Monday, January 12, 2009

Rich It Is -- Western "Rome" Meets East Tennessee

Six months ago, the St Louis "Roundhouse" was reported as being "on fire" -- not from the July heat, but the sudden outbreak of chatter that Msgr Richard Stika, the longtime vicar-general of the "Rome of the West," was to be named bishop of Knoxville.

The chief protege of the lone resident American on the Congregation for Bishops reportedly laughed it off... yet precisely six months later -- two weeks before the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's final pilgrimage to these shores, whose planning he led -- here we are.

This morning, Pope Benedict named Stika, pastor of the church of the Annunziata at Ladue and director of child protection in the St Louis curia, as the third head of the East Tennessee diocese. Born on the 4th of July, the 51 year-old cleric succeeds Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who led the 60,000-member Knoxville church -- ranked the nation's healthiest by Crisis magazine in its 2007 report on the state of American Catholicism -- from December 1999 until his transfer to Louisville 19 months ago.

Invariably described as "sweet," "down-to-earth," "kind" and "approachable," the bishop-elect became secretary to then-Archbishop Justin Rigali on his 1994 appointment to the Gateway City; within months, Rigali made the young aide his chancellor and, three years later, elevated him to vicar-general of the 560,000-member archdiocese.

Ordained in 1985, the Stika's profile increased after his coordination of the 1999 papal visit to St Louis, which included the largest indoor gathering in American history as John Paul celebrated Mass for 100,000-plus in its TransWorld Dome. Following the visit, the late pontiff was said to have especially enjoyed how the priest left photos of his family in place for John Paul to see and bless while he occupied Stika's bedroom during his stay.

An alumnus of the archdiocese's Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Stika received a bachelor's in business from St Louis University before entering priestly formation. After the bishop-elect underwent heart bypass surgery in 2004, shortly after Rigali's transfer to Philadelphia, the cardinal's successor Archbishop Raymond Burke assigned his top deputy to the wealthy Ladue parish, keeping him at the helm of the local church's abuse-prevention and survivor-outreach efforts. Granted bi-ritual faculties in the Maronite church at the time of his ordination, the appointee has also served for several years as chaplain to a Carmelite convent.

Founded in 1988, the Knoxville church comprises just 2% of its area's total population, but stands in the front rank of the Stateside church's ever-burgeoning Southern emergence. Encompassing some 47 parishes and 10 schools spread over 14,000 square miles of Volunteer Country, the growing, energetic diocese has more than doubled in size since 1990. Its seven seminarians may not sound like much, but a diocese of a million members would need 140 men in formation to have a contingent of equal proportion; widely celebrated for his efforts at energizing the turf and bulking up its ordained ranks, Kurtz ordained three priests and 29 permanent deacons in his final weeks before leaving for Louisville. Just in recent weeks, one booming parish near the see city opened a new 900-seat, $11 million church built in the Romanesque style.

In terms of the wider chessboard, the bishop-elect arrives to find one major vacancy in his new curia: Kurtz's lead lieutenant, Vann Johnston, was named bishop of Missouri's Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese early last year. Meanwhile, in St Louis, this morning's appointment removes a longtime star from the diocesan scene as the city awaits a successor to Burke, who was called to Rome as the church's "chief justice" last June.

What's more, the timing is especially notable given the impending 75th birthday of the Bishops' prefect Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. An ally and key collaborator of Stika's mentor for close to four decades, with leading observers currently tipping that the longtime head of the dicastery responsible for recommending episcopal appointments to the Pope won't be waiting long for the arrival of his own successor, this morning's scenario will do little to quell the buzz anticipating a rapid handover of the all-important Curial post.

Already on the ground in his new charge for the traditional Appointment Day introductions and press conference later this morning, the bishop-elect will be ordained and installed on St Joseph's Day, 19 March, in a Mass to be held in Knoxville's convention center. In a break from the normal protocol -- which would see the metropolitan (in this case, Kurtz) perform the ordination -- Pharaoh himself will serve as principal consecrator.

With the move, the number of vacant Stateside dioceses falls to nine, the group now led by South Carolina's statewide church of Charleston, which has been awaiting a new head since August 2007.

PHOTO: Diocese of Knoxville