Thursday, January 24, 2008

Volunteer Vann Heads Northwest

Last year, Crisis magazine's survey of Stateside Catholicism ranked the diocese of Knoxville as the nation's healthiest local church.

While some saw fit to fault the study's methodology at the time, the editors were clearly on to something.

Within months, the head of East Tennessee's burgeoning fold of 50,000, Bishop Joseph Kurtz, was sent to breathe new life into the archdiocese of Louisville, the mother see of the American frontier. And now, one of the young diocese's founding clergy -- Kurtz's closest collaborator there -- has been tapped to take a diocese of his own.

This morning, the Pope named Fr James Vann Johnston, Knoxville's chancellor and moderator of the curia, as bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Johnston, 48, succeeds Bishop John Leibrecht, who's led the Missouri diocese of 63,000 since 1984. Leibrecht submitted his mandatory resignation on his 75th birthday in August 2005.

Known universally as "Father Vann" -- his paternal grandmother's maiden name -- the bishop-elect is a Knoxville native and alum of the University of Tennessee there, where he studied electrical engineering. Three years after graduation, having taken an engineering job in Texas, he returned home to his close-knit family with an eye toward studying for the priesthood. After formation at St Meinrad, he was ordained for Knoxville in 1990 -- the second priest for the newborn diocese, which had been erected two years earlier.

Following a series of parish assignments and a JCL from Catholic University, founding Knoxville Bishop Anthony O'Connell named Johnston his chancellor in 1996, with Kurtz adding the responsibility of running the diocesan apparatus five years later, all while the young curialist held parish assignments. Last year, shortly before Kurtz's departure for Louisville, he named Johnston to his first pastorate, located in a Knoxville suburb.

At a press conference earlier today alongside his now-predecessor, while the bishop-elect "pledge[d] to serve" Southern Missouri's already-churched "in generosity and charity," he also promised to "seek out those who have fallen away from the practice of their Catholic faith, reach out to the unchurched, and seek to meet brothers and sisters of other faith communities and churches on areas of common belief and shared concerns.

"I am eager to learn more about the Church in Southern Missouri, my new home," he said, "and to become a part of God’s family here."

Johnston might've been observed looking unusually "somber" at last weekend's local March for Life, but Kurtz rejoiced at the elevation of his longtime lieutenant.

The bishop-elect "is a priest of outstanding integrity and goodness," the former Knoxville prelate said. "I have come to know directly of his gifts, and with confidence I pray that our Blessed Lord will continue to guide and direct him for many fruitful years of service as a bishop."

Friends of Johnston's speak highly of his qualities in both spirit and intellect. A "reasoned and fair-minded" decision-maker who "thinks things through" before moving forward, he's said to be consistently "calm, respectful... and clear," but not without "warm blood in his veins."

One fan notes that he's got "a good sense of humor but you have to get to know him a little bit to see it." As the ad intra goes, Johnston is described as "100% orthodox," his sacred tastes leaning toward the traditional, including a special soft spot for polyphony.

A veteran hiker and lifelong nature buff, the onetime Eagle Scout made the news in 2005 when, on an expedition, he and two friends helped rescue a family who came perilously close to being taken down a steep waterfall at Montana's Glacier National Park. For their courage, the three -- all clerics -- received the Department of the Interior's Citizen Award for Bravery at a DC ceremony.

Johnston's ordination and installation in Springfield will take place on 31 March, the deferred observance of Annunciation Day. Knoxville might remain vacant, but the appointment train is understood to be continuing its arc through the South over the coming weeks.

Diocese of Knoxville