Friday, July 31, 2020

CHANGE: Part THREE of a Three Part Series

Rev. J. Ronald Knott
(originally written for the Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana)

for a video version

In week one of this column, I wrote about “change.” A “change” is any event that can shake up our understanding of the world, our old priorities and our old patterns of behavior. A “transition,” on the other hand, is a three-phase psychological reorientation process that people go through when they are coming to terms with a “change.” In a “transition” there is an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning. 

Phase Three – Managing a New Beginning 

In last week’s column of this three-part series, I wrote about the second phase – the neutral zone. The neutral zone is an area of great discomfort. These are the pain-filled days when there is a temptation to want to return to the familiar for relief. We need only to remember the statistics of how many abused spouses return to their abusers choosing the familiarity of the known over the chaos of the unknown. The secret of success in the neutral zone is to “ride it out” with the belief that “this too shall pass.” It is rightly called a “grieving period” in which people struggle to be reconciled with reality. 

While many people stay stuck in the neutral zone, either by trying to recover some irretrievable past or by being paralyzed by the fear of letting go of a past identity and the fear of moving into a new one. The only thing that will set them free is for them to give up their self-defeating chokehold on a belief that if they just don’t like something enough it will go away. 

Only after going through each of these first two phases of transition can people deal successfully with the third phase: beginning over again, with new energy, a new sense of purpose, a new outlook, and a new image of themselves. The grieving widow starts dating again, the single mother gets her on-line degree, the new job or volunteer opportunity presents itself and the new house begins to feel like “home.” The death of the Encore Priest Program that I had created, hoped to lead and grieved over when I was about to retire from Saint Meinrad has happily morphed into an even better program - my Catholic Second Wind Guild for retired professionals wanting to offer their gifts in the Caribbean missions. 

People and organizations cause great damage when they try to make a new beginning without seeing to it that they have first completed the other two phases of transition. Denial, anger and depression should be expected. Priests and dioceses often make changes with little understanding of the transition people will have to go through if the changes are to work! 

Understandable as that blindness is - not dealing with the psychological aspects of the transition that change brings on - it is simply a luxury that has become unaffordable today. Today changes come too fast and from too many unexpected angles. There are too many stakeholders now, too many groups whose transitions, if mismanaged, will undermine needed change. 

Many leaders fail to realize the importance of managing transitions, believing that if the structural, technical and financial changes go well, the human transitions will take care of themselves. Nowhere is this more obvious than the closing of parishes. Even if it makes good financial and structural sense, it can make no sense, pastorally and emotionally. Unless people can make the psychological transitions that these changes require, these changes will simply not work well, causing great pain, heartache, alienation and even spiritual violence. The change may happen, but the result will be that everything has changed, and everything is worse, no matter what bright future the leaders of change promised. Such an organizational change is like the old medical joke about the operation that was a success . . . although the patient died. 

The entrance into any new situation, be it a priest entering a new parish or a parish welcoming a new priest, calls for a new mind. Both should begin by accepting the fact that “if you don’t get what you want, you can change your mind and want what you get.” There are no perfect parishes and there are no perfect priests. 

Priests need to enter new assignments with their shoes off because they are treading on holy ground. They need to be willing to learn as well as be willing to teach. They are called to preach, yes, but they are also called to practice what they preach. New pastors and established parishioners must be willing to learn from each other and approach each other with kindness and patience, welcoming that yet-to-be-known something new that is about to happen between them. 

Finally, the Old Testament book of Exodus should be studied by anyone interested in learning how to lead and be led. The story runs through three books of the Old Testament, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The bulk of the narrative is, however, in Exodus. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

CHANGE: Part TWO of a Three Part Series

Rev. J. Ronald Knott
(originally written for the Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana)

for a video version

With all the changes that are coming at us, it is important that we understand the difference between a “change” and a “transition.” In last week’s column, I wrote about “change.” A “change” is any event that can shake up our understanding of the world and our old priorities. A “transition,” on the other hand, is a three-phase psychological reorientation process that people go through when they are coming to terms with a “change.” In a “transition” there is an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning. 

Phase Two - Managing the Neutral Zone

The neutral zone is an area of great discomfort. This phase is reminiscent of the People of God wandering around a desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. These are the days after the funeral, the job loss, the resignation, moving into the nursing home, moving from one parish to another, leaving a spouse abuser and after a divorce. These are the pain-filled days when there is a temptation to want to return to the familiar for relief. The secret of success in the neutral zone is to “stay the course” and “get through” it. 

The “neutral zone” phase of transition is a no-man’s land where people wander between two worlds, one dead and the other not yet born. It is a dangerous time. It is rightly called a “grieving period.” Some remain in this phase for years, suspended between death and life, pitifully clinging to a past identity, afraid to let go and afraid to move on. A mistake the Fathers of Vatican Council II made, was not warning us about a painful neutral zone. They forget to tell us about the “desert.” In pain, we have some who are yearning to go home to the “fleshpots of Egypt.” 

I have spent so much time in the neutral zone phase that I wrote a book about it. It is the closest thing to an autobiography. The book is called

One of my very favorite “neutral zone” stories from that book happened a few weeks after my ordination fifty years ago, This “change” was unwelcomed. 

All through seminary, after spending years in rural areas, my heart was set on an urban assignment. I had a fabulous chance of seeing that dream come true because newly ordained priests typically became associate pastors in large urban parishes. 

When the call came from the Priest Personnel Board. I was told that I was being assigned to the “home missions” of our diocese, in Appalachia, down along the Tennessee border. The area was what the Glenmary Fathers called “No Priest Land.” 

Unable to change their minds, I went into a depression, angrily packed my bags, bought a map and drove toward my hated assignment. Halfway there, I had a conversion experience. I learned something about all unwanted “changes” - I could change my mind! I started telling myself, “If you don’t get what you want, you can always want what your get!” Because of that mind change, it become a great assignment, better than I could have ever imagined. 

Another favorite “neutral zone” story from my autobiography, happened as I left the Archbishop’s office after I told him, after fourteen successful years as pastor of our Cathedral, that I thought it was “time” to move on. Even though this “change” was welcomed, I remember sitting in my car feeling like I had just burned my life’s most important bridge. In the following weeks, I felt like my niece after her husband’s funeral, “I knew who I was yesterday, but I don’t know who I am today.” My time in the “neutral zone” was shortened greatly because of all I had learned about change. In a year or two, I found myself in yet another “Promised Land” as a staff member at Saint Meinrad Seminary. 

At the end of those wonderful fourteen years, I “induced labor” yet again and went into retirement. Even though that transition did not go smoothly, and the neutral zone was painful, I came out of it again and arrived at a new level of excitement as a volunteer in the Caribbean Missions. 

Now, another unwelcomed change has challenged that serenity, an international pandemic. This time I am confident that I will get through this neutral zone too. I am doing what I have always done during times like this, I engage in “self-talk” by journaling and reading collected wisdom literature on “transitions” and pray that I can embrace yet another “new beginning,” believing that it too will be good. 

Monday, July 27, 2020

CHANGE - Part ONE of a Three Part Series

Rev. J. Ronald Knott
(originally written for the Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana)

for a video version
As a seventy-six-year-old priest, ordained fifty years, I have seen my share of changes. The first six years of my seminary training took place in the pre-Vatican II church, the second six years in the post-Vatican II church. I have served as home missionary, country pastor, Cathedral rector, vocation director, campus minister, seminary staff member, international priest convocation presenter, Parish Mission preacher, a fifteen-year Catholic weekly columnist and now a volunteer in the Caribbean missions. 

The most important charism of a diocesan priest just might be his ability to embrace change. A monk’s charism it is to settle in one place while a diocesan priest’s charism is a willingness to move from place to place. The most appropriate symbol of a diocesan priest’s charism could be a tent. His “promise obedience” is a promise not to be overly attached to his own preference and point of view for the sake of the unified diocesan ministry. 

The laity of the diocese share in the charism of the diocesan priest when they embrace one pastor after another over the years. They, too, are called not to be overly attached to their preferences and points of view for the sake of a unified diocesan ministry. For priest and parishioner, moving from a point of view to a viewing point is the very best way to insure that unified ministry. 

Diocesan priests need to manage their own life changes, but also develop their expertise in teaching the dynamics of change to the people they serve. 

Phase One – Managing an Ending

We all face “changes” these days, some of them are welcomed and some are unwelcomed, some go smoothly and some do not. Even after lots of changes, our transitions are often left unfinished. It is important therefore to understand the difference between a “change” and a “transition.” 

A “change” is anything that can shake up our understanding of the world and our old priorities. Familiar examples of “change” are: marriage, graduation, divorce, unemployment, the arrival of a new pastor, leaving the seminary, moving from pastoral assignments, locating to a new city, a new baby, ordination, a suicide in the family, children leaving home, entering a nursing home, the publication of a new missal, entering a pandemic, welcoming a new bishop, death of a parent or reaching retirement age. 

A “transition,” on the other hand, is a three-phase psychological reorientation process that people go through when they are coming to terms with a “change.” In that process, there is typically an ending and a neutral zone before a new beginning. 

A “change” is what happens outside us! A “transition” is what happens inside us! People in transition often go through stages similar to the stages of death and dying. They can respond with denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. It begins with an ending—with people letting go of their old reality and their old identity. Unless people can make a real ending, they will typically be unable to make a successful new beginning. Let me cite two personal examples here: one from my next-to-last assignment and the other from my last assignment. 

When I was leaving the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville as its pastor, after fourteen years of nationally recognized revitalization and restoration, there was a movement to name me “pastor emeritus.” That movement was revived, after the three intervening pastors, when I returned in retirement to help-out on weekends. I would not allow it because I did not want to become a “shadow pastor.” In fact, I gave a homily series before I left preparing the people to “let go.” I told them I could not keep coming back to celebrate weddings and funerals. I affirmed the strengths of the new pastor. I let them know that I had given all I could give. I used an image to compare our contributions. “I was good at hacking through the jungle and setting up the town, but I do not make a good mayor. Your new pastor will make a great mayor of the new town that we have built together.” 

When I left Saint Meinrad as the founding Director of the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates and went into retirement, I mistakenly thought I could keep the retirement part of the program and implement it from Louisville. As attractive as that idea seemed, it severely threatened my replacement and triggered a period of extended personal pain. Instead of making a good ending, I thought staying on part-time would benefit the program. In hindsight, I was probably trying to hang on rather than embracing the pain of a clean break. I should have known better. 

When dealing with change, attitude is everything. Change, without embracing the pain of going through the psychological reorientation of the neutral zone is to invite long-term anger, resentment and confusion into your life. In the next column, I will write about this second phase in a typical transition. 

Sunday, July 26, 2020


God answered Solomon’s prayer in these words, 
“Because you have asked for this---not for a long life 
for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your 
enemies, but for understanding so that you may know 
what is right---I do as you requested.” 
I Kings 3:10-12

I own a lot of books, even though I have culled through them several times over the years, especially when it comes to moving from one house to the next and finally into retirement! Most of them, I rarely look at, even though I go digging through them for something every now and them. There are, however, a few books, maybe 10 in all, that I would really hate to lose, books that have changed my life in one way or another. One of those books is a 50 years old book by Louis Evely entitled Our Prayer. It was published the year I was ordained. It was the book that helped me really understand what prayer is all about! I turn to it often, especially when I talk to groups about the role of prayer in their lives! It’s out of print! I would really hate to lose it! 

The insight I got from that book changed my prayer life and helped me make sense of the purpose of prayer. I had prayed all my life, but I didn’t feel that it was doing all that much good. I was like that old farmer in one of my former parishes who said that he never prayed for rain because “God’s goina do what God’s goina do anyway!” Until I read that book, no matter how much I prayed, it has always seemed to me to that “God was goina’ do what God was goina’ do anyway.” That old book helped me discover that, even though I believed in Jesus and I thought believed in prayer, I was actually praying like a pagan! 

How do pagans pray? They whine, beg, cringe and bribe their moody, mean and reluctant gods to loosen up and give them what they want! Their prayers are attempts to inform their gods of things that need to be done, as well as how and when they should be done! Their prayers are attempts to get their gods to wake up and pay attention to them! Their prayers are attempts to get their gods to change their minds and moods and do what they want through bribery! Pagan prayer has been portrayed best in those old TV jungle movies as seen in a poplar Spectrum TV commercial where a man is encouraged to jump into a volcano to get the gods to make it rain! (see below) It was almost always the same. The poor people lived at the foot of an active volcano where they believed their god lived! Their volcano god was moody and unpredictable and often blew his top, killing hundreds of people. To get this god to be good to them, their prayers were basically bribes to keep him at bay and do their bidding. Their sadistic god loved pain, especially pain that involved the shedding of blood. So, if you cut yourself or whipped yourself till you bled, you had a better chance of getting a favor out of a volcano god. If that didn’t work, you threw the prettiest virgin in town into the bubbling lava! Pagan prayer was always an effort to get the gods to change their minds or change their sadistic behaviors or their indifference toward humans. 

I used to pray like a pagan. My prayer was more about telling God what he needed to do for me, rather than listening to God telling me what I needed to do for him. I thought prayer was about informing God about what needed to be done in my life and in the world around me. I believed that I needed to butter God up if I ever had a chance of getting him to do what I wanted! I felt that I had a better chance of getting what I wanted if I pleaded and begged and cried and starved and deprived myself. I offered bribes: I would light a 30 day beeswax candle instead of one of those cheap two hour paraffin candles. I would say 50 rosaries instead of one. I would do a 7 day novena instead of a simple silent prayer. I would promise to make a big contribution to charity if my wish was granted. I would attend an all-night vigil instead of a few quiet moments of prayer during the day. I probably would have pushed a virgin into a volcano, but there was a shortage of virgins where I came from, not to mention volcanoes! Pagan prayer is all about getting the attention of a cold, distant, cruel and aggravated god and persuading him to alter his behavior through bribery and sadism. That is no way for Christians to pray! 

We read one of my favorite passages about prayer in our first reading today. It is the story of the wise and famous King Solomon at prayer. We are told that God “appeared to Solomon in a dream one night,” “inviting him to ask for something in prayer.” Solomon points out to God that he had chosen him to be king of a huge nation, even though he was young and inexperienced. In his prayer, Solomon asks God simply for what he needed to do well all that God had asked him to do. He simply as for “an understanding heart” and “the wisdom to know right from wrong.” God was impressed with Solomon’s prayer and answered it, noting that he could have asked for selfish needs: a long life, riches or vengeance on his enemies! Solomon teaches us the essence of all prayer is to do well what God calls us to do! Solomon teaches us the purpose of all prayer: to have us be changed by God, rather than having God be changed by us, as pagans try to do to their gods! The perfect prayer, as Solomon knew, is to know our calls and to ask only for the “daily bread” we need to live them out! 

My friends, the difference between the way pagans pray and the way Christians ought to pray is very different. Pagans pray to change their gods. Christians pray that God will change them. We do not have a moody, disinterested or stingy God who needs to be bribed or woken up or persuaded to give us what we ask. Our God already wants to give us what is good for us. Our God simply wants us to open ourselves to receive the good he already desires for us. The perfect Christian prayer is a prayer of openness and gratitude. The perfect Christian prayer is the prayer of Mary, “Thy will be done!” The perfect Christian prayer is the prayer of Solomon, “Give me what I need to do the job you have given me!” The perfect Christian prayer is the prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemani, “Your will, not mine, be done!” God does not need to change, to be instructed or to be informed. We do! 

For my conclusion today, I turn to “bumper sticker theology.” We are all familiar with the bumper sticker that says, “prayer changes things.” I believe there is another bumper sticker that is more accurate. It says, “prayer changes people and people change things!” 

for a video of the Spectrum TV commercial referred to above