By Bill Brewer
Father Christopher Riehl, a priest of the Diocese of Knoxville who had served in the Diocese of Charlotte for several years, died Nov. 10 from complications related to diabetes. He was 45.
A solemn requiem Mass for Father Riehl, who passed away a week shy of his 13th anniversary of priestly ordination, was held on Nov. 16 at Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville. He was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chattanooga.
The Mass celebrant was Father Brendan Buckler, pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish in Boone, N.C., and Church of the Epiphany in Blowing Rock, N.C., both in the Diocese of Charlotte. Father Don Maloney of the Diocese of Raleigh served as the deacon of the Mass, and Father Michael Hendershott, associate pastor of Holy Ghost, served as the subdeacon.
Also present at the Mass in Latin were Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus; Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga; Father John Orr, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens; Father Jhon Mario Garcia, associate pastor of the cathedral; Father Bede Aboh, chaplain of the Catholic Center at East Tennessee State University; Father Peter Iorio, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa; Father Alex Waraksa, associate pastor of St. Jude Parish in Chattanooga; Father Jerry Daniels, chaplain of the Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center; Father Dustin Collins, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City; as well as Father Peter Shaw of the Diocese of Charlotte, and Father David Swantek of the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.
Father Riehl, who also provided priestly ministry at various parishes throughout East Tennessee as well as with the Alexian Brothers in Signal Mountain, was a priest in residence at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in 2018.
Father Christopher Michael Riehl was born in Gowen, Mich., on Nov. 7, 1977. His family settled in Jefferson City, where he graduated from high school. While earning an associate degree with an emphasis in law at Walters State Community College, Father Riehl began discerning a call to the priesthood. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Conception Seminary in Conception, Mo., and a Master of Divinity degree from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.
In May 2007, Father Riehl was ordained a deacon alongside his father, John Riehl, by then-Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz of the Diocese of Knoxville. They were ordained at Holy Trinity Church in Jefferson City, their home parish.
On Nov. 14, 2009, Father Riehl was ordained a priest by Bishop Richard F. Stika.
At his ordination, Bishop Stika encouraged Father Riehl to “be the face of Jesus” in every situation he encounters as he embarked upon a life in the priesthood. The bishop ordained Father Riehl at Sacred Heart Cathedral, where he became the 37th priest ordained for the Diocese of Knoxville and the second by Bishop Stika.
One of the assisting deacons at Father Riehl’s ordination was his father. Father Riehl then celebrated his first Mass at Holy Trinity.
Father Riehl’s passion was his priestly ministry and deep devotion to Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and Mary, Mother of God. His interests included sports (especially golf), exploring the outdoors, cooking, and writing. He recently published a book titled Listen to Our Lady, and he was working on a second book.
He is survived by his parents, Deacon John and Shirley Riehl, and his siblings: Suzie, Jeff, Jennifer, Tony, Cindy, and Tim. Eleven nieces and nephews also survive him.
Memorials for Father Riehl may be made to the seminarian second collection, where financial support makes priesthood possible: https://dioknox.org/give-to-the-seminarian-second-collection.
Father Swantek traveled from New Jersey to attend his friend’s funeral Mass. He shared memories from their time together in seminary.
“We went through St. Charles Borromeo Seminary together. We spent time enjoying going through seminary together. He was known for his sense of humor. Everyone called him Riehl. Most people who knew him knew he was a bit of a fighter. He had a love of brotherhood and getting guys together,” Father Swantek said.
“He loved to cook; he loved being around the guys; he loved his faith. He was a (Detroit) Lions fan. I’m a big Vikings fan in Jersey, so he was always ribbing me about the Lions. Of course, it helped that the Lions always lost,” he added, laughing at the memory. “He was always ready to laugh, ready to help, ready to pray. Riehl was that kind of guy.”
Father Swantek recalled how he and Father Riehl helped each other get through the difficult days of seminary and that when Father Swantek was ordained a priest and Father Riehl was ordained a deacon, Father Swantek visited Father Riehl in East Tennessee and they spent a week hiking the Appalachian Trail together.
“That was awesome. He was a good man. He will be missed,” Father Swantek said.
Father Carter, in giving the homily, made poignant reference to the death and life everlasting that awaits all of God’s children, including a younger priest:
“We come to the final moments of the funeral rites for our brother Christopher Michael Riehl, priest of Jesus Christ. The truth of faith that comes to me at this moment is that of divine providence. We are here today, at this moment, for this reason, because God in His infinite wisdom has seen fit for it to be so. And God does not make mistakes.
“God did not make a mistake when Christopher was born. God knew Him ‘before He knit him in his mother’s womb.’ He did not make a mistake when he was baptized into a covenant with the Lord: ‘He hath clothed me with the garment of salvation.’ God did not make a mistake when He moved his heart to say yes to the call of the priesthood: ‘You are a priest forever, according to the Order of Melchizedek.’ And God did not make a mistake when he called him back to Himself: ‘The death of his faithful ones is precious in the eyes of the Lord.’
“It is true that this moment is a sad one. We have lost a son, a brother, a friend. We ask if it could have been another way, but the Author of life has said otherwise about the death of this priest. ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ But if we allow the light of faith to pierce the darkness of our grief, we can see the hand of providence in the present moment.
“Our brother, ordained for the Diocese of Knoxville, had been living for some time far from us. Through the providence of medical services made available on this side of the mountains, in his last days he came back to the diocese of his incardination. Here, among the people he served for so long, he was able to be ministered to by the ones to whom he once ministered. There is further providence in the timing. He died on the feast of St. Leo the Great. I’m sure our brother, lion that he was in this life, is smiling at that. He loved God and His bride, the Church, with the fierceness of a lion.
“May the saints now welcome him home into the eternal city, Jerusalem. He died just after his birthday and just a few days shy of his 13th priestly anniversary. His birth, his vocation, and his death all coalesce in this life into one moment. If you look with the eyes of faith, you see a certain fittingness to this; they are no coincidences. They are manifestations of providence. In fact, even today, in the sanctoral cycle of the ancient calendar, which he was so fond of, the Church celebrates St. Gertrude. St. Gertrude was one of the patron saints of Father Riehl. His paternal grandmother was named Ann Gertrude Riehl, and her life of faith, even though she died when he was still relatively young, had an impact on his own assent to the faith and vocation to serve as a priest. With the eyes of faith, we can see the hand of providence surrounding us and sustaining us.
“For us who believe, the working of divine providence happens most poignantly through the priests of the Church. The greatest mystery of the priesthood of Jesus Christ in this world is that God chooses fragile and broken human beings to be agents of his providential care for us. A priest touches the lives of many. I’m sure there are many here who can trace a spiritual line that intersects with Father Riehl’s ministry. I myself received the fruit of his priestly service. The only time I have ever been anointed was when I had pneumonia and a high fever a few years back. It was providentially a time when Father Riehl was staying with me at my parish. He was the one, then, to minister to me the sacrament of healing according to God’s providence.
“God’s providence is not opposed to the cross of suffering. In fact, suffering is the crux of God’s bold statement of providence for all mankind, when Christ was crucified in atonement for our sins. Because the cross is at the center of every priest’s life, he, too, must suffer and often be a sign of contradiction. Sometimes he comforts the disturbed and sometimes he disturbs the comfortable. All of a priest’s life forms a part of God’s plan for the salvation of the human race. He is the means by which God chooses to dispense His sacramental grace. And this is a great mystery indeed. The priest is the one who draws God and man together in an intimate friendship through sacramental bonds.
“We must all die. To die well is to die in friendship with God. I believe that Father Christopher Riehl died well. He, too, was a recipient of the ministry of his brother priests. He was anointed at least seven times before his death. I was also privileged in my last conversation with him, when he had come out of his coma, to hear his confession and speak the words of absolution to his believing heart. How blessed that moment, how healing it was for him, but even for me. How providential. It is a source of hope to me, and I pray for you as well, as we pray these words of absolution now and as we lay our brother to rest until the last day comes,” Father Carter said.