Skip to content

School of hard ‘knox’ - New TN bishop faces Stika-sized challenge

If you ask the Catholics who know him, they’ll tell you that the Tuesday appointment of Bishop-elect Mark Beckman to the Diocese of Knoxville comes as something of a surprise. 

Bishop-elect Mark Beckman speaks at a May 7 press conference. Credit: Diocese of Knoxville/YouTube.

They’ll tell you — or at least they told The Pillar — that Beckman is an unassuming, kind, gentle pastor, with a gift for being present in his people’s lives. And some told The Pillar that Beckman has a kind of meekness that made him a surprise appointment for an episcopal slot, especially in a beleaguered diocese. 

Indeed, the bishop-elect himself said several times May 7 how surprised he was to have been appointed a bishop, how “overwhelmed” he was by the task ahead of him, how “humbled” he was by his appointment to lead Knoxville.

Beckman did not give the impression that he was offering those sentiments as bromides. He seemed instead rather sincere about them, promising mostly that he would trust in the Lord to take on a job he found formidable. 

After the difficult years faced by the priests and people of the Knoxville diocese, Beckman’s pastoral style and disposition might be exactly what’s needed in East Tennessee. 

But as the bishop prepares for his July installation, he will also have to make hard decisions, and develop a plan for helping to buoy up a presbyterate flagging in morale, and in confidence in the Church’s hierarchy.

And because of the national attention which his predecessor Bishop Richard Stika brought to the diocese, he’ll do it all under a spotlight, as Catholics across the country look to see whether Knoxville can find healing after Stika — and to what extent, though gone, he will leave a lasting impact on the diocese.


While Beckman expressed surprise over his appointment, the bishop-elect fits the mold of recent episcopal selections in the U.S.: His experience is mostly in parish pastoral ministry - with parishes of increasing size; he is known more as a pastor than as an intellectual or a theologian; he is said to be administratively competent; and he is regarded as having a commitment to social justice.

Like those who know Beckman in his home diocese of Nashville, the Archbishop of Louisville on Tuesday also emphasized that Beckman is regarded as a good pastor.   

In short, he seems to be the kind of bishop Pope Francis has said he wants in diocesan ministry.

In Knoxville, the pastor-bishop will face several serious and ongoing pastoral issues, which would be likely to test any newcomer, no matter how experienced. 

On some fronts, he has already begun the work.

A spokesman for the Knoxville diocese told The Pillar Wednesday that Beckman had already met with priests of the diocese, for discussions about bringing healing to the diocese.

“Bishop-elect Beckman spoke of the need for healing during his press conference on May 7,” spokesman Jim Wogan told The Pillar. “That process has already started.” 

“This morning, on May 8, the Bishop-elect met with members of the presbyterate at the chancery, some of whom he has known for many years. Today's meeting was another step to continue efforts already undertaken to restore a positive and trustworthy relationship with all of the priests of the diocese,” Wogan added.

“The discussions will remain confidential.”

Given the experience of Knoxville’s presbyterate in recent years, there was likely much to discuss.

Some priests of the diocese have in recent years said they were demoralized and discouraged both by Stika — whom they allege was vindictive, punitive, and mistreated them — and by the effort it took to get the Holy See to pay attention to dysfunction in their diocese; the effort included a letter sent by several priests to the apostolic nunciature in Washington, DC, which went unanswered.

Beckman will likely need to build both morale and trust as he begins his episcopal ministry — while many Knoxville priests say they have had a positive experience with Archbishop Shelton Fabre, who has led the Knoxville diocese as administrator since Stika’s June resignation last year, they are still likely to be wary of trusting a new bishop, and of trusting his chancery.

In particular, Beckman will need to decide how to engage with priests who took leaves of absence during Stika’s ministry, or have otherwise reported being disenfranchised by him. As Beckman engages with priests most directly impacted by his predecessor, it is likely the entire Knoxville presbyterate will be keen to observe their new bishop’s methodology and disposition.

At the same time, the new bishop will likely face calls to address financial concerns raised about Stika’s administration of the diocese — a large debt incurred to finance the diocesan cathedral, and concerns about equity of diocesan assessment structures. 

Given the perception that Stika was not direct or transparent about finances, Beckman will likely face hopes for more robust consultation of the diocesan finance council and diocesan presbyteral council. 

While he is consulting, priests and laity in the Knoxville diocese will likely expect Beckman to look carefully at the diocesan review board — charged with advising the bishop on clerical sexual misconduct — in light of the way in which Stika admitted to interfering with its work. 

upgrade your subscription

Beckman will also need to deal with some issues related quite directly to Stika.

The former bishop of Knoxville has in recent months sent texts to some Knoxville priests, threatening to sue them. Late last year, the bishop posted online a letter calling for his possible reinstatement, which he said might have been written by cardinals. Some sources say that Stika continues to opine on how the Knoxville diocese should be governed, and has periodically asked, but not received, permission to return to the diocese for sacramental ministry. 

Given his ongoing interest in the affairs of the Knoxville diocese, it seems unlikely Stika will remain mum as Beckman begins his tenure.

At the same time, the diocese remains the subject of litigation concerning Stika’s alleged misconduct, including the alleged cover-up of sexual abuse. Under Stika’s tenure, the diocese took an aggressive approach to the litigation — fighting to prevent an alleged victim from suing under a pseudonym, for example — and Catholics will likely watch to see whether Beckman takes a more conciliatory approach.

In fact, many Catholics will watch to see whether Beckman moves to meet with alleged victims pastorally, to hear them, and to resolve lawsuits amicably, by settlement, and out of court.

While none of that will be easy, it will be on issues dealing directly with the question of Stika where Beckman might face his biggest challenge.

In his press conference Tuesday, the bishop-elect gave the impression of a man who will work hard to build fraternity with his priests, and who will be comfortable listening to the struggles of Catholics impacted by the dysfunction of his diocese. He spoke compellingly about the Church as a hospital for the wounded, and about the healing presence of Jesus Christ.

But when he was asked about Stika, the bishop seemed reluctant, and was avoidant of the scandal surrounding his former bishop.

Asked what he would say to Stika, Beckman said that “I want to thank him for his years as shepherd of this diocese.”

“Anytime you are called to do something by the Lord, it requires a great gift and a great responsibility, and I know that being a shepherd involves carrying a burden.”

“So ‘thank you,’ I want to say to him, for carrying that burden.”

The bishop-elect’s remarks were likely meant to be gracious, and they likely reflect the allergy among bishops of publicly criticizing a peer.

But in Knoxville, that allergy could become an Achilles heel. Priests in the diocese have spent years looking for some Church hierarch to let them know he’s on their side — that elements of Stika’s administration were not ok. 

They’ll be looking for that from their current shepherd. And if a continued veneer of gracious cordiality towards Stika is the only thing they hear, Beckman’s pastoral mission for healing in the Knoxville diocese will not likely get very far.

If there will be an obvious testing ground, it will be Beckman’s ordination and installation as diocesan bishop in July. Stika is unlikely to stay away of his own volition. And it may prove difficult for Beckman to make a decision about Stika’s attendance — the decision likely belongs to apostolic nuncio Cardinal Christophe Pierre.

But whether Stika attends, how he is treated, and what Beckman tells his priests about all that, will likely say something to the priests of Knoxville about whether their new bishop is serious about healing, accountability, and a new start in Knoxville — or whether they should expect business-as-usual, even in a more pastoral key.

Subscribe now

Comments 15