‘Where are we going?’

Archbishop Fabre, as apostolic administrator, celebrates Mass, offers direction

By Gabrielle Nolan

The Diocese of Knoxville is undergoing a time of transition following the resignation of Bishop Richard F. Stika, who served the diocese as bishop for 14 years and announced his retirement on June 27.

Archbishop Fabre addresses the faithful.

While the diocese awaits a new bishop to be named, the Holy See has appointed Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre of Louisville, Ky., to be the apostolic administrator of the diocese.

“An apostolic administrator is a bishop who is placed by the Holy See in a diocese without a bishop, and an apostolic administrator is different from an administrator of a diocese,” the archbishop explained. “An apostolic administrator has all of the authority of a diocesan bishop, so he has more authority than just an administrator. Usually, major decisions may be delayed, but he can make those decisions. But usually major decisions are delayed for the new bishop.”

Archbishop Fabre celebrated a Mass invoking the Holy Spirit for the Diocese of Knoxville on June 28 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville.

Deacon Jim Bello served as deacon of the altar, and Deacon Sean Smith served as deacon of the Word. Deacons Hicks Armor and Walt Otey were the emcees. Also in attendance for the Mass were more than 40 priests of the diocese and 30 deacons.

Sister Mary Simone Haakansson and Sister Joan Miriam Nelson, who are Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., brought up the gifts for Archbishop Fabre. They were joined at the Mass by several Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation based in Nashville and Missionary Congregation of the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary.

Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre celebrates Mass on June 28 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Assisting him were Deacon Jim Bello, left, and Deacon Sean Smith.

“My dear friends, good evening. My name is Shelton Fabre; it is my pleasure to have been the one sent here to serve you, to serve you, the wonderful people, laity, priests, deacons, consecrated men and women religious, seminarians, all of you who make up the Diocese of Knoxville,” the archbishop said. “It is an honor to share faith with you. Thank you very much for your presence here tonight as we look to Christ, relying on the Holy Spirit to give us guidance and direction as we continue our journey in and with Jesus Christ. It is my honor and my privilege to be here with you tonight, and I thank you very much for your presence, but even more importantly I thank you for your faith.”

Before the homily, Archbishop Fabre took the opportunity to share more about himself. Originally from Louisiana, the archbishop was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Baton Rouge in 1989, where he served for 17 years. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI named him an auxiliary bishop of New Orleans.

“That was post-Katrina, two years after Katrina,” Archbishop Fabre said. “So, I was in New Orleans helping that wonderful, wonderful American city to rebuild after the tragedy and catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina. I came to love New Orleans.”

Then in 2013, Pope Francis named him to be the bishop of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in coastal Louisiana.

“I served the wonderful, wonderful diverse but mostly Cajun people of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux until 2022, when Pope Francis named me to be the archbishop of Louisville, where I currently serve the Lord and serve the wonderful people of the archdiocese. As I said, I have been now, for a time, called to serve you. To serve you, the wonderful Diocese of Knoxville as your apostolic administrator.”

Archbishop Fabre also extended his gratitude to Bishop Stika and his “service to this local Church.”

“I pray God’s blessings upon Bishop Stika as he moves into the next phase of his life,” he said.

Archbishop Fabre framed his homily around three questions: Where are we now? Where is God? Where are we going?

Religious Sisters of Mercy bring the gifts for Mass.

“Where are we now?” the archbishop asked. “Simply, somewhere new. The Diocese of Knoxville enters into a new season of transition, of waiting, and of letting go. My prayer for us is that we might all be where we are with regard to our feelings and emotions. Again, may I encourage you to be where you are. Give yourself permission to be how you are, however you feel. Whatever’s going on within you, that’s OK. Be there, and let’s start there. My emotions are many, to be honest. When asked by the Holy See to serve as apostolic administrator, I accepted the call to do so. While also recognizing my responsibility to the faithful in the Archdiocese of Louisville, I want to assist you here in the Diocese of Knoxville to the very best of my ability. Now I admit that some of the practical challenges that I face with regard to distance and other things are a concern to me. I, nonetheless, trust in the Lord and embrace this role to serve you for a time as your apostolic administrator.”

“Many of us may be feeling various emotions and have questions,” Archbishop Fabre continued. “You may find yourself unsure of the future, or you may find yourself with questions, perhaps in the circle of the unknown. You may wonder what is next, or who is the next bishop going to be, or how long will we have to wait for a new bishop. These emotions and questions, they preoccupy our minds. Whenever we are confronted with change, we are confronted with emotions. Wherever you find yourself, I would like to say, it’s OK to be where you are… Every journey begins with where we are, and likewise we must start with where we are so that we can get to where God wants us to be.”

For his second question, Archbishop Fabre recalled the first Mass reading from Genesis 15.

“Where is God? Change affects us all differently, but in it all we are called to trust, we are called to trust. In today’s first reading we walk with Abraham, and Abraham walks with the Lord,” the archbishop said. “Abram, whose name was later changed to Abraham, was called to trust in the Lord. We have much to learn from Abraham and his faith story. For you and I are being called to trust. I cannot help but think that Abraham has much to teach us, and Abraham has much to teach us about this: about trusting a person and not an outcome.”

“God made a promise to Abraham, and that promise was connected to an outcome. The promise made to Abraham was that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. The promise to Abraham was that his family would become a great nation, a chosen nation. Yet, we’re aware that Abraham did not see the fulfillment of the promise in his human life. The fulfillment of the promise was extended far beyond ordinary time. The call from the Lord to Abraham was for Abraham to trust in the God who called Abraham, not in the fulfillment of that promise in human expectations. My dear friends in Christ, likewise we are called to trust in a person, namely Jesus Christ. None of us knows exactly what will happen in the future; I don’t. We are called to trust a person, Jesus Christ, and not necessarily in any particular outcome.”

Archbishop Fabre said the story of Abraham is “also a story about process.”

The Eucharist and the crucifix are focal points for Archbishop Fabre during Mass.

“Not about one single answer of yes to the Lord, but about many answers of yes to the Lord, responding yes to the Lord many times. Abraham came to trust the Lord through the process of walking always with the Lord. While we might cast our eyes on the future, on when a new bishop will arrive, we nonetheless find ourselves in the present moment. And God is asking us to trust him in the present moment. Certainly, we have to trust that God has a bishop in store for Knoxville, but there are many moments that will precede the eventual arrival of the new bishop. We need to trust God now in the present moment and all that God wants to do in this diocese until a new bishop is named. If we keep our eyes only focused on the future, we will miss out on the presence of God in the present moment. We have to trust that God only wants what is best for us.”

The archbishop shared that he was reminded of his episcopal motto, which comes from the first verse of Isaiah 40: “Comfort my people.”

“My dear friends, this motto reminds me all of the time that God desires nothing more than abiding comfort and consolation for His people. And God comforts us by assuring us that He is Emmanuel, He is with us. So, to return to the three points of this homily: Where are we now? Well, we’re all in different places with different emotions. That’s OK. That’s where we start. Where is God? God is with us now, here, today. ‘I’m with you always,’ Jesus assures us in our Gospel.”

“Where are we going?” the archbishop asked his final question. “We are going into new waters of transition and waiting. While I do not know who your next bishop will be or when he will be named, what I do know is that we will wait, and we will journey together. I often hear people refer to the diocese as if it were something and not someone. Some people refer to the diocese as administrative leaders with rules and regulations who tell us what we can or cannot do. Some people refer to the diocese as a building on South Northshore Drive. Still more think of the diocese as something abstract. Yet, my brothers and sisters, the reality is that the diocese is a ‘we.’ The diocese is a ‘we.’ The Diocese of Knoxville is 70,000 Catholics together. The Diocese is a people, not a category. The diocese of Knoxville is a particular people with a rich history and a unique personality, and we are stronger when we are together, and when we together are anchored in the Lord.”

Archbishop Fabre called upon the holiness of all those in attendance at the Mass.

Archbishop Fabre is greeted by Diocese of Knoxville priests in the cathedral narthex following the Mass.

“My dear friends, your next bishop, whoever he may be, needs your holiness more than ever,” he said. “My dear friends, your pastors and pastoral leaders need your holiness more than ever. The Diocese of Knoxville, the people that are this diocese, need your holiness more than ever. We are stronger when we are together, and we will together persevere through this, and we will do it anchored in the Lord… Where are we going? We’re moving into a time of transition, but regardless of how long or where that transition takes us, we will do it together.”

In his homily’s conclusion, Archbishop Fabre asked for prayers.

“I ask your prayers for your next bishop, whoever he is. Start praying for him now, for I believe God knows who he is. I also, my dear friends, ask your prayers for me as the one who will serve you to the best of my ability as apostolic administrator. I will serve you, the priests, deacons, consecrated religious women and men, seminarians, and the lay faithful of the Diocese of Knoxville… I will be with you during this time of transition and in the Lord, I will join you in welcoming your new bishop in the future. Until that time, let us look to Jesus Christ. Let us trust a person; let us hope in an outcome, but let us trust a person. Walking with one another, walking with the Lord, placing our faith in Jesus Christ, for we ask these and all things through the same Christ Our Lord, amen.”

Father Owens

At the end of the Mass, Archbishop Fabre made an announcement regarding the position of the delegate of the apostolic administrator, who assists in ensuring that the spiritual, administrative, and practical needs of the diocese are met efficiently and appropriately.

“I’m delighted that Father Doug Owens accepted my request that he be my delegate here in the Diocese of Knoxville. I didn’t think he had enough to do,” the archbishop quipped, causing the congregation to laugh. “I’m deeply, deeply grateful to him and for his willingness to be of service to you.”

Father Owens, who is pastor at All Saints Parish in Knoxville, was a vicar general and continues to be moderator of the curia for the diocese.

“He’s someone who knows the diocese and knows the priests. He’s someone who knows administration, he’s someone who knows the people,” Archbishop Fabre said. “He agreed to do it… I think he did it because he wants to help the people, and he wants to help the diocese; he loves this diocese. And he certainly has the gifts to do it. No one person has all of the gifts, so he’s going to need the rest of the Chancery staff and the other priests and deacons, just like I will.”

Comments 2

  1. Shouldn’t there have be something said about the allegation surrounding Bishop Slika, leaving.

  2. With reference to:
    Messy and Joyful, The Synod Of North America, by Gina Christian, p14, East Tennessee Catholic, May 7, 2023.
    The North American Final Document for the Continental Stage of the 2021-2024 Synod, 2023. https://www.usccb.org/resources/north-american-final-document-continental-stage-2021-2024-synod.

    The theme of the Synod of 2022-2023 was professed as the need to listen to all voices. Judging from the published comments in both the Diocesan Papers and the Vatican website, some voices are being ignored. We are one family of them and are confused as to what the Church stands for today and will tomorrow.
    After much prayerful thought, we have been moved to express our thoughts and feelings concerning this monumental effort by the clergy to express the thoughts of the Body of Christ on several core issues facing the Universal Church today. We both participated in the sessions at our local parish. We are both life-long baptized Christians; one a cradle catholic, the other a recent convert. We have seen our respective congregations struggle with changes in both secular society and the forms of expression of Christianity. We have experienced the impacts of those forces which resulted in fundamental changes in the manner of worship and in the definition of certain clerical roles. We have seen long established congregations fractured and shamed by the actions of their religious leaders. We have seen once vibrant churches forced to dissolve and sell the very buildings which were the gathering places of their community of faithful members.
    We have included a summary of our concerns arising from the indistinct and sometimes contradictory voices coming from all levels of the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. The verbiage that is used may be clear to those schooled in matters of religious theory, but to the faithful in the pews, it is confusing and disturbing as expressed by some of our members. How can we explain to our Christian brothers what we believe and how we practice our faith when we don’t understand the language of the clerics? How can we reach out to the marginalized and the unchurched in this fog of seemingly contradictory orations?
    So, we ask you as shepherds to clarify to us the true direction the Church is leading us and how it will avoid the disasters we have witnessed in other Christian denominations.
    Yours in Christ,

    Pat and Tony Zimmermann, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, Fairfield Glade, Tennessee

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