Thursday, August 25, 2022



“Claiming the Pulpit for Spiritual Leadership and Personal Sanctification”
June 25, 2019

Rev. J. Ronald Knott

If I were to choose a Scripture passage to outline what I will be talking about today, it would be this one from I Timothy 4:14-16 “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate. Be diligent in these matters, be absorbed in them, so that your progress may be evident to everyone. Attend to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you.”

1. Let me say in advance that what I say about priests, can be applied to deacons and lay preachers as well.

2. In the first half of this talk, I will address Paul’s point about “saving those who listen to you.” I will speak about using the pulpit for “spiritual leadership.” In the second half of this talk, I will address Paul’s point about “saving yourself.” I will speak about using the pulpit for “personal sanctification.”

By the way, Paul makes the same point he makes to Timothy to the presbyters in Ephesus in the Acts of the Apostles 20:28. “Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the church of God that he acquired with his own blood.”


Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 4 says this: “ Priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all. For through the saving Word the spark of faith is struck in the hearts of unbelievers, and fed into the hearts of the faithful.” (Notice the order! 1. Unbelievers 2. The faithful)

When Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, one of the pressing issues he wanted to address was what he called a “grave state of spiritual poverty in the world.” If “spiritual poverty” was the thing the Council wanted to address, it is no wonder that one of the greatest teachings to come out of that Council was what became known as “the universal call to holiness.”

In his apostolic letter, At the Beginning of the New Millennium (Novo Millennio Ineunte), Pope John Paul II reflected at length on the practical significance of the Council’s theology of “the universal call to holiness” that had been laid out so beautifully in chapter five of Lumen Gentium. “The Council Fathers,” he wrote, “laid such stress on the idea of the universal call to holiness in order to make it an intrinsic and essential aspect of the teaching on the Church.” Lumen Gentium stressed the point that “. . . it is evident to everyone that all of the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” Nowhere is the idea of the “universal call to holiness” more fully developed than in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, and before that Evangelii Gaudium and its emphasis on peaching as spiritual leadership.

The idea behind this part of my presentation — claiming your pulpit for spiritual leadership — is very appropriate for this time in the Church when one of the most pressing problems facing Catholicism may be the quality of its spiritual leadership in the face of seemingly deteriorating religious devotion and faith, community cooperation, and generosity and concern for the poor.

Surely, most of us already know that organized religion has lost its power to impose unquestioned rules on the behavior of its members. No amount of ranting and raving from us about how we ought to be listened to and no number of new editions of the rulebooks will fix this. Such fits are simply counter-productive, and the Church is up to its ears in new rulebooks already.

Instead of blaming ourselves for our own lack of skills in persuasion, and a lack of dynamism in the Church’s structures for evangelization in changing the present cultural climate, we persist in our inclination to blame the laity for their lack of faith and the culture for its “secularism” and “moral relativism.”

Instead of blaming others, the better approach might just be for us to start owning the fact that the real problem may be our own inability to influence others. Instead of looking around for a solution, maybe we should look within. Designated spiritual leaders must become real spiritual leaders. In a society in which being a consumer is a primary self-definition, priests must be good and good at what they do. Today they have to know how to spark imagination and “sell” what we have to offer. The People of God already know that God wants them to become holy. The problem is that many of them don’t know how to become holy and many of us don’t know how to lead them there!

It is not enough, according to our mission and ministry, for a parish priest to be personally holy; he also needs to have the skills to lead others to holiness. As I used to tell my seminary deacon class every year, their goal is not just to be sure that the golden light of holiness shines from their rectories. Their goal is to be sure that the golden light of holiness shines from the homes in their parishes!

Spiritual Leadership Defined

Priests my age and older have, no doubt, already discovered the sobering fact that handing over the administrative duties of the parish to others does not mean that, all of a sudden, we are possessed with extraordinary spiritual leadership skills. It is much easier to balance a budget or build a parish hall than it is to inspire a congregation to move to a deeper level of discipleship! Even our ordinations alone do not make us instant “spiritual leaders.” I define “spiritual leadership” as “the ability to influence another through invitation, persuasion and example to move from where they are to where God wants them to be,” especially through the skillful use of the pulpit.

When it comes to spiritual leadership from the pulpit, the words of a famous Protestant preacher, Dwight Moody, may say it best. “The best way to revive a church is to build a fire in the pulpit.” There is no better place for a priest to lead spiritually than from the pulpit, yet many parish priests squander this golden opportunity each and every week, either by being unprepared or by being trivial. If a priest has the burning desire to lead people spiritually, he must claim his pulpit and see parish preaching as “group spiritual direction from the pulpit.”

Most people have heard of the term “bully pulpit.” This term stems from President Theodore Roosevelt’s reference to the White House as a “bully pulpit,” a terrific platform from which to present his political ideas. Roosevelt often used the word “bully” as an adjective meaning “superb” or “wonderful.”

Priests, Deacons and in some places lay persons, have bully pulpits, terrific platforms from which they can mold, form and lead the People of God. One can imagine how much the Church would change for the better if they would only claim their pulpits with passion. Catholic pulpits are indeed buried treasures waiting to be claimed. It is from there, mainly, that priests, especially because of their primary task, can most effectively lead spiritually.

The pastor, most of all, must claim his pulpit by committing himself personally to dynamic preaching as well as to overseeing and planning the preaching ministry of the parish. It is his job to work closely with and guide associate pastors, deacons and in some places lay persons with a deliberate and coherent plan of action. It is the pastor’s role to ask, “Where do we want to lead this congregation and what do we do to get there?”

Primary Duty

If the primary duty of priests is to proclaim the Gospel, then to whom much is given, much is expected. Failing to appreciate the power of the Word and squandering the bully pulpits entrusted to them has to be among the biggest sins parish priests can commit because it is their primary duty.

If the primary duty of priests is to preach, then it is easier said than done! Even though Vatican Council II made this decree in 1965, ask any honest Catholic 54 years later and they will tell you that priests are still failing in their primary duty. Because of it, Catholics are now crossing parish and diocesan boundaries looking for solid spiritual food and, when they fail to find it, they leave us to join those independent mega-churches that are springing up all over the country and sucking people out of our parishes at an alarming rate.

To whom do we preach? Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 4, is clear when it says that we have a duty to preach the word of God to all — unbeliever and believer alike. We need, therefore, to get over the idea that our preaching is limited to those who show up on Sunday. There are at least four distinct groups to whom we are called to preach. We are indeed called to preach to all of the following:


These families and or individuals rarely miss Mass, are present at most parish functions, take advantage of opportunities for faith formation, participate in the social ministries of the parish and support the parish financially.


This group has been called “the second largest denomination in the country.” They may still be registered members of the parish, but attend Mass infrequently. Some of them may even send their children to sacramental preparation or religious education. When asked, they may identify themselves as “Catholics,” having been “raised Catholic” or as “former Catholics.” Among this group, we find:

THE MAD — those who describe themselves as having been hurt, abused, or neglected by clergy or other church workers.

THE SAD — those “separated” from the Church because of marriage, divorce, sexual orientation or doctrinal issues. Typically, these people feel a sense of loss.

THE IGNORED — those who stay away because they do not feel accepted, do not feel that they fit in or do not see other minorities like themselves.

THE BORED — those who have no particular complaint with the Church, but who have grown weaker in the practice of the faith over the years or may not have been strong to begin with.


Those in this group are believers who identify with another faith tradition. Their attitudes toward Catholics vary from outright hostility and suspicion to that of interest and respect. This group is especially important because of the number of inter-religious marriages.


These people do not identify with any organized religion. They describe themselves as “not interested in religion,” “spiritual, but not religious,” or “agnostics.”

The preacher’s task of bringing the Good News to all these groups is an awesome responsibility. The one place where most of these people assemble at points throughout the year is right in front of the pulpit. For effective spiritual leadership, various approaches and strategies will be required from the pulpit to connect to each group.


There is an intimate bond, a deep unity, between the
priest’s spiritual life and the exercise of his three-fold
ministry of word, sacrament and spiritual leadership.
Pastores Dabo Vobis, III, 26

In the first part of this presentation, I talked about how the priest’s primary role as preacher is meant to lead others to holiness. That is sometimes shared with Deacons and, in some places, lay persons. In this part, I want to talk about how the priest’s primary role as preacher of the Word can lead to his own personal sanctification. This applies to Deacons and lay preachers as well.

When I die, I will be laid out in my free Abbey Casket from Saint Meinrad Archabbey where I used to work clutching a copy of the Lectionary instead of a Rosary. I have nothing against the Rosary, but my spirituality as a diocesan priest has been Lectionary based. It was given to me by Archbishop Weisgerber of Winnipeg, Canada, after I spoke to him and his priests about this subject a few years back.

In speaking about the specific call to holiness that belongs to the shepherds of the Church, Lumen Gentium, No. 41, says that priests should “make the specific ministry given to them the principle means of their sanctification.” Pope John Paul expands on this idea in Pastores Dabo Vobis, III, part of which is quoted above. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1534) also makes this point when it says that there are two sacraments directed toward the salvation of others; marriage and holy orders. “If they contribute to personal salvation,” it says, “it is through service of others that they do so.” In these documents, the Church refers to “the call to holiness” both as a gift and as a task. In other words, holiness is a gift of God that is reached through the exercise of our duties.

In this presentation, I will try to develop this extremely helpful idea of how the exercise of the specific duty of preaching, can make priests holy. This is very important because the spiritual formation going on in seminaries is often more focused on “practices of personal piety” than on the “exercise of specific duties” as the preferred path to personal holiness for diocesan priests. Let me repeat that because it is a pet peeve of mine about seminary formation. “Seminaries are often more focused on “practices of personal piety” than on the “exercise of specific duties” as the preferred path to personal holiness.” It drove me crazy when I was teaching in the seminary. When one of my spiritual directees would join the crowd that almost obsessed about “Holy Hours,” I would ask them what they did during their ‘Holy Hours.” The I would suggest they spend it with the Sunday readings.

Most writers on the subject of the spirituality of diocesan priests agree on two things: (1) the diocesan priest’s spirituality is eclectic, a melange of quasi-monastic Jesuit, Dominican, Benedictine and Franciscan spiritualities often colored by Sulpician and Irish approaches to the spiritual life, and (2) the diocesan priest continues to search for a spirituality properly his own. This is an attempt to lay out what I believe to be closer to a true spirituality of a diocesan priest.

The spirituality of a parish priest is, of course, rooted first of all in the spirituality of a baptized person, the daily living out of the death and resurrection of Christ. From there, this baptismal spirituality is lived out in the specific context of his ministry as a priest, just as married people live out their spirituality in the specific context of being a marriage partner and parent.

At its most basic level, the spirituality of a priest is ecclesial; it is for the church. Priests are called from the laity to live among the laity so as to serve the mission and ministry of the laity. Here the parish priest has three functions: teacher of the Word, minister of the sacraments and leader of faith communities entrusted to him. The specific context of a parish priest’s spirituality, then, is intimately connected with doing these three things well.

On the floor at the front door of St. Meinrad Seminary is an inlaid school seal. Circling a few symbols are the words “sanctitatae et scientia,” “holiness and knowledge,” to remind future priests that they must be good and good at what they do. They must possess personal holiness and useful knowledge.

This idea is confirmed in Scripture, in Jesus’ teaching on the “Good Shepherd.” Priests are called to act in persona Christi, and as such, the Good Shepherd is their model for ministry. There are at least two Greek words for “good,” agathos and kalos. Agathos means “good,” as in “morally good.” Kalos means “good” as in “effective” or “good at. The “Good Shepherd” in the Gospel is “kalos,” “good at shepherding.” Pope Francis then could be said to be agathos and kalos, a good person who was good at shepherding. The spirituality of the parish priest should involve being a good person and being good at “priesting,” just as any preacher should be a good person who is “good at” preaching!

Neither personal holiness nor goodwill can replace competence. A priest today must not only be good and mean well, he must be good and good at what he does. He must be holy and competent. An emerging spirituality of the parish priest will be a matter, not of one or the other, but of both. St. Paul emphasized this idea to St. Timothy.

Do not neglect the gift you received when the presbyters laid hands on you. Attend to your duties; let them absorb you, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch yourself and watch your teaching. Persevere in both tasks. By doing so you will bring to salvation yourself and all who hear you (1 Tm 4:15-16).

In the pre-Vatican II spirituality of parish priests, agathos was emphasized. It focused primarily on the ascetical and devotional aspects of the inner life, common to all the baptized. Celebrating the Eucharist, praying the breviary, saying the rosary, and engaging in other devotions were the source and fuel of priests’ spirituality.

Since Vatican II, we have seen a shift of emphasis that has added kalos. This shift is more developmental than disjunctive, for it builds on, not denies, the traditional staples of priestly spirituality. Priestly spirituality has evolved into an interdependence of agathos (a personal-based spirituality) and kalos (a ministry-based spirituality).

The emerging spirituality of a parish priest, therefore, is rooted in his life of faith and prayer, and at the same time, shaped and forged by the exercise of his ministerial duties. The spirituality of the parish priest, then, will be forged and shaped in his threefold role in the faith community as teacher of the Word, minister of the celebration of the Sacraments and leader of the faith community. It is not enough for a parish priest to be personally holy, but he must also be competent in carrying out his three basic ministries.

It has been said by more than a few veteran observers of the Church that the most pressing challenge facing Catholicism today is the quality of its spiritual leadership. No matter how one ranks the quality of spiritual leadership on any scale of Church priorities, it is clearly a matter of concern for the vitality of the Church in whatever age the Church finds itself. The good news is that competent spiritual leadership will not only lead the people to deeper holiness, but the spiritual leader himself in the process.

The authenticity and maturity of the priest’s spirituality remains the fundamental issue undergirding his preaching, presiding, facilitating and administering. Pastoral skills can be taught, but they remain techniques unless rooted in a mature spirituality, which often comes with age and experience.

In short, the spirituality of a parish priest involves integrating who he is with what he does, being a good person while being good at what he does, contributing to his own salvation through his service to others. If a priest is to be a “spiritual leader,” he must claim his pulpit, claim his rituals, and claim his position (and only his) as a leader in the faith community.

“Nemo dat quod non habet.” One cannot give what one does not have! The priest ought, first of all, to develop a great personal familiarity with the Word of God. He needs to approach the Word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him — “the mind of Christ.” Only if he “abides” in the Word will the preacher become a perfect disciple of the Lord. The preacher ought to be the first “believer” in the Word (Pastores Dabo Vobis, III, No. 26).

The priest is able to proclaim the Word of God only to the extent that that word has burned into his heart and is lived in his life. Before one can be a Samuel, “not permitting any word of his to be without effect,” (1 Sm 3:19) he must be a Jeremiah for whom preaching became “like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in,” (Jer 20:9) and “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart” (Jer 15:16). “For a man’s words flow out of what fills his heart” (Lk 6:45). “If the story is in you, it has got to come out” (William Faulkner).

It might be important to remember here that priests have two other ways to abide in the Word other than Sunday preaching: praying of the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the other sacraments besides the Eucharist. One of the greatest contributions to come out of Vatican II was the broader use of Scripture in the celebration of the sacraments in general. All the sacraments now offer opportunities to proclaim Scripture and to preach. Preaching is not only suggested, it is highly encouraged.

The longer I preach, the more convinced I am that handling that much Scripture, letting it penetrate one’s being, and struggling to communicate it to others can indeed lead to the preacher’s own sanctification. “The priest should reproduce in himself the holiness of the things he handles’’ (Lumen Gentium, No. 41). TP

Sunday, August 21, 2022



Someone asked Jesus, "Lord, will only a few people be saved?"
Luke 13:22-30

Are you saved? Have you been “born again?’ Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior? If you really want to make a Catholic squirm and sweat and doubt his or her religious upbringing, just corner one and rattle off that set of questions!

When I worked in the Bible Belt, down in the southern part of the state, Catholics, including myself, were often bombarded with those kinds of questions. More than one Catholic was left confused and bewildered. Our counterparts could date the precise hour they were “saved,” while Catholics just stood there puzzled and confused.

The question presented to Jesus in the gospel today, as well as the story of St. Paul’s conversion, gives us a perfect opportunity to talk about these questions. Does one have to have dramatic, certain and dated conversion experience or can one grow toward God in an extended process, sometimes without a clear beginning and certain end? In Scripture, we see both types of conversion experiences: St. Paul with his definite and certain experience of conversion at a particular moment and St. Peter with his long and extended process of conversion, with fits and starts, over time.

Many of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters look to St. Paul as their hero and ideal. His conversion experience was dramatic and decisive. It was a shattering and clearly memorable confrontation with the person of Christ on the road to Damascus when he was on his way to hunt down Christians and kill them. After this dramatic u-turn in his life, he fanatically embraced and defended what he had recently persecuted and attacked. His conversion experience was so dramatic that the story is retold three times in the Acts of the Apostles and referred to three more times in various New Testament Letters. When it came to his conversion, St. Paul could remember the spot, the day, even the hour that it happened.

St. Paul’s emphasis on personal and individual faith, his emphasis on dramatic decision and change, and his evangelistic zeal have become the prototype and model of many Christian conversions, especially for fundamentalist groups. Many of these groups attach a certain spiritual superiority to this type of conversion, leaving many people who have not has such an experience feeling inferior and second rate.

Roman Catholics, while respecting St. Paul’s experience, look to St. Peter as their hero and model. St. Peter’s conversion experience was very different. Peter does in fact make a profession of faith, but like many of us, it is the climax of a long and gradual insight into the person Jesus, often with fits and starts. Later in the same gospel, St. Peter denied that he even knew Jesus and abandoned him on the cross, only to come back later with a zeal and courage he had never experienced.

Even though some would like to suggest that everybody has to have a definite conversion experience that can be dated, the New Testament does not suggest a single stereotype for an authentic Christian conversion experience. Nicodemus, for example, who triggered the discussion with Jesus about what it means to be “born again” is an ambiguous illustration of conversion. We do not know whether Jesus persuaded Nicodemus or not. All we know is that he turned up to help out at the burial. The fact is that the New Testament balances the dramatic conversion of Paul with the gentle and more subtle changes in people like Peter, Zaccheus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Lydia, Timothy and a whole list of saints, martyrs and converts.

Roman Catholics have often dismissed as silly emotionalism the dramatic and decisive conversions of fundamentalists, while fundamentalists have often dismissed the long and gradual conversions of other believers. However, the fact is that the church has always welcomed both kinds of conversion experiences. In other words, it recognizes that God calls us all in a variety of ways. If you have never been “knocked off your horse” during a dramatic conversion experience, you need not feel inferior or apologetic. We all answer God’s call in our own way and in the way and at a time we are called, whether it is like St. Paul or St. Peter! So, it’s not one way or the other, but it can be either! Conversion, turning toward God, is a mystery and the variety of conversion experiences testify to the fact that God uses a variety of ways to call his children. St. Peter and St. Paul, missionaries for the same Lord, were called in different ways and responded to their calls differently. Both are part of the same church, both shared the same baptism and both served the same Lord!

With all that said, the fact remains that all of us, sooner or later must choose or reject Jesus and the path he invites us to walk. Nor can we let ourselves off the hook simply because others, even highly placed religious leaders, have failed to live up to their calls. Jesus calls each of us by name and each of us must respond to that invitation, no matter what others may do or not do! As Jesus told St. Peter in the gospel, regardless of what others say about him, the question still comes to us individually, “And, you, who do you say that I am?” In the words of St. Paul, when we have competed well in the race, when we have finished and kept the faith, God will rescue us from every evil threat and lead us safely to his heavenly kingdom.