“My dear people,” the bishop called out, “let us pray that the all-powerful Father may pour out the gifts of heaven on this servant of His, whom He has chosen to be a priest.”
A young man in a simple white vestment took to his knees, then lay prostrate on the floor before the altar as the people chanted the Litany of Saints over him.
It was May 28, 1994. The priest was Father Shawn McKnight, who is now bishop of the Diocese of Jefferson City.
“I remember that moment as clearly as I remember my episcopal ordination a little more than a year ago,” said Bishop McKnight. “I felt like I was in another world — like a glimpse of heaven.”
Bishop McKnight will celebrate his 25th priestly anniversary on Sunday, June 2, in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City.
It will include Evening Prayer with Exposition and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Bishop McKnight will preach the homily.
“The theme will be gratitude,” he said. “I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am for the priestly office that God first imparted to me 25 years ago, and which He continues to bestow.
“It is something I’ve never deserved, and I continue to struggle to be a good priest,” he said. “I certainly know I’m far from perfect. But as Bishop Gerber often repeated to us, ‘God doesn’t call the qualified, but he qualifies the called.’”
Bishop Eugene J. Gerber, now deceased, was bishop of Wichita, Kansas, from 1982-2001.
“I am grateful to Bishop Gerber for ordaining me a deacon and a priest,” said Bishop McKnight. “I’m also grateful to Archbishop Carlson of St. Louis for ordaining me a bishop.
“I am grateful for all the pastors I’ve had, especially as a young priest, and for my family and the friends I picked up along the way in all of my assignments — and there were a lot of them,” he said.
He remains in contact with at least one family from each of the places he served as a priest.
“That stands as a reminder to me of how unique our vocations are as individuals,” he said. “Even though all priests share in the one Priesthood of Jesus Christ, we each have our own history and our own unique set of relationships in which we are called to serve.”
Each priest carries that unique array of influences into each ministry he undertakes, growing in relationship with the Lord and becoming part of the bigger story of the Church and his diocese.
“It’s a mutual growth in our relationship with the Lord and our growth in the spiritual life,” he said. “And I think that’s how the Lord intended everything to work out.”
Out of nowhere
Bishop McKnight was born and spent much of his childhood in and around Wichita, Kansas.
His dad worked for a defense contractor, so the family moved several times.
His parents stayed active in the Church and sent their children to Catholic schools.
The oldest of eight, Shawn took his studies and his family responsibilities seriously.
They were friends with Father (later Monsignor) Thomas McGread, their pastor at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Wichita.
Msgr. McGread, now deceased, came to be known as the father of the modern Catholic stewardship movement, preaching a message of gratitude to God and the need we have to give ourselves back to Him, including one’s vocation.
Hoping to become a doctor, husband and father like two of his uncles, young Shawn majored in biochemistry at the University of Dallas, a small Catholic institution in Irving, Texas.
He thrived on science and did well in his studies, but the rigors of school, two jobs and preparation for the medical school entrance exam exhausted him.
He went on a student retreat during his junior year just to get some rest.
That’s when God began filling his mind with thoughts of the Priesthood.
“It came out of nowhere,” he recalled. “I certainly wasn’t looking for it. Perhaps I had to be that exhausted in order to be open to it.”
Dazed at the idea and somewhat disturbed at the thought of speaking publicly, he returned to campus, only to find a letter waiting for him from the associate director of vocations at his home Diocese of Wichita.
Someone had written to the diocese, suggesting that God might want the aspiring physician to be a priest.
“It was not what I wanted,” Bishop McKnight recalled. “It didn’t fit my plans.”
The priest and student began corresponding, and the student began giving it over to God in prayer.
“I didn’t want to drop all my plans and come to find out later that it was just a crazy notion,” Bishop McKnight recalled. “But the closer I moved toward following that call, the more I loved it. The more at peace I was.”
His parents were delighted when he told them he was applying for the seminary.
“We prayed extra-hard for Shawn to become a priest, because I guess we saw something there,” his mother, Mary Schaffer, stated in December 2017.
Friends, peers and other family members reacted similarly.
So did his favorite biology professor, Sister M. Clodovia Lockett of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who had helped him prepare for the medical school exam.
Although apprehensive about his compatibility with the Priesthood, the future bishop entered formation and became a seminarian at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio.
God began filling him with an intense desire to persevere and grow.
“I went from feeling that it was an external call — not my will, but God’s will for me — to a call that I loved and wanted for myself, too,” he said.
God validated that conviction the moment Bishop Gerber summoned him to Holy Orders and called upon the Holy Spirit to make him a priest.
Bishop McKnight believes there is no greater satisfaction in life than to respond to the call one has been given, whatever that is.
“I cannot imagine being anything else or doing anything else,” he said, “because this is what God created and called me to be.”
Being a priest has brought unimaginable joy, overwhelming sorrow and everything in between.
“The Priesthood comes from the heart of Jesus, and you have to remember that the heart of Jesus was pierced by the lance when He hung on the cross,” the bishop noted.
“Any good priest will have his heart pierced, too — many times.”
He has walked with people through struggles with addictions, the loss of loved ones, the failure of marriages, and other tragedies and difficulties.
“It hasn’t always been easy. In fact, sometimes it’s been horrific,” he said. “Yet, whenever I was willing to be there for others, even when it’s not easy or pleasant, it was in those times that I felt most like a priest.”
To say nothing for the joys and blessings that offset the difficulties.
Bishop McKnight emphasized that God’s calling in each person’s life is constantly unfolding, “and we have to constantly respond to that.”
“In other words, you don’t just get into a state of life and you’re done,” he said.
Responding to a calling from God begins with a relationship with Jesus and a profound sense of gratitude.
“It’s not out of obligation or duty alone that we discern our calling from God,” said Bishop McKnight. “That’s not enough. It’s also having a sense of gratitude and a recognition that we’re not worthy of it.”
He defined the ministerial Priesthood as a call to apostolic leadership in the Church.
“It goes back to the Apostles, to the very commandment of Christ to preserve the apostolic faith of our Church, to guard, to protect, to nourish and to increase the community of believers,” he said.
He noted that the Priesthood, like the Church, is rooted in the Word of God having been made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
“There’s something very incarnational about the fact that God’s plan for salvation includes the necessity of the Church — fallible human beings who, together under the grace of the Holy Spirit, as Church, are indefectible, are one, holy, Catholic and apostolic,” he said.
Summoned from among the baptized, priests come from the heart and will of Christ, as living icons of His love for humanity.
“There is one Priesthood, and we are sharers in it,” Bishop McKnight noted. “Those in the sacrament of Holy Orders who share in the priestly ranks share in that Priesthood personally, whereas all the baptized share in that corporately.”
Priests need help not only from God but from one another and the entire local Church.
“There’s no way in this day and age — or perhaps any day or age — for a man to effectively and successfully respond to the call to the Priesthood without the fraternal support of the priests, as well as the ecclesial support of the laity,” the bishop said.
“You have to have those social supports to answer that call and live it out continually.”
Bishop McKnight said God is still calling men to serve as priests — “Because we need them! We will always need them to provide apostolic leadership in our Church, in our parishes.”
The Church does not and cannot create the call.
“We only recognize it when it is given,” he said. “We provide an environment in which it can be heard and fostered and supported and acted upon.”
He pointed out that fostering priestly vocations in the home begins with respect for priests in the home.
“And we priests all have the obligation to merit that respect, to foster it and encourage it by our own example,” he said.
He asks prayers for wisdom and courage to respond to the will of God in all things.
“I’ve always found the Priesthood to be a great adventure that has been much more than I ever anticipated or even sought for myself,” he said.
He offered this advice to men who are discerning a priestly calling: “If you have any inclination that God might be calling you to be a priest, don’t be afraid to respond. Give it a try.”