Welcome to the Church in East Tennessee

Bishop Stika greets catechumens, candidates during Rite of Election ceremonies

By Bill Brewer

Bishop Richard F. Stika welcomed more than 200 catechumens and candidates into the Catholic Church during Rite of Election services Feb. 25-26 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Bishop Richard F. Stika shakes hands with one of the Catholic Church’s newest East Tennessee members during the Rite of Election at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

It was a robust congregation of women and men from around the Diocese of Knoxville who expressed excitement to be entering the Catholic faith. They were joined by their sponsors, godparents, family members, parish directors of religious education, and RCIA leaders.

None were more excited than Carl and Crystal Koch from Hancock County.

The Kochs are members of St. James the Apostle Parish in Sneedville and entered the Church at Easter Vigil as candidates, converting from the Baptist faith.

The Kochs, who joined the Catholic Church along with two others at St. James, represent a remarkable growth spurt for St. James and illustrate the Catholic Church’s continued expansion in East Tennessee, especially in outlying areas like Hancock County where Catholics are a very small community compared with other Protestant faiths.

Bishop Stika presided at both ceremonies, known fully as the Rite of Election of Catechumens and Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates. The first service on Feb. 25 was for the Chattanooga and Five Rivers deaneries, and the second service on Feb. 26 was for the Cumberland Mountain and Smoky Mountain deaneries.

“Welcome to the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the mother church of the entire Catholic Church in East Tennessee,” Bishop Stika said in his greeting. “This is one of my favorite ceremonies throughout the liturgical year. You’ve all been working hard. You’ve all had your own journeys that brought you to this season of Lent and to Easter Vigil. So, I have great, great respect for you all in this journey of faith.”

Deacon Jim Bello, director of Christian Formation for the Diocese of Knoxville who also serves at Holy Spirit Church in Soddy-Daisy, introduced the churches of the Chattanooga, Five Rivers, Cumberland Mountain, and Smoky Mountain deaneries and recognized their candidates, catechumens, sponsors, and parish directors of religious education or RCIA leaders.

Carl and Crystal Koch, right, are joined by Joe and Karlene Greenleaf at the Rite of Election.

Bishop Stika introduced the congregation of new Catholics to the cathedral and showed them the various images in the nave and dome as well as the baldachino that encompasses the sanctuary. He pointed to the images of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Apostles, as well as saints such as Josephine Bakhita, Maximilian Kolbe, and Francis of Assisi. In reflecting on readings from Genesis, Bishop Stika said Scripture about Adam and Eve illustrates the side of human nature where we tend to do the opposite of what we’re told to.

“Part of the complexity of the human person is that also we make mistakes. Often, we might be like Adam and Eve and think we are more important than God Himself.”

Bishop Stika pointed out there is a successor to Adam, and that is Jesus, “who brought rebirth to the world.” “And the successor to Eve is the new Eve, the Blessed Mother,” whose body gave birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Bishop Stika then asked the catechumens and candidates if they want to join the perfect Church.

“Well, if you become a Catholic, you’re going to make it imperfect. Why is that? There is no such thing as something that is an institution of humans that is perfect. But we see the concept St. Paul talks about, that the Church is actually the body of Christ, is of Christ, and is with Christ, and is in Christ,” he said.

Bishop Stika then explained that during the Mass or with the celebration of any sacrament, the faithful take all their imperfect prayers and turn them into the perfect prayer.

“It’s a little phrase we use at the end of the collection of those prayers. We ask all these prayers, through Christ Our Lord. If you do that in your own prayer life, whatever you might pray for, if you conclude with, ‘And Lord, I ask all these prayers through Christ the Lord,’ then all these imperfect prayers become perfect because then they become the prayer of Jesus Himself. And we are assured in the Scriptures that God will not ignore His Son’s requests. Now, that does not mean you’re going to have all of your prayers answered. Otherwise, I would be a billionaire winning lotteries week in and week out. That hasn’t happened yet,” the bishop said.

In his homily, Bishop Stika highlighted the commonalities between Catholicism and Protestant faiths as well as basic differences. He underscored the fact that the Christian faith begins with Jesus. In addition, he said, the Catholic faith also begins with the Eucharist.

“The Catholic Church was founded by Jesus. That’s what we believe. Now, you might be a Protestant at this moment … we all celebrate in different ways, but we pray to the one God. In some ways so do the Muslims and so do the Jews because we’re all children of Abraham. But for whatever reason, you have decided to join our faith, our family, our community of faith,” Bishop Stika told the gathering of catechumens and candidates.

Bishop Richard F. Stika meets with the Catholic Church’s newest East Tennessee members during the Rite of Election.

“What separates us maybe from Protestant traditions is what takes place on that altar—the Eucharist. Since the first days after the Last Supper, do you remember what Jesus said? He said it in Aramaic. He didn’t say it in English. But what He said was, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘My brothers, take and eat, for this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, called a chalice, ‘This is My blood, given for you.’ He didn’t say this is a symbol. … And from generation to generation to generation, even though the prayers evolved, the intent is still the same.

“That’s what separates us from other denominations. We don’t believe that the bread and wine are just symbols. We believe it’s the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Himself. And when we cease this celebration, when there is Eucharist that still remains, we don’t put it in a drawer. We honor it in what we call a tabernacle. There’s always a red candle burning by it, so that when a person enters a church, they know that church is not just a big building with a lot of artwork, but like in Jewish tradition from the Old Testament, it is the Holy of Holies, Jesus,” Bishop Stika said.

Bishop Stika asked the congregation if they have heard others say Catholics worship Mary.

“No, we don’t. We honor Mary. We pray through her intercession because she played a significant and dramatic role in salvation history. Why? Because the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Oh, highly favored daughter, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. So, we don’t pray to her as an end result; we pray with Mary to honor God.”

“And we honor Joseph, too. Because Joseph, out of all humanity, was chosen by God to teach Jesus how to be a man and to protect and love Jesus and Mary,” the bishop said.

In speaking about the saints and the imperfections in Christianity, Bishop Stika shared with the catechumens and candidates his favorite description of a saint.

“One of my favorite definitions of a saint is a person who actually recognizes that they are a sinner, because we recognize our humanity,” he said.

“In these last weeks as you have prepared to be baptized, as you have prepared to be received into the Church and confirmed, as you have prepared to receive the body of Christ for the first time, these days are very exciting for the Church, for me, for my brother priests and deacons, for all Catholics in the Diocese of Knoxville across the 36 counties that we cover. Why?” Bishop Stika asked. “Because it’s like we’re inviting you to come to the table to share something very special with us.”

Bishop Stika said the major difference between Protestants and Catholics is the altar because Catholics believe in the exact words of Jesus at the Last Supper.

“What we believe since possibly the first celebration of the Eucharist, in a different form, was when Jesus gathered together with His Apostles, on the night before He was betrayed, and He broke the bread, and He gave it to His disciples and said, ‘Take and eat, for this is My body.’ Now how can that be? There’s Jesus, who was there, saying ‘This is My body.’ That’s the miracle of the Eucharist. Then He took the cup that was filled with wine, and He said the same: ‘This is My blood given for you.’ That’s what the major difference is,” the bishop continued.

Bishop Stika let the congregation know how grateful he and the diocese are for their commitment to their faith, Jesus, and His Church.

“I have to tell you folks, I really respect you deeply. For whatever your reason, whatever your journey might be, you’ve come together to make a choice, to make a decision, to join us at the table, at the altar and receive the Eucharist. For some, it might have been a difficult decision … but you made it.

“It’s just as in the readings, the gift is the gift of freedom itself. The gift of choice. Just as St. John Paul said, freedom isn’t necessarily the ability to do anything that you want, but to do what is right. And with that comes responsibility. It’s the same with choice. To choose to follow Jesus, to follow God, to follow those tenets—the Beatitudes and Commandments.

“I just want to share with you how grateful I am that you’re here today, even though I’m missing the second spring training game of the St. Louis Cardinals,” he said jokingly. “It is a joy for me to welcome you. Know that you are loved by the Church, but especially by God.”

Bishop Stika presided at Rite of Election ceremonies Feb. 25-26.

Deacon Jim Bello, director of Christian Formation for the diocese, expected at least 300 catechumens and candidates to join the Catholic Church in East Tennessee  at Easter.

“That’s a healthy number and about where I expected it to be. That number is reflective of a lot of hard work by our parishes,” Deacon Bello said.

Deacon Bello has been active visiting parishes and helping them spread the Good News to their members since becoming a permanent deacon and director of Christian Formation last July.

He likes what he’s seeing and experiencing. He’s getting many requests for faith-based material and to speak to parish groups.

“I think there has been a real excitement about getting back into religious-education programs in person since COVID,” he said, noting that he believes the pandemic prompted people to realize that time is of the essence in joining the Catholic Church, or at least exploring joining.

“There is something that is rolling across East Tennessee. As a newbie, I’m seeing something that is powerful and a surrender to the Catholic faith that is swelling in the last year. As I go around the diocese, I see parishes like St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland on fire for the Holy Spirit,” Deacon Bello said.

“It’s as if the Holy Spirit has breathed on the diocese and inspired people to be fired up for their faith,” he added.

St. James the Apostle was among the parishes in the Five Rivers Deanery introducing its catechumens and candidates to Bishop Stika, who signed the Books of the Elect from each parish in the four deaneries that officially list who is joining the Church from East Tennessee.

The Kochs, who retired to Sneedville from Charleston, S.C., about five years ago, said their daughter converted to Catholicism nearly a decade ago, and their three grandchildren are being raised and educated based on Catholic teaching.

“We went to church with them a couple of times and felt led to join the Catholic Church. We wanted to be more a part of their lives in the things they’re doing through Christ. We love our little parish,” said Mr. Koch, who noted that his father, who has since passed away, was a Baptist preacher.

“The rest of my family has been really supportive of our conversion,” he shared.

Mrs. Koch added that the transition has not been as life-changing as some would believe.

“In our parish, it was the close fit and the people who are there for us as we fellowship together. It is the perfect fit,” Mr. Koch noted.

In remarking about St. James’ small size, Mrs. Koch said about 10 to 12 people attend Sunday Mass each week at the church, which is among the smallest in Tennessee.

“Instead of sending a missionary to Africa, our parish has a missionary who has come from Africa,” said St. James member Joe Greenleaf, referring to parish pastor Father Bart Okere, who is from Nigeria. Father Okere also is the pastor of St. Henry Parish in Rogersville.

Mr. Greenleaf’s wife, Karlene, credited Mr. Koch with the idea for a parish dinner in March for people—Catholic or non-Catholic—in the community to visit St. James the Apostle.

The church building, located at 3652 Main St. in Sneedville, formerly was a liquor store. And a major project was completed in recent months to install a bathroom in the church.

Mr. Greenleaf, who serves as the director of religious education at St. James, explained that the church has no pews but uses folding chairs, and heat is supplied by space heaters and cool air from a window air conditioner.

“When we first started going, there were regularly three, four, five people. And now there are eight, nine, 10 who attend regularly. That’s how it starts. It’s pretty interesting,” said Mrs. Greenleaf, who is a registered nurse.

The Greenleafs reside in Thorn Hill in neighboring Grainger County.

Mr. Greenleaf pointed out that St. James has six people who are entering the Catholic Church within the next few months.

“This means God is there,” Mrs. Koch said.

“The most important thing is being there for the community and being able to witness to them. There’s a need there,” Mr. Koch added. “We’ve had an influx of people from out of state move into the area. And surprisingly enough, a lot of them are Catholic who either don’t know about our church or aren’t practicing.”

Mr. Greenleaf, who is a lawyer, is exploring becoming a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Knoxville and could serve at St. James the Apostle and St. Henry.

The Greenleafs retired to Thorn Hill in 2017 from Michigan.

Bishop Richard F. Stika is joined by Augustino Gore and Mr. Gore’s niece, Wamda Bashir, at the Rite of Election.

Wamda Bashir also joined the Catholic Church in East Tennessee at Easter. Ms. Bashir, originally from South Sudan, came to the United States in 2000 and became a U.S. citizen in 2008. She is a member of St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga.

Her sponsor is her uncle, Augustino Gore. Mr. Gore is originally from South Sudan and has been in the United States for 22 years. He became a U.S. citizen in 2005.

She was moved to join the Catholic faith by Jesus, through His baptism and crucifixion, and from the witness of her uncle.

“I feel like that is the real way for us to get to heaven, to believe in Him. That’s why I came from the Islamic religion to the Christian religion. And now I’m going to get three sacraments: baptism, the Eucharist, and confirmation. It is very exciting,” she said.

Ms. Bashir said she enjoys attending St. Stephen, where the people are warm and pastor Father Manuel Pérez and associate pastor Father Christopher Manning have been very welcoming.

Mr. Gore explained that Mrs. Bashir’s mother is Christian, and her father is a devout Muslim. He noted that the family is divided between Christians and Muslims. He said Mrs. Bashir’s four children, ages 22, 20, 19, and 13, have already received their Catholic sacraments. Her 22-year-old son is in the Marines.

“I’ve encouraged her and told her, ‘This is the right choice for you.’ We will stand behind her and support her and her whole family. This is an obligation for all of us being Christians. This is her time of need, her spiritual need. God bless her and the rest of her family,” said Mr. Gore, who also is a member of St. Stephen Church and has assisted with RCIA instruction. “Now she will be able to lead her kids to the next level of our faith.”

Comments 1

  1. Bill and Dan,
    The front page of the ETC has a picture of Debra Riley at the Rite of Election. Would it be possible to get a digital copy of that picture? I’d like to have it printed and framed for Debra. It’s the one with me lurking right behind her. You can’t see my face but my rotundity and white hair speak for itself.

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