TYLER – As the Diocese of Tyler marks the 30th anniversary of its establishment as the Church in East Texas, Bishop Joseph E. Strickland said it is important both to look back and take stock of the past and to look forward and prepare for the future. Above all, though, he said, the Diocese of Tyler must always keep in mind why it was called into existence in the first place.
Surrounded by priests of the diocese and assisted by deacons, with religious and laity filling the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to capacity, Bishop Strickland celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving Feb. 17 marking the 30 years that have gone before and ushering in the next stage in the life of the Diocese of Tyler.
Also present was Bishop Álvaro Corrada, SJ, third Bishop of Tyler and Bishop Strickland’s predecessor, now Bishop of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.
“Happy anniversary!” Bishop Strickland greeted as he began his homily. “It truly is a joy to gather, celebrating 30 years of the life of our Catholic community.”
He offered “a very special welcome to Bishop Álvaro Corrada, my predecessor, whom we all know so well. He is very much with us in prayer as we continue to journey as people of faith. There haven’t been many times when this cathedral has had two bishops here at the same time. But I think it’s a sign of the way that the Holy Spirit continues to work among us and call us to live in the light of Christ and teach and live his truth.”
He pointed to a chalice and paten commissioned specially from Rome for the anniversary. The sacred vessels, which he blessed during the Mass, will travel around the diocese during this year to be used in parish Masses.
“I call your attention to this chalice here, a beautiful gift that you have donated to yourselves, a gift for the diocese. This diocesan chalice, commemorating 30 years of the local Church here in (East Texas), will travel around the diocese in the year to come. I hope that all your priests will have the chance to celebrate with this chalice. It truly is a beautiful gift that you give as an expression of faith to each other.”
The anniversary Mass offered those gathered an opportunity to remember and reflect on what Bishop Strickland called “the blessings and all the challenges of the past 30 years.”
The creation of the Diocese of Tyler was announced Dec. 12, 1986, in Rome during the pontificate of St. Pope John Paul II. The diocese was officially erected Feb. 24, 1987. Msgr. Charles E. Herzig, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, was ordained and installed first Bishop of Tyler that evening in a Mass celebrated in what for one night was known as the “Holy Oil Palace,” a place more known for rodeos and monster truck rallies than liturgical celebrations.
The diocese given Bishop Herzig that night was a stitched-together collection of parishes that had been on the fringes of three other dioceses – Dallas, Beaumont, and Galveston-Houston – and that were small, predominantly rural, and isolated. The new diocese encompassed 32 counties spread over 23,000 square miles and was populated by roughly 30,000 Catholics in 41 parishes and missions. Most counties had only one Catholic church; two had none at all. Even Smith County, home of the see city of Tyler, had only one.
This vast patchwork was served by 39 priests, a handful of deacons, and just a few communities of religious.
Three decades later, the Diocese of Tyler, while still largely rural and still grappling with issues of isolation, has changed dramatically. Spread now over 33 counties, the diocese boasts more than 120,000 Catholics in 70 parishes and missions served by 88 priests and more than 100 deacons. Men and women religious from 22 communities minister in a variety of ways. Every county is home to at least one church, and many have two or three.
The diocese once considered too under-populated, too rural, and too poor to succeed has since established a thriving Catholic Charities that serves the poor and the immigrant; countless St. Vincent de Paul Societies, food pantries, and soup kitchens; four Catholic hospitals; two Catholic high schools; an efficient Tribunal staffed with Rome-trained judges; a Faith Formation Office that has trained and endorsed some 3,000 catechists; and an Ethics and Integrity Office devoted to protecting children and vulnerable adults that consistently exceeds standards set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It also became, under Bishop Corrada, a vocations powerhouse. Where Bishops Herzig and Carmody had depended mostly on “supply priests,” largely from other nations, to serve the people of God, Bishop Corrada concentrated on nurturing local vocations and recruiting seminarians to ordain specifically for this diocese. He also devoted resources to sending young priests to Rome for further education.
At present, the Diocese of Tyler has 13 seminarians in various stages of preparation for the priesthood.
Bishop Strickland has seen those challenges and blessings up close. Ordained a priest of the Diocese of Dallas in 1985, he was parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception Church in Tyler when the new diocese was created, thus becoming a priest of the Diocese of Tyler. He was one of the priests assisting when Bishop Herzig was ordained, and in the three decades since, has served the Church in East Texas as a parish priest, vocations director, judicial vicar, and administrator, twice, while the diocese awaited a new bishop.
He was named fourth Bishop of Tyler on Sept. 29, 2012, and ordained Nov. 28 at a Mass in Caldwell Auditorium in Tyler before parishioners from his native St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Atlanta and the various other parishes he’d served.
At the anniversary Mass, he called upon all gathered in the cathedral, and throughout the diocese, to remember those early days and the distance the Church in East Texas has come since its founding. Even more strongly, he called upon the faithful to remember the mission that has animated the whole Church from her very beginning.
“The beautiful Collect prayer of today’s Mass for the Holy Church speaks of us, all of us, as being the leaven and the soul of human society,” he said in his homily. “The leaven and the soul. That is who we are called to be.
“We are called to teach Christ, to live Christ. Probably for most of us, whether bishop, priest, deacon, mother, father, religious sister or brother, wherever we find ourselves, we teach best by example. And our Lord and Savior, with his wonderful words and teachings, taught by example as well.”
Unusually for him, Bishop Strickland delivered his homily from the cathedra, the bishop’s chair, a marked change from his familiar habit of roaming around sanctuaries as he preaches. He noted the break with tradition.
“I realize that it’s somewhat unusual in our practice to be seated during the homily,” he said. “The liturgy does call for it, but most of the time I’m out there wandering around a bit. But I sit here as we celebrate 30 years as a local Church to emphasize how the Lord has taught us, working through four different bishops, many priests and deacons, religious, and the wonderful priestly people of God.
“This cathedra, yes, is the bishop’s chair,” he said, “but it is mainly about teaching Christ. And we thank Bishop Corrada who always did that, with his predecessor Bishop (Edmond) Carmody, and of course Bishop (Charles E.) Herzig. Pray for me that I don’t just sit here, that I’ll get to work proclaiming the truth this world needs so desperately.”
Bishop Strickland dedicated the Mass to “my brother priests, because, as Bishop Corrada taught us a few years ago, if it doesn’t happen in the parish, it doesn’t happen in the diocese. Wise words that I carry with me. You’re the ones there day to day, in sickness and in health, in tragedy and in celebration, in darkness and in light, being that leaven and soul to your community, whether Paris to the north or Waskom to the east, Diboll to the south, and all in between. And I can’t leave out Gun Barrel City,” he added to laughter from the congregation. “Wherever you are, fathers, my dear brothers in the priesthood, you’re the ones on the front lines. And so I dedicate this to you, because you are who we need, serving the Church in all these communities, with the support of deacons and religious, and, hopefully, a bishop who is not an obstacle but an encouragement, as my predecessors have been so well.”
The congregation gave a long and loud round of applause to the priests, and the bishop used that as an opportunity to encourage those studying for the priesthood.
“I hope the seminarians heard that applause, not as a matter of pride, but as a matter of energy, to serve the Lord with joy in their priesthood,” he said. “I know that my brother bishop, Bishop Corrada, all my brother priests, and the deacons who share in sacred orders (would agree) there is no better life, young men. All the obstacles, all the studies, all the papers, are worth it and more. Study hard, work and develop and grow, allow yourselves to be formed, like this beautiful chalice, formed to serve, formed to teach Christ. Look to my brother priests, your mentors, to be that. Talk to these men; get to know them in your journeys.
“My brothers,” he urged the gathered priests, “reach out to the seminarians, support them and encourage other young men to embrace this beautiful call, this leaven that only we can provide to a world that needs that light so desperately.
“The Church gathers around her priests at every altar in the diocese, and beautifully we grow – in liturgy, in teaching Christ, in working with the youth, in forming for the sacraments and preparing for matrimony, in all the ways we are called to teach. The priests are essential, and they need the support of the deacons, their right hands working in our parish communities.”
Bishop Strickland reminded all present of what the work of the Church is, and what those who make up her body are called to do.
“The Scriptures today speak beautifully of what we celebrate every time we gather at the altar,” he said. “‘Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem, your light is come. The glory of the Lord shines upon you’ (Isaiah 60:1). We have the light. We are called to joyfully and powerfully and with great clarity teach that light, share the light of Christ. I thank you for all the ways you do that.
“From the Book of Revelation, with all those mysterious images, ‘It gleamed with the splendor of God’ (Revelation 21:11). The splendor of God!” he exclaimed. “What a treasure we share in our priesthood with his son Jesus Christ, and all of us as a priestly people. That is what we offer to human society, this leaven. It is not just daily food. It is beyond imagining. The splendor of God calls us to rise up from the baseness of humanity and our sin, to rise up to being children of God.
“And finally in the Gospel, ‘Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). Let us remember that, all of us, baptized in the Lord: ‘Without me, you can do nothing.’ Without Christ, how can we be priests? Without Christ, how can we be the priestly people called to share the splendor of God?”
He said the 30th anniversary is “hopefully” a day of “great joy and celebration.” But, he added, “it really is only a moment, a pause of thanksgiving, because the Christ of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Christ for the ages, is always calling us to tomorrow, to bring this light to the little children, who will be the teenagers, who will then be the next generation of mothers and fathers, of priests and brothers and sisters, working in the vineyard of the Lord.
“We give thanks that, for 30 years, we have done well, we have grown,” Bishop Strickland said. “But, brothers and sisters, we have much more to do. Much more teaching, much more of the splendor of God to share. So let us be on our way. Let us turn the corner with great care, with great love, with great dedication to our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Without Christ, we are empty, we are lifeless, we are sad,” he said. “With Christ, we share in the splendor of God.”