By Bill Brewer
It was a fire side chat for the ages – at least for the Diocese of Knoxville ages – when Bishop Richard F. Stika emceed an insightful and often lighthearted discussion by three of the universal Catholic Church’s leaders – Cardinals Justin Rigali, William Levada and Timothy Dolan – at the Tennessee Theatre on April 18.
A Conversation with the Cardinals was part of the historic groundbreaking weekend for the new Sacred Heart Cathedral that also included the Following Jesus Conference featuring speakers Curtis Martin and Cardinal Dolan at Knoxville Catholic High School and All Saints Parish held earlier on April 18.
Those events led up to the precedent-setting Mass at the cathedral on April 19 that was celebrated by Cardinal Rigali and concelebrated by Cardinals Dolan and Levada, Bishop Stika and eight other bishops from around the country, which was then followed by the official groundbreaking ceremony.
At the Tennessee Theater, Bishop Stika was greeted by a rousing standing ovation as he warmed up the audience, which numbered about 1,200, with jokes and conversation.
“Somebody told me they were dying to get into this show, and I said, ‘not literally,’” Bishop Stika deadpanned, referring to his recent near-death experience.
“I just want to welcome all of you to tonight. For tonight we celebrate faith and belief in ourselves. We celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ is in our midst when we celebrate that faith. We celebrate also tonight the universal Church, for tonight we have three cardinals with us – Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and…,” he said, joking about the former St. Louis Cardinals baseball greats.
Bishop Stika then tried to convince the crowd that he was right at home as a cardinal, too, by showing them three St. Louis Cardinals baseball jerseys with the name “Monsignor” on one, “Bishop” on the second one, and “Stika” on the third one.
“Aren’t you proud to be Catholic? Do we have any non-Catholics here tonight? If so, I have some paperwork in my car,” he joked.
Bishop Stika was in rare form as he conversed directly with the audience, then turned his attention to the three cardinals, who were comfortably seated on a set that was a cross between an East Tennessee living room and the Tonight Show. In fact, you could almost hear the original Tonight Show theme song play as the cardinals were introduced.
At Bishop Stika’s humorous and pointed prompting, each cardinal openly shared his personal experiences serving the Church in Rome and his exposure to popes who have led the Church.
Cardinal Dolan discussed being among the newest cardinals to vote in the papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, then joked about being put in charge of the College of Cardinals youth – a good-natured dig at Cardinal Rigali, who was celebrating his 80th birthday on April 19, and Cardinal Levada, who was a classmate of Cardinal Rigali in seminary. Cardinal Dolan is a relatively “young” 65 in the Vatican college.
All three cardinals laughed.
Cardinal Rigali spoke of working closely with Popes Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II, noting that he was likely the last person to see Pope John Paul I alive before the pontiff passed away in his sleep only 33 days into his 1978 papacy. Cardinals Dolan and Levada and Bishop Stika listened intently.
Then Cardinal Levada talked about being named successor to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Levada, in modesty and humility, said to the new pontiff that as Benedict’s successor as prefect, the cardinal successor was “no great theologian” – a requirement for the position.
Cardinal Levada quipped that as Pope Benedict assured him he would do fine in the extremely high-ranking post, “he didn’t deny that I was no great theologian.” Cardinal Levada is world-renowned as a Catholic theologian.
The cardinals and the crowd laughed at the reflection.
The two-hour Catholic version of the Colbert Report show met with many laughs and quite a few breaks for applause as there were many more stories and insights shared.
A video of Diocese of Knoxville school children singing Happy Birthday to Cardinal Rigali was played and he was presented with a cardboard cake. Bishop Stika then led the Tennessee Theatre audience in a version of Happy Birthday to the cardinal.
In true, heartfelt, pep-talk fashion, Bishop Stika concluded the evening by pointing out all the exciting happenings going on within the diocese, including breaking ground on the new cathedral, the upcoming ordination of four new priests followed by the ordination of four priests last year, and the rising number of Catholics in East Tennessee.
“I just want to thank all of you for being here this evening. … The reason we are doing so well, I think, is because we love church,” he said. “Just think of all the things happening in your parishes. … All the things that bring us together socially and religiously to build the kingdom of God in East Tennessee.
“This has to do with Jesus. And that is what we have to focus on. Jesus invites us to build his kingdom, to go therefore and baptize and teach the faith.”
He encouraged the faithful to believe in themselves and to trust in Jesus.
“Our mission is to be Catholic, and to be proud of that in a Christian sense. … Do not be afraid,” he said. “People are being drawn to the faith, I think by the Eucharist. My sisters and brothers, I want to thank you for wanting to celebrate who we are. Just believe in yourselves.”