Three days ago the National Catholic Register ran a story by Stephen Beale about the increasing numbers of Catholics in the South, and how our faith, which was once alien in this part of the country, is becoming the increasing norm. Indeed, the article rightly pointed out that our brothers and sisters in Northern dioceses and in many places on the West Coast are experiencing declines in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, parish closures, and severe financial and moral crises. Shortly after my wife and I were married, we lived in Cincinnati for a couple of years and taught religious education to 3rd and 4th grade boys there. Shortly before we came to East Tennessee to live, we received news that our parish would soon be “clustered” with a neighboring parish when the pastor of the latter parish was reassigned.
One of the first “casualties” of the “cluster” was the Parish School of Religion in which Nicole and I had taught, which merged with the religious education program in the other parish well before the “cluster” became official. The reason for all of this was because the Archdiocese did not have enough priests to staff both parishes with just one of them, and both parishes were by no means dwindling in size. In an area and a neighborhood with so many Catholics that it sometimes seemed that the very air you breathed was Catholic, there were not enough priestly vocations to replace priests who were retiring or staff existent and active canonical parishes.
I remember that one of my concerns when coming to East Tennessee was that there were just “no Catholics here,” that had been my impression. Since I am a convert and so is my wife, I was conscious of the need of an active Catholic community to help us in our faith and to support one another. Nicole, however, is a native East Tennessean, and she simply allayed that fear by saying to me that I needed to trust the Lord. She knew the ground and she said “Catholics there don’t take their faith for granted, they can’t afford to.” As is often the case, my wife was right and I discovered a community that wasn’t just vibrant for the faith, but is absolutely on fire for the faith, indeed that the Diocese of Knoxville is, to paraphrase St. Jude, earnestly contending “for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).”
These are just a few of the 19 seminarians currently in formation for the priesthood for the Diocese of Knoxville at the Chrism Mass this past Holy Week. They sat with Justin Cardinal Rigali, who could have lived anywhere after retiring as Archbishop of Philadelphia, but he came to Knoxville. I was so moved by the sight of so many priests and deacons and religious that at one point during the Mass I admittedly broke down and wept in thankfulness to God for what he is doing for us.
The Register article that mentioned prominently features the Diocese of Knoxville and a quote from our own Deacon Sean Smith, our Diocesan Chancellor, who said “instead of us closing parishes and closing schools, we’re doing the opposite. We’re in total growth mode.” Deacon Sean also shared with the Register how a climate of excitement exists here among nearly everyone involved in the local Church. People feel exuberant about what the Holy Spirit is doing. Next year, it is projected that the diocese will have 23 seminarians in formation. We have (if I have done my math right) 54 diocesan priests at present, and a great many of our parishes have more than one priest, including my own.
Bishop Stika doesn’t just make his fellow priests excited about their vocations, and he doesn’t just make men excited about the prospect of serving the Lord as priests or deacons-oh, he does that aplenty-but he makes everyone excited about serving the Lord in whatever state the Lord is calling them. On a very personal note, I cannot express the joy that I feel being among my fellow Aspirants for the permanent deaconate because these are some of the most prayerful and joyful people that I have ever had the honor to be around or be associated with, and these men are a part of the vibrant future of a vibrant diocese.
So what is the secret in the Diocese of Knoxville, and what makes it feel on many days (as we prepare soon to celebrate Pentecost) that we are living Pentecost in East Tennessee? I think that we are in an environment that forces more Catholics to learn and know their faith and cherish the gifts that we have.