Saturday, April 22, 2017



Several years ago, when I was designing annual priest convocations, I designed one where priests would be offered the chance to "renew" their commitment to their promise of obedience to their bishop and their fellow priests. This was done in several dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Louisville at its annual convocation at Saint Meinrad Seminary.  
I was fortunate enough to get a photo of myself renewing the promise I made to Archbishop McDonough and "his successors" at my priesthood ordination. Here I am renewing it to Archbishop Kelly, Archbishop McDonough's successor. Below is a homily I gave in conjunction with that renewal ceremony.

“Conscientious Fellow Workers with the Bishop in Caring for the Flock”
June 8, 2006
Rev. J. Ronald Knott

Jesus summoned the twelve and sent them out two by two to preach, drive out demons and cure the sick. Later they gathered together again at a deserted place to rest because things were so busy they had no time to eat. Then James and John made a move for the best seats in the kingdom which caused the other ten to be indignant. Jesus summoned them again and reminded them that true greatness for them was service, not power. 

Working alone, working too much and working against each other have always been the enemies of priests. They are all addressed in today’s readings. It’s worth noting that things have not changed all that much in ministry over the last 2,000 years. Presbyterates are still plagued with these problems even today and around the country they are in deep trouble again because of them.

The readings present the problem, yes, but they also give us the solution: we are a team, we don’t have to do it all ourselves and we need to support and honor each priest and his gifts. As a presbyterate, we are also a body with many gifted parts like the one Paul talks about, working cohesively under our head, the bishop. Without each one adding his gifts, doing his part and reverencing his brother priests, this body is diminished. This is a living body. It needs constant nurturing and feeding or it will get sick and become unable to function. We must constantly confront our loneliness, our stress and our competition or they will kill us.

The priests, who make up the majority of every diocesan presbyterate, make two solemn promises: celibacy and obedience. (It might be good to remind ourselves here that religious priests working under a diocesan bishop are full members of that presbyterate as long as they are working in that diocese. They are not just visitors or mere associates.)

Rather than negatives, the promises of celibacy and obedience are meant to “free us up for ministry.” Celibacy makes it possible for us to become that “intimate sacramental brotherhood for the purpose of ministry” that the church speaks about.

Of the two promises, the only one we ever hear much about after we make it is, celibacy. We never hear too much about “the other promise,” the promise of obedience. It, too, makes it possible for us to be that “intimate sacramental brotherhood for the purpose of ministry” that the church speaks about. 

The older I get, the more I appreciate the wisdom of our two promises. Regardless of all the pious exaggeration written about the beauties of celibacy, I agree that, if embraced and lived freely, it can be freeing. It can free one up for a greater good, for full-time service to the People of God.   The only time I have ever thought much about obedience, or needed to, was two weeks after I was ordained, when I go my first assignment. As one who was born in the country, but urbanized quite well by the seminary system, I had had my heart set on being an associate pastor in a large suburban parish in Louisville, where restaurants, theaters and friends were all around. What I got was an assignment to the “home missions” of our diocese, on the edge of Appalachia, a parish the size of the state of Delaware with a Catholic population of one tenth of one percent, as far away from Louisville as one could get.  My family and friends were three hours away. 

I cried, I pleaded and I even took to my bed to no avail!  I had to go “out of obedience.” I was a bit like those people who join the National Guard in peace time, not imagining that they would ever have to fight a war! I balked at first, but with God’s help, I was able to turn my mind around. Since I didn’t get what I wanted, I decided to want what I got. That, I believe, is part of the true spirit behind the “promise of obedience.”  I went because the bishop has the “big picture” and said he needed me there.  I went because I promised him and his successors that I would go where the Church needed my gifts. Yes, I was upset and disappointed. Yes, I tried to change his mind, but in the end, I knew that it was me who needed to change my mind. I did change it, not grudgingly, but with as much good spirit as I could muster. (By the way, that assignment turned out to be fabulous, one that led directly to later assignments that were all  the love of my life.)

Over the years, my understanding and appreciation of “obedience” has evolved. It has matured.  I have come to see that the “promise of obedience” has implications beyond the person of the bishop. It includes a promise to fellow members of my presbyterate. Rather than making me a slave to the whims of one particular person, the bishop, it is really a promise to be a “team player” with the bishop AND the other members of my presbyterate for the sake of the common purpose we share: effective ministry to the People of God. It is this understanding of the “promise of obedience,” a promise to be a “team player,” that I believe that will lead to a renewal of our presbyterates. The theology is quite clear: we are not priests, one by one. We are priests in a presbyterate under a bishop.  The very idea of “lone rangers” and “priests in private practice” are heretical!

Remember these promises? You made them! I made them! We meant them, didn’t we? Didn’t we? (1) “Are you resolved, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail, the office of the priesthood in the presbyteral order as a conscientious fellow workers with the bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock?” (2) Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?”  How do those promises sound to you after all these years? How do they sound today as we prepare to let go of the bishop we have known and open our arms to a yet-unknown new bishop? 

Priests do not carry out their own ministry, they are fellow workers in helping the bishop carry out his ministry! For the bishop to carry out his ministry of caring for the Lord’s flock, his team of fellow workers must be on the same page with him!  That is why respect and obedience is needed! All this is beautifully put in Eucharistic Prayer I for Masses of Reconciliation, “Keep us all in communion of mind and heart with our Pope and our bishop.” 

At a time we need to work together as a team, we seem to be growing further and further apart. As Lily Tomlin would put it, “We are all in this together, by ourselves.” A new look at, and a new appreciation of, our promise of obedience, I believe, can be the beginning of the reversal of that trend.

A expansive understanding of “promise of obedience” is the only thing we have in our arsenal as diocesan priests to ritualize that group resolve because, in it, we promise each other to be “team players.”  We cannot have a healthy, unified presbyterate when everyone is self-focused. We are an orchestra, not a loose association of soloists. We are one body with many parts, each with gifts the whole body needs.  Like the original twelve, Christ calls us to resist those things that threaten that unity, especially working alone, working too much and working against each other.   

Brother priests! In a nutshell, I believe with all my heart that what is needed most of all is to move from our various points of view to a viewing point where we can appreciate each other’s point of view as well as our own, a one-priest-at-a-time conversion, away from an exaggerated good of the individual to the good of the group, for the sake of effective ministry to the People of God.  The only public expression of that conversion is our promise to each other, through our leader, to be “team players.” We need to revisit our “promise of obedience.” We need, I believe, to remind ourselves, regularly and in the most dramatic way possible, what we have committed ourselves to be, “fellow workers with the bishop in caring for the Lord’s flock.”  It is so easy to forget that we do not carry out our own ministry, but that of the bishop. We are his ministry team, and for the sake of his coherent ministry, we are called to set our differences aside and work as a cohesive unit for the sake of God’s people.

And now, let us take ourselves back to our original enthusiasm for a moment. Let is reclaim and renew our promise of obedience, a promise to be a team player in our ministry to the People of God, with our bishop and with each other. I wish every member of our presbyterate were here, but let us proceed with those who are here. As one Owensboro priest pointed out, whether we are here today or not, we are still bound to that promise we made at our ordinations: to respect this bishop and his successors and to help him carry out his ministry in our diocese.         

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