By Jay Nies
Two longtime acquaintances see great potential for Bishop-elect W. Shawn McKnight as he prepares to lead the Jefferson City diocese.
Father Daniel Merz was associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat of Divine Worship at the same time Bishop-elect McKnight was director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
Their offices were next door to each other’s, and they lived in the same priests’ residence in Washington, D.C.
In that time, Fr. Merz found his colleague to be hard-working, professional, competent, and passionate about spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Fr. Merz, who is now pastor of the Linn and Frankenstein parishes, also deemed the bishop-elect to be a trustworthy confidante.
Pope Francis announced on Nov. 22 that Bishop-elect McKnight, a priest of the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, will succeed Bishop John R. Gaydos as bishop of Jefferson City.
Bishop Gaydos, 74, who has been serving since 1997, will retire upon Bishop-elect McKnight’s ordination and installation on Feb. 6.
The bishop-elect has been called upon to lead a diocese that’s in the midst of evaluating the vitality and viability of its parishes and looking for ways to serve the People of God with a diminishing number of priests.
Fr. Merz believes that in addition to acting upon these realities, Bishop-elect McKnight will call for renewed emphasis on evangelization and promotion of vocations.
Fr. Merz is convinced that while no one enjoys making hard decisions, Bishop-elect McKnight will step-up and make those decisions whenever necessary.
The priest took note that from the moment of Bishop-elect McKnight’s introduction, he has been referring to the Church in central and northeastern Missouri as “our diocese.”
“He’s all in,” said Fr. Merz. “I hear him saying ‘we’ and ‘us.’”
Fr. Merz believes the priests of this diocese will find Bishop-elect McKnight to be a dedicated advocate, effective motivator and kindred spirit.
“I think he’s a good listener and a good collaborator,” said Fr. Merz. “That doesn’t mean that he’ll just do whatever we ask him to do, but I think he will hear what we have to say and be eager to minister alongside us.”
Bishop-elect McKnight ran a marathon while serving in the nation’s capital.
“When he was in the diocese for the announcement, I asked him if he still runs, and he said yes, he does,” said Fr. Merz.
The priest called to mind Pope Francis’ call for priests to “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.”
“I think Bishop-elect McKnight will be out amidst the sheep,” the priest stated.
Fr. Merz believes the faithful will find similarities and complementary traits between the retiring bishop — who plans to remain in Jefferson City — and his successor.
“I think one of Bishop Gaydos’ strong points is that he’s very sociable and a great storyteller,” said Fr. Merz. “People enjoy him personally.
“I think we’re going to see more of that with our new bishop,” the priest continued. “I think we’ll see (Bishop-elect McKnight) wanting to get out and meet with the priests and get to know the people here.”
A transition of this magnitude can be overwhelming, especially for those directly involved.
Bishop-elect McKnight is “leaving behind his home diocese, his brother priests, his family and coming to a whole new world, a whole new family, a whole new diocese,” said Fr. Merz. “I think that’s certainly worthy of our prayers.”
Not in haste
Mike Burrus and his wife Kathy have known Bishop-elect McKnight since he was assigned to their parish as a newly ordained priest 22 years ago.
In that time, Mr. Burrus has seen the future bishop excel as a minister of the Gospel and grow as a leader and decision-maker.
“We were not at all surprised to find out that he was being made a bishop,” said Mr. Burrus. “Those of us who have known him for a long time always believed that this day would come.”
Mr. Burrus grew up in Blessed Sacrament parish in Wichita, Kansas, and Mrs. Burrus has been a parishioner since they got married there 40 years ago.
They also have a lake home near Camdenton and attend St. Anthony parish when they’re in Missouri.
Mr. Burrus believes Bishop-elect McKnight will fit very well into the Jefferson City diocese.
“I’m sure he will not micromanage any of the parishes, but he will be able to support them in any way he can to make sure they are solid, successful, growing and caring parishes,” he said.
Mr. Burrus said Bishop-elect McKnight doesn’t act in haste, but neither does he retreat from making difficult decisions.
“And those decisions are grounded in research and prayer and deliberation and are well-founded according to Canon Law,” said Mr. Burrus.
“When he makes changes, they’re not the ones he wants to make personally, but are the ones he knows he needs to make pastorally,” he said.
Hour of our death
After a few years as associate pastor of Blessed Sacrament parish, Bishop-elect McKnight was sent to Rome for further studies. He eventually returned to Blessed Sacrament as pastor.
That’s when Mr. and Mrs. Burrus got to see how Bishop-elect McKnight ministered to both of their mothers, who were in failing health.
“We got to interact with him as children of parents needing the care of a loving priest in end-of-life scenarios,” said Mr. Burrus.
Mrs. Burrus’ mother had a severe stroke and could not communicate well during the last 11 years of her life.
“So many times, Fr. McKnight stopped by on his own to not just visit her, but to hear her confession,” Mr. Burrus recalled.
He and his wife were inspired by the priest’s patience and eagerness to help the woman find peace and mercy.
Mr. Burrus’ own mother died four months after his wife’s mother’s death. The future bishop would drop by to minister to her in her last days, too.
“One evening, which we thought would be her last evening, he stayed with us because wanted to be there with her when she died,” said Mr. Burrus. “He stayed with us until after midnight, praying with us, praying for us, praying with her, for her.
“It turns out that she didn’t die that night. But what an impact that night had on us, that he would spend all of that time with us,” he said.
Listening before acting
The Burruses have seen Bishop-elect McKnight grow as a leader.
“He’s very organized, approaches things in a very analytical way, collects information and makes decisions,” said Mr. Burrus. “And he’s also a very good implementer in making sure those decisions get carried out.”
It stands to reason that a pastor, like a bishop, will have to reach conclusions that don’t make everyone happy.
“But with him, you know that those decisions will always be made with full input from the proper people — whether it be parishioners, parish staff or other priests,” Mr. Burrus stated.
Mr. Burrus spent 12 years as an administrator at Kapaun Mount Carmel High School on east side of Wichita. In that capacity, he found Bishop-elect McKnight to be a steadfast advocate for Catholic education at all levels.
“He was as supportive as any priest I interacted with in making sure our high school was the best it could be, that it was serving his young parishioners and helping them become solid, lifelong Catholics,” said Mr. Burrus.
Mr. Burrus is now retired, but his daughter is assistant principal at Church of the Magdalen School, at the parish where Bishop-elect McKnight has been stationed since 2015.
“She loves ‘Fr. Shawn,’” said Mr. Burrus. “He is very supportive of maintaining quality allowing its leaders to take the lead.”
Gifts to share
A common theme in Bishop-elect McKnight’s preaching is stewardship.
“He talks about it often,” said Mr. Burrus. “He talks about it in every facet.”
For the bishop-elect, stewardship means living as a fully committed Catholic in terms of time, talent and treasure.
“A recurring message with him is that we all need to be good stewards of the graces we receive from God, and we must be willing to share them to His glory,” said Mr. Burrus.
He acknowledged that Bishop-elect McKnight’s departure to Missouri will leave a void in his home diocese.
“But it will give someone else an opportunity, whose already ready to move into a responsibility like the ones he’s had, and his parish will keep on going,” he said.