Reaction to bishop-elect’s appointment is fast and favorable

By Bill Brewer

News that Nashville priest Father Mark Beckman will be the Diocese of Knoxville’s fourth bishop was met with an immediate air of familiarity and comfort by many across East Tennessee.

Young parishioners have their picture taken with Bishop-elect Mark Beckman following Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus shortly after he was announced as the Diocese of Knoxville’s next bishop. (Photo Bill Brewer)

Within minutes of Pope Francis announcing early May 7 that Father Beckman will lead the diocese, texts, e-mails, posts, and calls filled the digital landscape as East Tennesseans with connections to the pastor of St. Henry Parish in West Nashville shared the announcement.

There may even have been suggestions that it’s the Volunteer State’s version of the six degrees of separation.

Messages such as “Small world. ‘Bishop’ Beckman graduated with my wife’s brother,” or “Our friend who introduced us had him at Father Ryan, and he married her and her husband. She LOVES him!” and many others like those greeted Bishop-elect Beckman as he was introduced to East Tennessee as its first shepherd who is a native Tennessean.

The connection reaction then took off as it was revealed that:

  • As a youth living in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., Mark Beckman’s pastor at Sacred Heart Church was then-Father Xavier Mankel, one of the founding priests of the Diocese of Knoxville.
  • Bishop-elect Beckman shares the same hometown as Father Albert Henkel, longtime Diocese of Knoxville priest who was affectionately known as the “Bishop of Happy Holler.”
  • An influential priest in the life of Bishop-elect Beckman who directly impacted his vocation was Father John Kirk of Knoxville.
  • Bishop-elect Beckman’s mentor, friend, and predecessor at St. Henry is Father Mike Johnston, who served as principal of Knoxville Catholic High School in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
  • Then-seminarian Mark Beckman was in attendance in 1988 when the Diocese of Knoxville’s first bishop was ordained and installed.
  • Then-Deacon Beckman served as a teacher at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga during the 1989-90 school year.
  • Then-seminarians Mark Beckman, Shelton Fabre, and J. Mark Spalding studied together in Belgium in the 1980s.
  • Seminarian Mark Beckman spent consecutive summers working with then-Father Al Humbrecht, who was ordained a priest in 1972 at St. Henry Church in Nashville, where Bishop-elect Beckman currently serves.

Bishop-elect Mark Beckman leads a prayer at the Diocese of Knoxville Tribunal offices in Chattanooga. Also praying are Father David Boettner, Father David Carter, Father Michael Hendershott, Deacon Sean Smith, Deacon Hicks Armor, and Tribunal staff members. (Photo Jim Wogan)

The ask

Bishop-elect Beckman said he was first informed on April 29 that Pope Francis had selected him to lead the Diocese of Knoxville. He was then asked by papal nuncio Cardinal Christophe Pierre if he would accept the appointment, which he did after a short time of prayerful discernment.

“As I stand before you today, I am overwhelmed, and I am also humbled. I am deeply grateful to the Lord for His immeasurable blessings in my life, many blessings. And I receive this from the Lord as the newest of those blessings, so know that. I want to humbly express my gratitude to his holiness, Pope Francis, for choosing me as the next bishop of Knoxville,” Bishop-elect Beckman said.

“Words cannot express how overwhelmed I felt when I received a phone call from his eminence, Cardinal Christophe Pierre, our nuncio, to inform me. I am truly grateful and humbled by the confidence that Pope Francis and Cardinal Pierre have placed in me,” he added.

Bishop-elect Beckman then turned to Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, who introduced the bishop-elect at the press conference, to thank him.

“Archbishop Shelton Fabre, I want to express my deep appreciation to you for your call to me immediately following my conversation with our nuncio. I have known our metropolitan archbishop since our seminary days in Louvain, Belgium. Thank you for your leadership in the Diocese of Knoxville as the apostolic administrator and for your leadership in our province and for your confidence in me. I am grateful to you; know that,” the Nashville priest said.

He then thanked Bishop J. Mark Spalding of the Diocese of Nashville for his leadership and support. Bishop-elect Beckman shared that he has been a priest in the Nashville Diocese for nearly 34 years.

He also thanked his family, singling out his parents, who still live in Lawrenceburg, Tenn.

“To my own family, especially my parents, I want to thank you. I love you. You have given me the gift of life and faith, and I treasure you before the Lord,” he noted.

He went on to thank the many priests and people he has been “privileged to love and serve with and for” for many decades, saying they have been a source of joy in his life.

He shared that in recent days the thoughts of transitioning from Diocese of Nashville priest to Diocese of Knoxville bishop have made it difficult to sleep at night, especially as he thinks of all the people who have blessed him and who he has blessed through the years.

“To all of you here in this Diocese of Knoxville, I am deeply grateful and humbled to be with you today and also to have been called to be your shepherd and your pastor. There are many fond memories of my days in this diocese serving first at St. Augustine in Signal Mountain with Father Al Humbrecht. I was a seminarian for the summer. And then the following summer, I was at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Chattanooga, also as a seminarian with Father Al Humbrecht, who had moved from one parish to the other,” Bishop-elect Beckman recalled.

Best wishes from Nashville and Knoxville

He told the press conference audience and those watching by livestream, including at his home parish of St. Henry, that while he has relished being a priest of the Diocese of Nashville and pastor of St. Henry, he also has treasured the Diocese of Knoxville since its founding.

And it was especially meaningful to him when the two dioceses joined together, such as times past when the priests of the dioceses of Nashville and Knoxville convocated at Fall Creek Falls State Park in Bledsoe and Van Buren counties. Among his favorite pastimes is hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other scenic areas of the diocese.

Once he was announced as the Diocese of Knoxville’s next bishop, Bishop-elect Beckman received many prayers and well-wishes, in person and via text, e-mail, and calls, which was to be expected.

Bishop-elect Beckman is seen with Tina and Tucker Davis, left, and Rick and Susan Davis. (Photo Bill Brewer)

Among them were greetings from Susan Rome Davis and Rick Davis, who were attending Bishop-elect Beckman’s first Mass in the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“When we heard the news this morning, we were just thrilled. My connection is through my husband and his family. To know that we have someone who is truly going to shepherd us has elated me today. This is the first time we’ve had a bishop who is homegrown so to speak. I have a lot of high hopes that this will be the best thing that has ever happened to our diocese,” Susan Davis said.

Her husband, Rick, said he grew up in Nashville and attended Father Ryan High School, where his brother currently serves as the high school president.

“He and Father Beckman worked together when Father Beckman was there on staff. We are totally blessed. Father Beckman went backpacking with my dad, Bobby Davis,” Mr. Davis said.

Susan and Rick Davis are members of the cathedral.

Tina and Tucker Davis also were attending the cathedral Mass and are members of St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport.

“When we heard the announcement today, we had to come down for his first Mass. We are just elated about his appointment. We’ve been saying a prayer every week, and he fits exactly what that prayer said. We are just ecstatic,” Tina Davis said.

“Father Mark is a longtime family friend. Our dad actually introduced Father Mark to backpacking, and he has really taken it up with a vengeance. We’ve had a lot of calls from Nashville today wishing us congratulations. But also expressing that they are very, very sad because they are losing such a great shepherd. Father Mark is just an answer to prayers. He really is. He’s going to do great things for our diocese,” Tucker Davis said.

The Davis couples enjoyed a brief reunion with Bishop-elect Beckman following the Mass. They were not alone in voicing their congratulations and best wishes. A long line formed to meet the next bishop of East Tennessee.

“I am really looking forward to getting to know all of you. There are many blessings and gifts that lie ahead. None of us knows all of those blessings yet,” the bishop-elect he said during the press conference. “Yes, there will be challenges. There always are. It’s sort of like white-water rafting down the Ocoee River, right? You don’t know what the next moment will bring. But you trust that the Lord is in the boat with you as your guide, and you let Him place His hand upon your shoulder. That’s what you do.”

Preparing for the journey

And with that, Bishop-elect Beckman announced that he is ready to move forward in leading the Church in East Tennessee.

“So, together, let us prepare for the journey ahead. May the risen Lord Jesus, who always walks with us on the journey of life, hold us now and always in His care. And may almighty God, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit bless you and keep you. Amen,” he concluded in his introductory remarks.

Archbishop Fabre listens with joy as Bishop-elect Beckman addresses the media. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

Archbishop Fabre introduced Bishop-elect Beckman during the May 7 press conference at the Diocese of Knoxville Chancery that was attended by Bishop J. Mark Spalding of the Diocese of Nashville, Bishop John C. Iffert of the Diocese of Covington, Ky., Chancery staff, and diocesan leaders as well as members of Knoxville and Nashville media outlets.

In his introduction, Archbishop Fabre, who has served as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville since Bishop Richard F. Stika resigned June 27, expressed joy and relief that his days of doing triple-duty as the Archbishop of Louisville, leader of the Louisville Province’s seven dioceses, and as the temporary shepherd of Knoxville are coming to an end. He will soon return to doing double-duty.

After an opening prayer giving thanks to God for the gift of Bishop-elect Beckman and for the gift of faith, Archbishop Fabre was exuberant in proclaiming, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad,” citing Psalm 118 and referring to the bishop-elect’s appointment.

“Those of you from the Chancery know that when I first came here, I said that I’m like a ship’s captain, one day I’m getting off this ship. I can now see the bank in the distance. I will get off of this vessel and entrust it to another,” the archbishop said, receiving knowing laughs in response.

The archbishop, on a weekly and biweekly basis for much of the past 11 months, has spent time in the Diocese of Knoxville celebrating Masses, conducting meetings, and visiting parishes and schools.

“This is a day of grace for the Diocese of Knoxville as Pope Francis has appointed Father James Mark Beckman, until now a priest of the Diocese of Nashville, as the fourth bishop of Knoxville. I wholeheartedly congratulate Father Beckman on his appointment, and I look forward to working with him in the ecclesiastical province of Louisville, of which Knoxville is a part,” Archbishop Fabre said.

“Father Beckman is a wonderful priest and a good pastor, a man after the Lord’s own heart. Having known Father Beckman prior to his appointment, I can assure you that he will be for you here in Knoxville a great bishop and a good shepherd,” he continued. “At the end of June last year, I humbly accepted the Holy Father’s appointment of me to serve as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville. As I have worked over these months to see to the pastoral needs and administration of this diocese, I want you to know that I consider myself truly blessed to have had this opportunity to accompany you here in Knoxville as you have awaited and prayed for this day. I consider myself fortunate to have come to know the Christian faithful of this wonderful diocese. You warmly embraced me. You expressed to me your profound faith and demonstrated your genuine love for the Lord and for each other. I do not doubt that Bishop-elect Beckman will come to experience the same from all of you.”

Parishioners young and older applaud as Bishop-elect Mark Beckman is announced at Mass as the Diocese of Knoxville’s next bishop. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

Archbishop Fabre appeared genuinely pleased at the prospect of handing over the reins to Tennessee’s third diocese to the bishop-elect who hails from Middle Tennessee. The two priests shook hands and embraced as they exchanged places at the lectern.

As he concluded, Archbishop Fabre said, “I close my brief remarks by asking you, as I know you will, to work together with your new bishop as he works to teach, to sanctify, and to govern this diocese as a shepherd who is patterned after the person of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. Hallelujah!”

As Bishop-elect Beckman transitions to East Tennessee in preparation for his ordination and installation on July 26, even more connections will undoubtedly be made. And he will surely hear about them as he meets the faithful across the 36 counties served by the diocese.

Mass with the bishop-elect is celebrated at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. (Photo Bill Brewer)

In addition to learning the geography, the bishop-elect will learn that the diocese is made up of:

  • 104 permanent deacons
  • 67 diocesan priests
  • 50 parishes
  • 42 religious Sisters
  • 17 religious priests
  • 11 religious Brothers
  • 11 seminarians
  • 8 elementary schools
  • 5 extern priests
  • 4 deaneries
  • 4 transitional deacons
  • 3 health-care facilities
  • 2 diocesan high schools
  • 2 cemeteries
  • 1 Catholic mission

He also will come to find out that the Catholic population of the diocese represents about 2.8 percent of the total population of the area, and the diocese covers about 14,242 square miles. The Catholic Church in East Tennessee is 184 years old, with the oldest parishes being Immaculate Conception in Knoxville and the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga (both established in the 1850s). The Diocese of Knoxville has a total population of 2,538,487, of which 71,274 are Catholic.

In meeting with the media at the Chancery, the bishop-in-waiting said he looks forward to connecting with all the parishes and parishioners in his new home of East Tennessee.

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