Bishop W. Shawn McKnight says he never would have chosen himself for the episcopacy.
But his first year as bishop of the Jefferson City diocese has convinced him that God is in charge and is always bringing His good plans to fruition.
“The fact is, I have been called — I was summoned by the Holy Father to serve the people of this diocese — and with that great responsibility comes the necessary graces,” said Bishop McKnight, who was ordained and installed on Feb. 6, 2018.
He noted that a bishop is both a fisherman and a shepherd of souls. “A bishop has the responsibility of providing vision and leadership that takes into account the challenges we face as well as the opportunities and resources we have available to us, particularly the charisms of the People of God.”
Charisms are gifts of the Holy Spirit, presented to individuals for the benefit of the whole. They are essential for spreading the Gospel and growing the Church.
“That is what is thrilling for me — getting to know people, the priests, the religious and the deacons of the diocese and figuring out how to match their skill set with what we need,” said Bishop McKnight.
At Bishop McKnight’s Ordination Mass, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis spoke of the courage demanded of a bishop today. “In your own life as bishop, you will need to be courageous,” the archbishop told Bishop McKnight. “Like Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, you will be called to walk with the people you serve — and accompany them — but also to walk before them, showing them the way to God the Father.”
“You may — you will — have to suffer for that!” the archbishop predicted. Accordingly, these first 12 months have been a mixture of blessings and tribulations. “Almost nothing has gone as planned this past year,” Bishop McKnight noted. “But at the same time, the Lord always provides.”
The day of ordination itself was an experience of heaven, but he cannot say that for all 365 of the days that followed.
“It has not been easy, and it can be overwhelming when one stops to think about the responsibility a bishop has for the souls of the people of the diocese,” he said.
“But when I realize that it’s not my Church — it’s Christ’s Church! — and that I share that responsibility with everyone, it doesn’t seem anywhere near as daunting,” he stated. “It’s invigorating and exciting!”
He emphasized how important it is for priests and for the bishop to identify the charisms of the People of God, and to put them to good use in the life and mission of the Church. “We simply cannot do this alone,” he said.
Bishop McKnight understands that bishops are successors to the first Apostles — sinful, fallible men who were called by Jesus, who followed Him, learned from Him and were eventually entrusted with the spreading of the Good News to the entire world.
“I am certainly aware that I’m not perfect,” he said. “Especially as a new bishop, I’m bound to make mistakes. But I don’t worry so much about making honest mistakes as I do about not learning from mistakes.”
He hopes people will continue to be honest and genuine with him so he can learn and improve.
“The culture I want to establish in the Chancery and throughout the diocese is that when an error is made, it should not be punished but be understood as an opportunity to learn and do better in the future,” he said. “Covering up mistakes doesn’t allow us to learn from them, and that is very harmful.”
“It’s all worth it”
In the past year, Bishop McKnight has grown in awareness and appreciation for the resilience of the Catholics of this diocese. “We’ve had the challenge of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis, the challenge of the rural character of our diocese and how to keep our smaller parishes and schools afloat,” he said. He is in awe of the faith of “those unsung heroes of faith, who day in and day out are struggling to live the teachings of the Church as individuals and within their families.”
“I’m so grateful to be a part of that and to assist them!” he said. The same goes for the priests and the deacons “whose hearts are overflowing with pastoral charity.”
He’s impressed and very appreciative of the people’s commitment to their communities, and he wants to honor that. "At the same time, it is my obligation to remind everybody of our common mission and of where we’re headed and where we need to be heading,” he said. “Sometimes, that requires me to ask people to make changes and make a sacrifice.”
Even through the devastating work of addressing the clergy sexual-abuse crisis, he has been privileged to witness God’s work of healing in many victims. “It’s all worth it,” he said. “All that we have done is worth the healing that I have seen myself that has taken place.”
Moved by the Spirit
Bishop McKnight is gratified and occasionally startled to notice God working through him in ways he never anticipated — like when he preaches a homily that people perceive with greater depth than he could have imagined. “I just marvel at that,” he said. “It’s the reality of the Holy Spirit at work. As a priest or a bishop, we’re just a vessel of God’s grace.
“The more you’re willing to put yourself out there, to be docile to the Holy Spirit, to be vulnerable, the more freedom you give to the Holy Spirit to accomplish His works,” he added.
He believes God has helped him become “a little bit wiser” this past year.
“Fear of making a mistake can paralyze you, but giving it a try and being proactive is often a risk that is needed to accomplish something new.”
The Church’s heartbeat
One of the things he misses most about being a parish priest is giving First Holy Communion to children.
“But in return, I get to do confirmations!” he said. The bishop travels to parishes, sometimes as many as four or five per week during the Lent and Easter seasons, to seal parishioners, mostly young people, with the Holy Spirit. At first, he thought the exacting schedule would wear him down.
“But very quickly, I grew to cherish this opportunity to pastorally serve the people of our diocese,” he said. “It’s one of my highlights as a bishop.”
He finds ministering to young people inspiring.
“And exhausting!” he said. “They have so much energy. That’s who they are, and that’s who they should be.” He’s grateful for those priests of this diocese who are “on fire with the desire for evangelization and love to be with these young people.”
In a roundabout way
Having grown up in the Wichita parish where the late Monsignor Thomas McGread spent decades nurturing a new Catholic vision of stewardship as a way of life, Bishop McKnight hoped to implement that vision more thoroughly in his first year in this diocese.
Having studied, written and taught extensively about a deeper, more historically accurate understanding of the permanent diaconate, he hoped to initiate discussions about how to apply his ideas to the needs of this diocese.
He was looking forward to creating new structures for consultation and collaboration within the diocese. He wanted to start a discernment process for a new pastoral plan, one in which every parish would become a center of charity and mercy.
However, it quickly became clear to him that the he and his fellow U.S. bishops needed first to do a better job of addressing and atoning for the decades-old clerical sexual abuse scandal in the Church.
“A lot of what happened this year was never planned,” said Bishop McKnight. “A lot of my plans had to be delayed in order to address the present crisis.” But through all of that, he sees God’s hand at work. “Some of those things are getting accomplished in ways that I never intended,” the bishop said. “Tending to this crisis is forcing us to work more closely together.”
“I love the opportunities I have been given to empower people, to empower my priests and the laity to take up their own roles in the life and mission of the Church,” he said. “And for that, I’m so grateful.”
Charity and insight
One of Bishop McKnight’s favorite Scripture passages is 1 Peter 4:10, “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
He is convinced that is God’s roadmap for helping parishes become centers of mercy and charity, enhancing their viability and vitality as communities of faith.
“The more we can engage the people of any given parish in the charitable works of the Church, the stronger they become in the faith,” he said.
He believes listening is one of his most important ministries. Preparing to attend the U.S. Catholic bishops’ fall meeting which would address the sex-abuse scandal and its cover-up in the Church, he convened a series of listening sessions throughout the diocese. He found these five sessions, along with one specifically for young adults — to be helpful and invigorating.
“I see them as a framework or a template of what we should be doing on a regular basis, with the bishop meeting in person with his people and talking about important things — for them to share with me their hopes and aspirations as well as their fears,” he said. He hopes to use a similar process in preparing the report he is required to make to Pope Francis at his ad limina visit to the Vatican next January.
Day and night
In 1957, the founding bishop, the late Bishop Joseph M. Marling C.PP.S., dedicated the diocese to the Mother of God, under her title of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
For Bishop McKnight, that intercession is only natural. He grew up praying the “Morning Offering” with his family, and now offers it every day upon entering the chapel in his residence:
“O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world. I offer them for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart: the salvation of souls, reparation for sins, and the reunion of all Christians. I offer them for the intentions of our bishops and of all Apostles of Prayer, and in particular for those recommended by the Holy Father this month.”
“Every one of those petitions is profound,” said Bishop McKnight. “They encapsulate all that we do as a Church.”
In addition to his own monthly intentions and those of the Holy Father, Bishop McKnight urges parishioners to pray for a strong bond of communion among all people of the diocese. At the end of each day, he tells God, “I love You, I want to love You more and Your people more.” He repeats that prayer upon awakening each morning.
“At night, it’s more of an examination of conscience, of how God has shown His love to me in the events of the day and the times I’ve failed to love. I ask for forgiveness and request help to do better,” he said. “In the morning, it’s a fresh commitment to begin again.”
Thanks be to God!
Bishop McKnight’s episcopal motto is “Gratias Agamus Domino” — “Let us give thanks to the Lord.”
Despite all the difficulties, distractions and steep learning curve of his first year as a bishop, he feels a profound gratitude.
“I am so grateful to be a part of the Church of central and northern Missouri, and I look forward to hopefully many, many years of service with the people, the priests, the deacons and religious of the diocese,” he said.