Rorate Mass for religious communities is celebrated

By Gabrielle Nolan

On the darkest night of the year, the winter solstice, the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was aglow with candlelight.

A Rorate Mass in honor of Our Lady for the religious communities of the Diocese of Knoxville was held on Dec. 21, with the public invited to attend. The intention for the Mass was for the next bishop, who will be appointed for the Diocese of Knoxville.

The Advent Mass is typically celebrated in the dark and illuminated by candlelight, so each attendee received a lit candle to hold throughout the Mass. The sanctuary was primarily lit with dozens of candles, with dim lighting overhead.

Hearkening back to the Middle Ages, the Rorate Mass has long been a tradition in Europe, though it is also celebrated in the United States. In addition to the cathedral celebrating the Rorate Mass, the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, St. Mary in Athens, and St. Mary in Johnson City did as well.

The Rorate Mass receives its name from the opening chant in Latin: “Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.” The chant comes from Isaiah 45:8 and translates to “Drop down dew from above, you heavens, and let the clouds rain down the just One; let the earth be opened and bring forth a Savior.”

Paulist Father Charlie Donahue, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Knoxville, was the principal celebrant of the Mass, with Paulist Father Jim Haley and additional priests of the diocese concelebrating. Deacon Sean Smith served as deacon of the Word, and Deacon Renzo Alvarado Suarez served as deacon of the altar. Father Haley gave the homily.

Dominican Sisters of the St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville who are serving in the Diocese of Knoxville take part in the Rorate Mass in honor of Our Lady for religious communities in the diocese. (Photo Stephanie Richer)

“Welcome as we celebrate Mary and Advent and ourselves as members of religious communities,” Father Haley began. “And thanks for inviting the Paulist Fathers to preside and to be part of this evening’s liturgy.”

“We’re now coming to the end of Advent, and for the past three weeks we have been paring through our liturgy and our individual spirituality to ready ourselves to welcome our Savior into our hearts this Christmas,” he continued. “And as we have gathered in our churches to celebrate Advent, we have noticed a sharp contrast to the secular world. We walk in our neighborhoods, we go to our stores, we do our shopping, and we see all the trappings of Christmas. In the midst of the music, the sights, the sounds of Christmas, we gather in church rather somberly. Our vestments are purple, we light our Advent wreaths, and we omit the Gloria. And all this is to remind ourselves that something important is about to happen. We have to prepare ourselves. If not, we may miss the real significance of Christmas, that great event we are about to celebrate.”

“We gather this night, which is the longest night of the year. Beginning tomorrow the days will be longer and we will see more light. It is as if nature itself is preparing to receive the Savior as more light comes into the world,” he said. “And as we gather before Christmas, we receive and we write our Christmas cards and our greetings, we see familiar words that appear on so many of our cards. Words like faith, peace, love, hope, and joy. These are the gifts of Christmas. We listen to the infancy story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, and joy is found throughout the story of Jesus’ birth. Joy is a resounding echo that comes through all the words of Luke’s infancy account. From the beginning of the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist to the joyful announcement to Mary at the annunciation, to the joyful acclamation of the angels, the coming of the shepherds, all resound the joyful hymn, glory to God in the highest and peace upon all.”

Father Haley emphasized that the joy is echoed in the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.

“When Mary arrives, the child in the womb of Elizabeth leaps for joy, and Mary proclaims her own hymn of joy: ‘My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’ The message of the visitation is one of joy, to be glad, to rejoice, for the Lord is in our midst,” he said.

“Very often, early in the mornings and at this time of year, I usually can see the sunrise. It’s a beautiful spectacle of orange, yellow, and reds. It sets forth my day, and I see that this can truly be a day of grace for me. I allow that beautiful scene to speak to me of the beauty of God and of God’s presence in my life and in our world. And this gives me and brings to me a real sense of peace and joy. This is the joy Mary proclaims, a joy that comes from a deep trust and confidence in the divine presence, overcoming all doubts, troubles, and yes, failures,” Father Haley continued.

“This sense of joy is not limited to Luke’s Gospel, for in our first reading from Zephaniah we read, shout for joy, sing joyfully, be glad, rejoice in the Lord for the Lord is in our midst. And Paul in Philippians writes, rejoice, again I say rejoice, the Lord is near. The joy found in Scripture is not a giddiness or a superficial happiness, but a deep trust and faith in God’s love, God’s goodness, and God’s forgiveness. And these enlighten all the faith, the hope, the love of the Christmas season. To quote St. Ambrose, this is the kind of joy Mary is proclaiming: she rejoices in the greatness of God,” he said.

Father Haley shared a story of a recent trip to the mall, where he witnessed a young child run ahead of her mother and fall on the floor, causing the child to cry.

“At this point, the mother came and took her in her arms,” he continued. “Fortunately, the child was not badly hurt, probably more scared than hurt. But the tears were coming, and amid those tears there was a smile on the child’s face as she confidently rested in the arms of her mother. All of us coming from different areas of life, different expressions of ministry, and regardless of our moods, our joys, or our sorrows, to know that we rest in the arms of a loving mother. My thought and prayer for each of us this Christmas season is that we will come to a deeper understanding of the presence of God in our lives. That this season will truly bring about within ourselves and all we serve the Christmas blessings of hope, love, and peace. And above all, the peace and joy of Luke, Zephaniah, Paul, and especially Mother Mary. May that peace come upon us and all we meet this Christmas. Amen.”

Following the Mass was a reception in cathedral hall for the religious communities.

Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, apostolic administrator for the diocese, was unable to attend the event due to a prior commitment, but he gave a video message at the reception.

“It’s my privilege to extend a very special greeting to you, the consecrated men and women religious who serve so faithfully in this wonderful Diocese of Knoxville,” the archbishop said. “As you know, Advent is a joyful time for all of us. It is a season in which we prepare for the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, He who came to us as a gift from God to bring us life, truth, and light, to bring these to the world. His life serves to inspire and guide us. His light illuminates and conquers darkness.”

The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is illuminated by only candlelight and a few back lights to create the setting for the Diocese of Knoxville’s 2023 Rorate Mass on Dec. 21. (Photo Stephanie Richer

“I am grateful that you are joining us tonight to be united in our love for Jesus Christ and His mother, and to pray together during this time of waiting in a dual sense, for the next bishop, who will be appointed for this diocese where you so faithfully serve the people of East Tennessee,” he continued. “Unfortunately, I’m not able to be with you this evening due to a prior commitment. But together with Father Doug (Owens), Father David (Boettner), and Deacon Sean (Smith), I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to your communities and to each one of you. The service you provide to this diocese as pastors and associate pastors, pastoral workers, hospital chaplains, teachers, catechists, physicians, nurses, counselors, and administrators is of infinite value. But the most important gift that you give us is the witness of your lives and how you, like Mary, bring Jesus Christ to all those who you encounter through your apostolates,” the archbishop continued.

Archbishop Fabre also thanked the religious members for their prayers for a new bishop for the diocese.

“By your very lives, dedicated and consecrated to Christ and His Church, you are inviting the people of this diocese to lift up their hearts and to fix their eyes on our heavenly homeland. Thank you, thank you for your prayers for the next bishop, that his heart may be prepared to accept this very special call of the Church, and that he may fill our minds and hearts with the truth of the Gospel, the power of the sacraments, and the desire to build up God’s holy Church, as we together pray after each Mass,” he said.

At the conclusion of his video, the archbishop congratulated four of the religious communities for their special anniversary milestones.

“I would also like to extend my special congratulations to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, who recently concluded the celebration of the 75th anniversary of their foundation. To the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., who this year are celebrating their 50th anniversary; the Paulist Fathers, who this year are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their service in the Diocese of Knoxville; and to the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who on Dec. 12 began a celebration of their 75th anniversary of their foundation. We rejoice with all your communities for the many blessings God has bestowed on and through you over these years and pray that you may enter into the future continuing to deepen your charisms, that God may bless your communities with good and strong vocations,” he said. “Please also pray for me, that I may fulfill this task, which has been entrusted to me, and please know of my grateful prayers for each one of you. God bless you, and thank you for all that you do for the Diocese of Knoxville and the Catholic Church in East Tennessee. Blessings on your Advent, and may the Lord encounter you at Christmas.”

Sister Mary Simone Haakansson, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Mich., holds a candle as she participates in the Rorate Mass for the religious communities serving in the diocese. (Photo Stephanie Richer)

The religious communities currently present within the Diocese of Knoxville include:

  • Glenmary Home Missioners, with priests and brothers serving at St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish in Maynardville, St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge, and St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Erwin.
  • The Congregation of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer (CRM). Father Dominic Nguyen, CRM, serves as pastor of Divine Mercy Parish in Knoxville.
  • Sister Anunziata Grace is a Canonical Hermitess (CH) with the diocese. She professed her perpetual vows and was consecrated as a hermit in an August 2020 Mass.
  • The Congregation of St. Cecilia (OP), also known as the Nashville Dominicans. These Sisters serve at St. Mary School in Oak Ridge, Knoxville Catholic High School, and Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.
  • The Sisters of the Good Shepherd Province of Mid-North America (RGS). Sister Lakshmie Napagoda, RGS, serves as a counselor in the diocese.
  • The Evangelizing Sisters of Mary (ESM). Within the diocese, these Sisters are based at St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut, where they serve in the parish and in St. John Neumann School. They also serve at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.
  • The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (MAG), with convents in Chattanooga and Jonesborough. And these Sisters serve in Hispanic Ministry in the Five Rivers and Chattanooga deaneries.
  • The Benedictines of Divine Will and the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will. These orders are currently Public Associations of the Faithful and are in the process of being established within the Diocese of Knoxville.
  • The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich. (RSM). Within the diocese, these Sisters serve in Diocese of Knoxville offices and with the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.
  • The Apostles of Jesus (AJ). This order of men serves at St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg and Good Shepherd Parish in Newport.
  • The Alexian Brothers (CFA). This order of men serves within the diocese in Chattanooga, promoting health and caring for the sick, aged, and dying.
  • The Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales (MSFS). Father Joseph Kuzhupil, MSFS, is pastor of Notre Dame Parish in Greeneville.
  • The Paulist Fathers (CSP). Within the diocese, these priests serve at Immaculate Conception Parish and St. John XXIII University Parish, both in Knoxville.
  • The Handmaids of the Precious Blood (HPB). This cloistered, contemplative community is dedicated to praying for priests within their monastery in New Market.
  • The Order of Friars Minor, Franciscans (OFM). Father David Mary Engo, newly named parochial administrator of Holy Cross Parish in Pigeon Forge is a Franciscan priest.

This was the first Rorate Mass for Sister Celeste Mary Poche, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Mich. “I thought the Mass was beautiful,” she shared. “It was a wonderful way to invite the Diocese of Knoxville to pray with Our Lady this Advent season, especially as we pray for a new bishop. For all of us to come together and celebrate religious life as a diocese was beautiful.”

“I think it’s beautiful to have a community… within our individual communities of religious life but then kind of a fraternity among the different groups to recognize the common threads of religious life and the beauty of each of our unique charisms, how the different facets help the Diocese of Knoxville to kind of flourish in the fullness of having the different aspects of our different communities,” she continued. “It’s helpful to see the work the other sisters and brothers and priests are doing for the diocese. I think it helps encourage us in our work, too.”

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