Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika said something most interesting in his closing remarks at the Diocese of Knoxville Eucharistic Congress on September 14th. He said that when he came to East Tennessee, he was warned that he was going to a place where Catholics make up about 2% of the total population. “They told me ‘you understand that you are being sent into missionary territory,'” he said “I knew I was coming to a place where very few people shared our faith, especially what we believe about the Eucharist.” The bishop is right, of course. It isn’t a correct thing at all to say that East Tennesseans are heathens or unchurched, as most people still have some kind of faith background, either for themselves or their families (although the next generation appears to have a much higher percentage of what we would call “unchurched” young people). However, our area isn’t just heavily Protestant, it has a dominant evangelical community. Some might even argue that this evangelical community has a strong fundamentalist streak. St. Francis de Sales might recognize something of what East Tennessee can sometimes feel like if you are Catholic.
There is a history of strong political anti-Catholic feeling in some quarters, too. In the 19th Century, East Tennessee’s most prominent political leader during the Civil War, Unionist firebrand William Gannaway Brownlow, was also a notorious anti-Catholic bigot. Many of us remember the incident a couple of years ago where a young parishioner at Holy Cross in Pigeon Forge was given an anti-Catholic tract, Jack T. Chick’s infamous The Death Cookie. At last year’s Chrism Mass, Bishop Stika shared that someone sent him a copy of The Death Cookie in an envelope with no return address. The tract asserts, among other things, that the Holy Eucharist, instituted by Jesus Christ himself, comes from Satan.
If what we were all doing the weekend before last at the Sevierville Events Center was worshiping the devil, then I’d like to see what some people think the real worship of God is supposed to look, feel, and sound like.
Despite the obvious hardships of being Catholic in this part of the country, the people of the Diocese of Knoxville have so much to be thankful for. The 21 men in priestly formation and 24 men in formation for the permanent diaconate are a start. While many other dioceses around the country, places with a more supposedly “established” Catholic population are struggling to find vocations to the priesthood, let alone have men seek them out, here in East Tennessee we have even more in the pipeline. Many of our parishes have multiple priests. This scenario makes it worlds easier on our deacons who are free to…well, they are free to be deacons. In those places where there is a chronic shortage of priests, many deacons find themselves with administrative responsibilities that are significantly increased as priests “fly” from parish to parish that must share pastors. Here, our deacons might have administrative responsibilities, but they are more likely to be involved in a host of ministries from religious education, to visiting the sick and homebound, to youth ministry, and that’s just naming a few of the many ministries where deacons can be found.
It could be easy for some to say, as I admit that I once did, that a place like East Tennessee is not a place where the Catholic Church would be welcome, that it is not good soil for the Church. This attitude is not only dangerous, it is utterly wrong. Not only is the Catholic Church in East Tennessee growing, not only are the vocations coming, but so are the converts. They come from all kinds of religious backgrounds and from none, but I have noticed in my personal observations and experiences that the majority of converts to the faith who come from a Christian background of some kind come from an evangelical background. They bring evangelical zeal for Jesus Christ combined with a love for the sacraments of the Church, and they are anything but lukewarm in their faith. They are going to continue to come for many years to come.
If there is one area of Catholic catechetical formation that perhaps should be shared in greater detail with those outside the Church and in a public setting it may be what Catholics believe about the Eucharist and why we believe it. In our part of the country, such sharing should inevitably include the scriptural basis for Catholic teaching on the nature of the Eucharist. As we have already seen in our area, ignorance of what we believe about the Eucharist causes a great deal of difficulty for some folks, and especially for many of our young people who encounter their friends at school who might have picked up a Chick tract.
If we take away one important message from the Eucharistic Congress, let it be that we should joyfully spread the message of the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.