“It is our task, it is our mission together to go out and proclaim the joy of the Gospel to a city, a diocese and a world so desperately in need of it.”
— Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, Feb. 6, 2018
The weather was freezing, wet and overcast, although the sun did break through briefly as the grand Liturgy got under way.
Bishop McKnight was home.
“It was a very hopeful day, looking forward, toward the future,” he recalled in interviews leading up to the fifth anniversary of his ordination and installation as Jefferson City’s fourth bishop.
“I had no idea what would be before me,” he said. “But I had a strong sense of hope and trust. And that has carried me through the five years that I’ve been bishop here.”
From priest to prelate
A startling difference Bishop McKnight noticed between being a parish priest and a diocesan bishop is the rhythm of Liturgies and the Sacraments.
“Through most of my life as a parish priest, I celebrated daily Mass, usually with a small congregation of 50 or less, on a regular basis, preaching every day,” he said.
Now, he rarely has that experience.
“Because my congregation, my assembly, is an entire diocese,” he noted. “I’m asked to share myself with everyone and not just one particular parish.”
So, one of his unexpected joys is “just being able to celebrate a regular Mass with people.”
As a bishop, he was surprised to discover how much he enjoys traversing this vast diocese to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation in parishes near and far.
Bishops often carry that task out at a jarringly ambitious pace during Lent and throughout the Easter Season.
“Having a full day here at the Chancery office and doing other events and attending meetings and then traveling sometimes up to two to three hours away, then celebrating the Confirmation Mass and then driving another two to three hours back can make for a very long day!” he observed.
At first a source of anxiety, those parish pilgrimages have become a source of anticipation and enjoyment.
“The time I get to spend with the youth who are excited about the faith — it rejuvenates me,” he said.
It also reminds him how receptive and appreciative the people are for the ministry of their priests and their bishop.
“Yes, what happens here at the Chancery is important, it’s needed and necessary,” he said. “But, the presence of the bishop and how much that means to people — that has lifted me up quite a bit.”
Upon his installation, Bishop McKnight also began acquainting himself with his requisite duties to the national and universal Church.
“Each of us has responsibility for a local Church, the diocese,” he stated, “but we also have our obligation, our duty, to assist with the national Church in terms of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and all that goes on there — and then, from time-to-time, even beyond that with the Universal Church.
“I recognize now that I’m a hinge, if you will, in terms of our Catholic community, in representing us to the larger Church but also representing the larger Church back to our people,” he said.
That becomes especially clear to him whenever he makes an official visit to another diocese on behalf of the people here.
He has made several such journeys overseas to see and acknowledge what generous donors here have helped accomplish, especially in dioceses that allow their priests to serve here as missionaries.
“Their reception of me as the Bishop of Jefferson City is very warm and very meaningful,” he noted. “It gives me a much more profound sense of our great Catholic communion and the bond that we share, even though I don’t know them personally.”
Darkness and light
Bishop McKnight thought back to the weeks he spent preparing to move here and assume the duties of bishop while completing his work as a pastor in his home Diocese of Wichita, Kansas.
“That transition period was quite stressful,” he recalled.
If he could go back to that time and tell himself one thing, it would be: “Trust more in the Holy Spirit and trust less in yourself.”
“We are not being called to fulfill the mission of the Church on our own,” he noted. “God is always there to help us and to guide us.
“He often surprises us with people who just happen to be there when we need them,” the bishop added. “It’s so providential. That’s happened so much in my life.”
He called to mind bittersweet memories of the COVID-19 pandemic — the sickness, uncertainty and loss that it brought, along with heroic and diligent responses from people in the Chancery and in parishes throughout the diocese.
“It kind of forced us to be Church in a different way, and we still constantly have to work on that,” he said.
He recalled having to celebrate the Easter Vigil nearly alone in the Cathedral of St. Joseph that year, and the joy and relief that came with opening Masses back up to the public a few weeks later.
“I hope we never have to see that again!” he stated. “But whatever will come, God is always with us, and I have that surety of faith.”
Lights on a hill
Bishop McKnight looks forward to the completion of an extensive renovation and renewal of the Cathedral of St. Joseph, profoundly enhancing its functionality, beauty, Catholic identity and capacity for hospitality and welcome.
He sees the renovation as a good analogy to the journey the diocese’s parishes have been taking through the three-year diocesan pastoral plan, “A Steward’s Journey: Our Call to Greater Communion.”
That building-up will continue with “Shaping Our Future Together,” a new and concurrent process for planning at the deanery level.
“It’s a strengthening of our communion as Catholics in what we believe and how we pray and especially how we live,” said Bishop McKnight.
He’s convinced that effectively preaching Jesus’s Good News to new generations will require enhanced collaboration among parishes and additional formation for laypeople in every parish.
“The better the cooperation of the parishes, the stronger the ministry we can provide, the stronger the services we can provide, not only to our Catholics but to the wider community,” he said.
That, he believes, will be a key to helping every parish become a thriving parish, which is the goal for “Shaping Our Future Together.”
Bishop McKnight also wants ensure that youth ministry across the diocese is drawing young people into a genuine encounter with the person of Christ while forming their minds for discipleship.
“They have to want to be here!” he stated. “They have to want to come, in order for us to celebrate the Sacraments with them and also to teach them about the faith.”
That, he’s convinced, will require a greater understanding of vocation — of everyone’s unique calling from God to place themselves at the service of the Church and work together to build up God’s Kingdom.
“I’m looking forward to the day when we have a program set up where lay men and women can be instituted as acolytes and lectors and with the new office of catechist,” he said.
“Trying new things”
With his fifth episcopal anniversary approaching, Bishop McKnight asks for prayers, especially for docility and courage.
He spoke of docility as “an openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit — which requires courage and fortitude, which I think is a very important gift of the Holy Spirit.”
“When you have that trust and sense of confidence in the providence of God, then you’re allowing God to have you do things you would not otherwise do or be capable of,” he said.
“So, I would ask for more prayers that I would be DOCILE to the will of the Holy Spirit and that I have the strength, the courage, the fortitude to embrace God’s will,” he stated.
He believes the people of this diocese can help God answer that prayer.
“One thing the laity in particular can do to help in achieving the life and mission of the Church is to recognize that we need to change,” he said.
He believes “we are being called to do a better job of fulfilling our mission as the Catholic Church in Mid-Missouri.”
“I don’t know the specifics of that,” he stated, “but I do know, looking at all the data and where we have been, and the state of the world, that we have to be open to trying new things to be more effective as disciples of Jesus Christ.”