A new study published by Crisis magazine suggests that large dioceses of the Catholic Church should consider splitting in two and ranks the Knoxville diocese as the top in the nation for the Catholic community’s vibrancy and the bishop’s effective leadership.
Reverend Rodger Hunter-Hall and Steven Wagner, in the February/March 2007 issue of Crisis, a faith-based magazine published in Washington, show that smaller dioceses are more likely to be active and healthy.
The new study followed growth trends in the Catholic Church from the past 10 years. A Knoxville diocese spokesperson said the study considered information in three categories over the past 10 years. The three factors include: the number of priests ordained per overall Catholic population, the number of adult conversions and changes in the laity’s size.
“It’s a sign of the dynamic nature of the Catholic church in East Tennessee,” a Knoxville diocese press release said.
Six dioceses were rated highest — Knoxville; Savannah, Ga.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Alexandria, La.; Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla. and Santa Fe, N.M.
What makes these dioceses special is that their bishops are more effective working with priests of smaller communities.
In the early 1990s, Knoxville and Nashville were separated into two dioceses. Now, the bishop has a much smaller diocese to oversee.
“With smaller dioceses, the bishop is not someone you see once in your life,” said Reverend Paul Rospond of the John XXIII Church at the University of Tennessee.
In the case of Knoxville, there is a smaller Catholic population per capita. Only 2.9 percent of the population is Catholic.
“People are very much engaged in their church, and there’s a good camaraderie,” Rospond said.
In New York, the Catholic community’s growth makes the bishop’s responsibilities less sufficient in congregations where size overburdens efforts. Consequently, the bishop’s relationship with the congregation is jeopardized.
“I’ve worked in New York,” Rospond said. “There’s a vast difference when you have, say, 50 to 60 active priests.”
Catholics in New York have less direct connection with the Catholic community. This is especially true of priests and congregations.
“New York is so big that it’s very impersonal,” Rospond said.
More so than the northern region of the United States, other Christians in the South don’t fully understand the rituals and practices of the Catholic religion. This tends to strengthen Catholic relationships from within, but it also creates a stronger desire to develop relationships with the broader community. Because the Southern region has fewer Catholics, there are more opportunities for evangelization within the community of non-Catholics, Rospond said.
“My experience coming into this diocese has always been one of warmth and welcome,” he said.
Although Rospond has always been Catholic, he comes to the Southern region with an outsider’s perspective of Southern Catholicism.
Rospond said the Catholic Church in the South is growing faster than in other regions of the country. More and more northerners are moving to this part of the country and want to attend Catholic churches. The other growth pattern is the surge of immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America, who predominantly practice Catholicism. These growth patterns, however, haven’t reached intolerable capacities yet, he said.
Knoxville, the No. 1 ranked diocese, is undergoing growth patterns with record highs presently.
Serving Catholics in East Tennessee is becoming a greater challenge than ever before; however, these challenges are currently being met, Catholic Church officials said.
“This is another area which will probably bring a lot of pressure down the line, so that small-town feel that helped bring us to the top will start to bring us down,” Rospond said.
If growth trends continue uncontrollably, Tennessee dioceses will begin to resemble the less vibrant dioceses in the country, he added.
The article in Crisis magazine emphasized the bishop’s role in Catholic communities. The Catholic Church has so many external factors determining vitality that region, size and population change fail to definitively reflect the good or the bad in dioceses, and thus the bishop’s role demands a stronger leadership position.
In the case in Knoxville, the bishop’s role is in fitting proportion to the size of the community, whereas, in New York, for example, the overwhelming number of Catholics renders the bishop less effective. The bishop is constantly pressured to actively improve relationships within the diocese.
What makes Knoxville and the other five top-ranked regions unique is the importance of the bishop’s leadership throughout the diocese. Hunter-Hall and Wagner report that diocesan leadership is the number one factor obvious in the smaller regions.
“Quality leadership is the sense that the bishop knows you and has a good reputation for being very personal and pastoral and engaging,” Rospond said.
He further elaborated that quality leadership is also being responsible to the people served.
Joseph E. Kurtz is the bishop of the diocese of Knoxville and notes the unity of the bishop and priests.
“A good bishop needs to be both a brother and father to his priests,” Kurtz said.
This philosophy develops “the small-town feel” created by bishops. Kurtz noted that the study “captures the key role of the bishop taking personal initiative.”
In Knoxville, a cycle of well-attended gatherings deepens priestly commitment. An October three-day retreat, a January overnight gathering, a June three-day convocation, bimonthly general meetings, small-group gatherings with the bishop and a number of support groups contribute to the bishop’s personal initiative over the diocese.
“If we were 10 times as large, I couldn’t do that,” Kurtz said.
Active involvement of the congregation throughout the diocese resulted in staggering participation in diocesan activities. One recent Knoxville innovation is the “Capital Stewardship Campaign,” through which more than 50 families pledged financial support for the Catholic Church.
Kurtz anticipates the same results through an evangelization outreach program called “Why Catholic?”
“(The program) is a source of adult faith formation,” Kurtz said.

By Nick Yugo
Staff Writer