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VOL. 42 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 17, 2018

Trading military career for life of a priest

Time management lessons help him juggle his calling, 8 children

By Al Lesar

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Excuse Emily Armstrong for laughing when asked about her hobbies.

It was one of those deep laughs, the kind that gets triggered by some sort of outrageous stimulus.

OK, lesson learned. When a lady has been married to a Byzantine Catholic priest for 20 years and has been home-schooling eight children – ranging in age from 4 to 19 – maybe hobbies might be a distant luxury.

“Somehow, we manage to make it,” Emily says. “It’s a mystery how we get it done sometimes. We’re together in this. I’ve learned you can’t think too far ahead.”

The Rev. Richard Armstrong is a 46-year-old priest who is a member of the Byzantine Eparchy of Parma, Ohio, and an employee of the Diocese of Knoxville. Early in his life, Father Richard had a military career in mind (his father was in the Army and worked in the Pentagon; his mother was in the FBI). After graduating from Virginia Military Institute, the native of northern Virginia turned down an officer’s commission and went to the seminary.

“The military and the seminary were both very disciplined lives,” Father Richard explains. “It wasn’t a big adjustment. I had a desire to serve.”

Now, more than a couple decades later, besides being the assistant director of the Office of Christian Formation in Knoxville, he has taken on the challenge of being the parochial administrator for St. Joseph Catholic Church in Norris and St. Therese Catholic Church in Clinton.

Kind of a full plate for all involved.

“My time at VMI taught me a lot about time management,” Father Richard says. “During my adult life, I have always had multiple responsibilities.

“For example, immediately prior to working for the diocese, I was a high school teacher, department chair, class dean, parish director of religious education, vice chair of the parish pastoral council, all the while as I was completing a graduate degree in theology.

“I also had four children at the time. Busy seems to be my norm. Many years ago, I realized that time does not belong to me. Rather, it is gift from God to be used in his service.

“My responsibility is to discern the will of God at each moment that he gives me and, with his grace, to do it. I am far from perfect in doing this, but it is that to which I aspire.

God gives us all the same number of hours per day, we choose how to use them. My hope is that I use them in serving my family and the others that God puts in my path.”

Starting with a prayer

Father Richard’s first order of business when he walks into his office each morning is to touch and then kiss a medal given to him from Mother Teresa, then say a quick prayer to her for strength to get through the day.

“What struck me was that (Mother Teresa) was such a tiny, little lady,” he says. “You felt such an overwhelming power coming out of her. She radiated God’s grace.

“Even though she was so tiny, I felt small in front of her.”

Father Richard had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Kolkata) while in the seminary in Maryland.

“We were all on the edge of our seat,” Father Richard recalls of the anticipation. “She came in the room like a gust of wind. Praying to her every day, I feel closer to her now than when she was right in front of me.”

In 2009, he was ordained as a Byzantine Catholic priest. The custom of that Eastern Rite is that priests marry. He and his wife Emily have been married for 20 years.

Emily and Richard met 22 years ago when they were both staff members at a summer camp. She had recently graduated from the University of Maryland. She had converted to Catholicism during college.

“I was thinking about joining the military,” Emily says. “I had no plan to marry and have children. But, like they say, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Father Richard was Emily’s steady guide through the process of enhancing her faith.

“In the 20 years we’ve been married, there have only been a handful of days that we’ve been apart,” Emily adds. “We have some great communication. We have to. We’re able to hear things through.”

Cultivating the faith

Managing the daily needs of eight children can be a daunting task. Add to it the education of seven of them (their oldest daughter just completed her freshman year at Pellissippi State Community College) and the pace can be frantic.

“Faith is a big part of the home-school curriculum that we have,” Emily points out. “It was important to us that our children live their faith. We have a lot of individual activities outside (their Powell) home that are suitable for the different age levels.”

Developing academic high-achievers is hardly the mission for the Armstrongs.

“I always feel inadequate, but I do what I can for them,” Emily says. “All we want them to be is faithful people.”

Whether it’s the Byzantine Rite or Latin (Roman) Rite, developing children into faithful people is the premise of the Catholic faith. Father Richard has been certified in bi-ritual faculties, so he will maintain the long-standing Roman Catholic customs and procedures at St. Joseph and St. Therese.

In other words, nothing about the Mass will change.

“I had a Byzantine father and a Latin mother,” Father Richard continues. “I feel comfortable with both of them.”

Father Richard explains some of the big-picture differences between the two:

Byzantine churches don’t have pews. People stand throughout the service.

During a Byzantine service, the priest has his back to the people and is facing east. Incense is used liberally, and the entire Mass is chanted.

The calendar is different from the Latin Rite and some readings aren’t found.

“We all believe the same things,” Father Richard says. “It’s just expressed differently.”

Father Richard recounts he first heard his calling in high school when a Catholic priest was sent to northern Virginia, near Fredericksburg, to establish a Catholic mission. There was no church in the vicinity. The priest hired Father Richard, a freshman in high school, to do odd jobs around the church. He stayed for four years.

“We didn’t have a church there, so I was there through the building process,” Father Richard says. “I got to know the priest well. I’d do a lot of side projects, mow the grass, that sort of stuff. I learned so much just being around all that for so long.”

Incident doesn’t go away

Google Rev. Richard Armstrong’s name and there’s a misleading and incomplete news account from 2011 that won’t go away.

Father Richard and a parishioner from his Knoxville Byzantine church regularly would go to the Volunteer Women’s Medical Clinic in Knoxville where abortions were performed. They would be on the side of the building, off the property, and pray. They would bring a large cross and other icons.

“It wasn’t a protest,” he adds. “We had no signs. We weren’t there to be seen. We were there to pray.”

That fateful day, Father Richard says he had left the site when their prayers were finished and was in his car. The parishioner was ready to put the large cross and its cinder block stand in his truck when the facility’s director confronted the parishioner. She grabbed the cross. He had one end of it and she had the other.

“I said, ‘Let her have it. Let go of it,’” Father Richard recalls. “She took the cross on the abortion clinic property.”

Father Richard says the director threatened to call the police. He was all for that. Hopefully, he would get his cross back, because he wasn’t going to enter the clinic. The police arrested Father Richard and his parishioner before listening to their side of the story.

After several hours in the booking process, Father Richard was released on his own recognizance, while the parishioner had a $1,000 bond because the director claimed he assaulted her with the cross.

The court process took a couple years before all the charges were dropped and the court record was expunged. But the original news story – without any resolution – is still alive on the internet.

“That’s part of the difficulty today,” Father Richard says. “We ultimately got what we wanted. The clinic was closed a couple years later. That’s what our prayers were for.

“If I had to do it again, and I knew it would close the clinic, I would do it again.”

A true calling

Emily feels as confident and committed to her calling as a priest’s wife as Father Richard does to his.

“A lot of prayer has gone into this,” Emily says. “I pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary who has taught me how to say ‘yes.’

“We’ve had our trials, but we’ve both grown into this life little by little. It can be a challenge to find time together.”

Sooooooo…. What’s the best thing about being married to a Byzantine Catholic priest?

“I can always go to confession,” Emily adds with a laugh. “I still have questions about my faith, so I know where to go for the answers.”

Even if there’s no time for a hobby.

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