Here in East Tennessee, the Catholic population has, in the past, often been seen to be marginalized. There seem to be so few of us and so many people of other faiths. Sometimes it seems as though our neighbors don’t understand us, and the things people don’t understand are the things they fear. However, things are changing for the Catholic Church in East Tennessee. On May 31st, four new priests will be ordained for the Diocese of Knoxville. Deacons Adam Kane, Tony Budnick, Colin Blatchford, and Julian Cardona are now but some three weeks away from making their vows of obedience to Bishop Stika and having the hands laid on them which will give each of them the authority and ability to be the “hands that bring us Jesus.”
The Diocese of Knoxville has, at last count, one of the highest priest-to-parishioner ratios in the country and one of the highest ratios of seminarians-to-parishioners in the U.S. While that will rightly be seen by many as a sign of tremendous growth and vitality in our local Church, it should be remembered that neither priests nor deacons began their life as priests or deacons, but as members of the priesthood of all Believers, the people of God. It is a sign of the spiritual health of our local Church that we have so many seminarians and more to come, but it is an even greater indication of the vitality of people in the pew. Without a spiritually vital lay community, it is impossible for the ranks of the clergy, both priests and permanent deacons, to grow as they are in our diocese. Bishop Stika has said that he wants our Church to be the hands and feet and face of Jesus. We can do that in no small part because so many people in our parishes love the Lord Jesus, and as the bishop said so correctly and effectively at the Chrism Mass recently, it is all about Jesus, that is why we are here.
Love for Jesus is why we have four transitional deacons who are about to be ordained priests, and why our diocese will continue ordaining priests, by the looks of our class of seminarians, for many years to come. Love for Jesus is why there are 23 men in formation for the permanent diaconate in our diocese. Love for Jesus is why I am one of those men, and love for Jesus is why I pray that the Lord will mold me into the kind of man that will reflect Christ to others in everything that I do. There was a time, I must confess, earlier in my own formation, when I wondered what my ministry would be or look like once I am ordained. I no longer have that concern…now I simply concern myself with how to be Christ to the people around me, and pray God will forgive my shortcomings when I do not reflect Christ. Love for Jesus is why my wife and the wives of the other men in diaconate formation consent to their husbands accepting the call to formation and to candidacy and, if God wills it, to ordination.
It is for the sake of Jesus Christ and love for him that so many volunteers do so many things for our diocese and for our parishes, great and small. None of us are perfect people and very few will ever get any notice, even fewer would ask for it. We are the Body of Christ, we are his Members, and we do what we can to advance his Kingdom, because it is about Christ, not about us. I would (I hope with at least some small amount of humility) suggest that one of the reasons why we continue to grow as a diocese, ordain more priests, have even more men in seminary or about to enter a seminary program, and have the men we do in formation for the permanent diaconate is because we have a bishop who teaches, preaches, and practices both orthodoxy and humility, or perhaps we can say he preaches orthodoxy with humility, and he is excited about the faith and that excitement is infectious.
We live around some very evangelical people in East Tennessee, and so it helps us to be both evangelical and charitable in our zeal to share and spread the Catholic faith. If we share the truth in love, we will continue to see the kind of growth that leads to vocations to the priesthood, diaconate, religious life, and zealous and faithful People of God.