the Serra Club with him and just really tried to make sure we knew that even though we were far away from home in seminary, we were still very connected.”

Father Boettner was an associate pastor under Monsignor Humbrecht at OLPH in Chattanooga and then was moved along with his pastor to the cathedral parish.

“He was my pastoral supervisor when I was doing an internship in the seminary, and then he was my first pastor as a newly ordained priest at OLPH in Chattanooga,” Father Boettner said. “Then Bishop [Anthony J.] O’Connell moved both of us together to the cathedral in Knoxville in 1997. It was a blessing—I got to work with him in two separate parishes for two different assignments. It was a real gift.”

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