I recently had a conversation with a former schoolteacher of mine, a good and devout Catholic, wherein we exchanged prayer intentions, for through the blessing of the internet I can interact with former teachers and school friends that I have not otherwise seen in many years. In the course of this conversation, we began to discuss priests and I shared with her that our Diocese of Knoxville is undergoing a series of priest reassignments and that we were about to ordain four new priests with more to come next year. “Can I be envious,” she asked, for she explained that the priest shortage was now so severe in her diocese that some were severely overwhelmed by the workload before them. I understand exactly where she is coming from, because as I explained in one of my earliest posts here on Life At 25, I came to the Diocese of Knoxville from a diocese with a chronic shortage of priests, and we certainly felt the consequences of that shortage.
East Tennessee seems like a kind of parallel universe, because there are, in terms of population, many fewer Catholics, but among those Catholics there is a ratio of priests-to-parishioners that is now among the highest in the nation. The ordination of our four newest priests Saturday now brings the total number of priests in the Diocese to more than 80. That is 80 priests for around 65,000 registered Catholics. That is (roughly) one priest for every 813 Catholics in our diocese, and there are more priests being ordained next year. There are dioceses with four to five times the number of Catholics that we have in our diocese that would do anything to have the kind of ratio that we have. The Holy Spirit is doing “a new thing” here in the Diocese of Knoxville (cf. Is. 43:19) that is “the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.” (cf. Ps. 118:23) Indeed, if one looks at the diocese’s list of current seminarians (the four new ordinands are at the top of the list), we likely have ordinations to the priesthood to plan ahead for many years to come. We have three transitional deacons being ordained in a couple of weeks, and 23 candidates for the permanent diaconate in formation. There is a lot of ordaining going on here in East Tennessee.
Those of you who live here and are practicing Catholics are as likely as not to have more than one priest in your parish. My own parish in Morristown has two priests. Parishes like St. Thomas the Apostle, Holy Ghost, All Saints, Immaculate Conception, the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, St. John Neumann, and Sacred Heart Cathedral enjoy two or more priests in residence. When attending the Chrism Mass this year, I could not help but marvel at the fact that there were so many priests distributing Holy Communion that I could have received the Eucharist from any of them with no trouble for anyone (I sat in the front pew, and was blessed to receive from Bishop Stika). So what is the secret of this kind of priestly success? Why don’t we have the priest shortage that many dioceses, including some of our neighboring dioceses, are struggling with severely?
What I’m about to say is in no way intended as a negative reflection on other places (i.e. “we do this and they don’t”), merely as a positive reflection on what is happening in our diocese that might give the People of God from every place pause to think about why our scruffy little diocese just keeps ordaining priests, forming new deacons, and building and forming new parishes while some other places are closing them. We live in a place where our evangelical neighbors have shown that they are not afraid to share their faith, and they are positively bold about it. Some of you reading this may know that I actually live in White Pine, Tennessee, and when Nicole and I first settled in to this community, within a few days one of the fellas that I sometimes see down at our local drugstore asked me “have you found a church yet.” This isn’t a question that neighbors ask in these parts as a way of “forced proselytizing,” but it is a question of real concern for the welfare of a new member of the community. It is presumed by many people that if you live around here that you believe in God, and very probably in Christ, and you should be going to church somewhere. If you aren’t, people will offer their place of worship as a positive option for you.
This culturally positive attitude toward the place of faith generally, and Christianity specifically in both individual and community life has rubbed off on our diocese and its people. If our neighbors are sharing faith and the joy that they have found in Jesus Christ, then we should be too, and so Catholics in East Tennessee do things like have Eucharistic flash mobs on Market Square, invite their non-Catholic friends to Mass, and sponsor their non-Catholic friends in RCIA that they might become Catholics themselves. Catholics even know how to respond when their faith is attacked, as some of us recall very well. We’ve even developed the Frassati Fellowship for Young Adults, to help young people grow in their faith in a day and age when the cultural pressure around them tries to send a very different message. All of this is important because vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate, and the religious life are not born in a vacuum, but they are often nurtured by their surroundings, both in the home and in the community of the local parish and diocesan Church. If young men and women see a vibrant faith life as children and young adults, they will want to hand it on, and some of them will seriously begin to consider a vocation as a member of the clergy or a vowed religious community.
This is the Mass of ordination for our four newest priests, Fathers Adam Kane, Tony Budnick, Colin Blatchford, and Julian Cardona. You could cut the joy in that church with a knife, for it was that thick. I think that’s another reason we have so many priests and more to come, because they are so joyful in their ministry. It is clear that our priests love Our Lord and love Our Lady, and they love serving us, their joy is infectious. Other men see that and wonder if serving God and the Church can bring them that kind of joy. If you listen to the voice of God in your life and you are truly answering the Lord’s call, anyone can experience that joy, and others want it too.