Sunday, February 5, 2023

SENT TO SHINE

 

You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before men in such
a way that they may see your good works and give God the glory.
Matthew 5:14,16

My fellow Catholic Christians, do you realize who you are? Did you catch those words from today's gospel reminding us of who we are? “You are the light of the world! Let your light shine! Let your good works be seen so God can be glorified!” The Scriptures tell us in other places that “from your mother’s womb, God gave you your name!” “You are God’s servant through whom God’s glory shines!” “From your mother’s womb God formed you for that task, the task of letting God’s glory shine through you!” “You are made glorious in his sight!” “He made you a light to the nations so that his salvation may reach to the ends of the earth!” Jesus tells us in the gospel reading today that “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! You are a city built on a hill! Your light must shine before others! Your good deeds must be out there to be noticed!” Yes, we are “the light of the world!” However, we are like the moon and God is like the sun. The moon has no light of its own, the moon merely reflects the light of the sun. Just so, when people see our light and observe our good deeds, we must make sure that God, the true source of our light, indeed all light, gets the glory! 

My fellow Catholic Christians may we want to be who we are! May we want to be who we are! I am here to remind you who we are and what our mission is in this life! We were sent to shine! We were sent to shine so that God will look good in the eyes of the world and receive its praise! We should never put ourselves down! We should never underestimate our worth! We should never belittle ourselves nor play small! We should never let others put us down! We were sent to shine! To keep our lamps burning, we have to keep putting oil in them! Therefore, we need to take care of ourselves – take care of ourselves enough to do hard things for our own good so that our light will shine as brightly as possible! We should always resist the temptation to give into the biggest human temptation and that is to settle for too little! Our families, indeed the world, need us to be who we are and all that we can be!

I came across a Bruce Barton quote recently that has been rolling around inside my head for some time now. Others credit Benjamin Franklin.  It is not a new idea, but a life script that I adopted a long time ago. It goes like this! “When we are through changing, we are through.” We old people, when we were young, might remember Bob Dylan singing another version of this same idea. “He not busy being born is busy dying.” In other words, if you are not growing, you are not just standing still, you are dying!  If you are “sent to shine,” you absolutely need to keep putting oil into your lamp! You must keep stoking your own fire! 

Winston Churchill said, “Nothing gets better by leaving it alone.” In fact, when we “leave things alone” the natural process of entropy sets in – we start coming unglued, we start declining, we begin to rot!  Entropy is that spontaneous and unremitting tendency in the universe toward disorder unless there is an opposing force working against it. People, like homes, when they are left alone fall into decay. Even fruits and vegetables, unless something is done to “preserve” them, begin to rot! When we “leave ourselves alone,” we commit what I call “personal and spiritual suicide.” Personal and spiritual suicide is the result of constantly saying “no” to opportunities to grow and change.” 

As one who bought into this idea of “self-formation” a long time ago, I have concluded that there are two secret ingredients to becoming all that we can be as ‘the light of the world.” (1) The first ingredient in really loving oneself is a passionate commitment to personal excellence – to loving who we really are – loving ourselves enough to care about becoming our best selves. Really loving oneself does not mean papering oneself. Rather, it means doing hard things for one’s own good. One of the most critical needs here is the need for a capacity for critical and constructive self-awareness.  We must be able to know and understand what makes us tick. We must own my own personal histories and heal them if necessary. In short, we must be dedicated to becoming our best as quality human persons first. Let me put that another way. You cannot take a loser and ordain him and expect to have an effective priest! If he is not a quality human being to begin with, all you will end up with is a loser priest who can’t relate to people or inspire them to hunger for holiness. You cannot take two losers and put them through a wedding and expect to end up with a happy marriage and effective parents! If they are not quality human beings to begin with, all you will end up with is a miserable marriage and disastrous parents! 

(2) After a passionate commitment to who one is, being the best version of ourselves, the second ingredient in really loving oneself is a passionate commitment to vocational excellence – a passionate commitment to what we do! In other words, if you are parents, commit yourself to being the very best parent you can be! If you are married, commit yourself to being the best husband or wife you can be! If you are a priest, commit yourself to be the best priest you can possibly be! Whatever you are, be good at it! If you strive to be the best at what you do, you will get better at it. If you choose the “good enough to get by” path, you will become known for your mediocrity. Tom Peters put it this way, “The idea of mediocrity scares the hell out of me!” Without a passionate commitment to vocational excellence, you will no doubt end up being a half-assed priest, a half-assed marriage partner or half-assed parent! The world is already overcrowded with mediocrity – people with no passion for personal or vocational excellence!  My mother used to call them “people who merely go through the motions,” “people whose hearts are not in it.” God says to us in Revelations 3:15-16, “Would that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” May God spare you from such "half-assedness!” May you become the very best version of yourself! May you become who you are! You are the light of the world! Let your light shine! Yes, let it shine! Let it shine!

Brothers and sisters! One of my biggest fears as a priest is not natural death, but spiritual and emotional death, being here and being not here at the same time – “dead on my feet,” if you will! My biggest fear is gradually turning into a priest whose heart is no longer in it! Chaucer’s Parson described such a priest as “a man annoyed at his own life.”

The word used by fourth century monks for this state was acediaAcedia is not a disease, it’s a temptation – the temptation to disconnect, the temptation to stop caring, the temptation to stop making an effort. It is a temptation that can grow and harden into a persistent attitude of apathy and cynicism which is deadly to any kind of personal or spiritual growth. I find it fascinating that acedia, in its root, means negligence - a negligence that leads to a state of listlessness, a lack of attention to daily tasks and an overall dissatisfaction with life, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s self-care or position or condition in the world. In other words, unlike clinical depression, it can be resisted. The sooner it is confronted the more success one has in turning it around.

We all know priests and married couples who woke up one day and found themselves in precisely that spot – with feelings of being stuck, with few options and little hope. Maybe we are, or have been, one of them! If we were to be honest with ourselves we would have to admit that we didn’t get there overnight. It happened because of extended neglect. We didn’t take the time to nourish our individual selves. Many marriages and religious vocations do not die of "natural causes." Too often, they simply die of "starvation!" Too many of us do not take the time to nurture our vocations. We just “let things go!”

Whether we are priests, marriage partners, parents, professionals, widows or widowers, we are all called to resist the temptation toward acedia, the neglect of our personal and spiritual growth. We are the light of the world and there is responsibility that goes with reflecting that light! As Mother Theresa put it. “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.” Again, Bob Dylan put it this way. “If we are not busy being born, we are busy dying.”


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Saturday, February 4, 2023

WINNING IS NOT ALWAYS WHAT IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE

 THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING NUMBER ONE


OH, THE STRESS OF ALWAYS WINNING!
Surrounded by so many trophies, why is she crying?

Did she lose her last beauty pageant to the chicken?
Was she sad that a chicken was awarded as her prize instead of another trophy? 
Did the chicken think her frilly dress was a nest?
Maybe she is worried about that big gas tank behind her exploding? 
Exhausted from winning, maybe she just needed to hold her "support chicken" for a few minutes?

Thursday, February 2, 2023

I'LL BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW!

A long time ago I got tired of hearing the unfair jokes and exaggerated stories about "how nuns mistreated me when I was in grade school!" To judge the ministry of thousands of wonderful women because of the frustration of a few is plainly unfair! I am sure a few nuns here and there did "lose it" on occasion, but what is often left out of their stories is the hardships nuns had to endure because of us: overloaded classrooms, long workdays dressed in unbearably hot religious habits, extremely close and uncomfortable personal living quarters and very little notice, pay, relief or appreciation. As a pastor, I have seen first-hand and heard about some of the situations where some were sent to live and how much they were paid! I just hope they have forgiven us! 

What is not mentioned enough is the fact that most of the nuns had profound effects for good on many people including me! Just in my home parish of St. Theresa alone, ninety-seven Sisters of Charity served our community over one hundred and twenty-three years! One history book described their work in St. Theresa in the early 1900s this way. "In addition to their responsibilities in the school and parish, the Sisters cared for the small farm that helped to provide food for them and 39 boarders of which only 15 could afford to pay." Our school would have closed a few times during the early years without the subsidies of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.  We owe them so very much that I am here to defend them from generalized defamatory and slanderous statements that damage their reputations! To me, they were real heroes! I wish we had more of them today! 

On this day when we celebrate Word Day for Consecrated Life, I want to share just two stories you may not know about, knowing that there are thousands and thousands of similar, but unknown, stories of their heroism.  


BEFORE HE BECAME MUHAMMAD ALI

Cassius Clay charmed a nun who ran the library at what is now Spalding University, across the street from where the gym was. Sister James Ellen Huff of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth gave him a job dusting so he could make a little money. She said she liked his “zest.” Sometimes she would return from dinner with a snack for him before he went to train. Once she returned and found him asleep on a long library table. After the world came to know him as Muhammad Ali, she put a sign over the table that read, “Cassius Slept Here.”

That's her, Sister James Ellen Huff, on the left! I knew her when she worked at Spalding University and I admired her. I knew her as a capable, intelligent and loving human being, as well as a dedicated Sister of Charity of Nazareth very much like the same Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who taught me all through grade school. I am still a friend to many Sisters of Charity and a few from our other religious communities of women. 

Thank you, Sisters, for all you have done and keep doing for so many here in the United States and around the world (India, Belize, Nepal  and Botswana).  


Sister Mary Jude Howard, SCN, is pictured here nursing a leper in India in 1947. She was part of a group of 6 Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who were sent as missionaries from Nazareth, Kentucky, in 1947 to Mokama, India. They started what has grown into a large hospital and various other ministries today and that community of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth is still growing in India - so much so that the present President of the SCN community in the United States, and one of her assistants, both pictured below, are now Sisters from India. They serve from their offices at the original Nazareth Motherhouse outside Bardstown, Kentucky. It was Mother Ann Sebastian Sullivan, SCN, who made the very wise move to send SCN Sisters to India back in 1947. 


    Sister Sangeeta Ayithamattam, SCN President                   Sister Jackulin Jesu, SCN
 
Happy "World Day for Consecrated Life" to all our Religious Sisters, Brothers and Priests serving here and abroad! Thank you and God bless you! 








Tuesday, January 31, 2023

2,000 PIGS STAMPEDING OVER A CLIFF

 

GIVEN JANUARY 30, 2023 AT THE LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR

When Jesus got out of the boat, at once a man from the tombs who had an unclean spirit met him.
The man had been dwelling among the tombs, and no one could restrain him any longer, even 
with a chain. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside. 
And the demons pleaded with Jesus, “Send us into the swine. Let us enter them.” And he let them, and the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine. The herd of about two thousand rushed down a steep bank into the sea, where they were drowned.
Mark 5:1-20

This is one of those stories that always aggravated me growing up! It might be a minor point in the story, but for me the part about pigs rushing over a cliff to their deaths always reminded me of growing up as a boy down in Meade County.  Every time I heard this story, I identified with certain characters in particular. No, it wasn’t the main character, the possessed man in the cemetery, but the men who were tending the pigs that plunged over a cliff to their deaths.

I used to take care of pigs on one of my father’s farms and I can only imagine what hell would break lose if I came home one day and told my Dad that the pigs I was caring for had all just stampeded over a cliff and died because a crazy man had come out of the cemetery next to our pig lot and was screaming at the top of his lungs!  Instead of believing me, he probably would have had me committed to Our Lady of Peace….or worse, one of his major tongue-lashings when I got home! 

However, let’s not let my issue cloud the main character and the point of the story. First, Mark's Gospel paints a very scary picture here. We know from the chapters before that Jesus and his disciples had set sail “late in the evening” so it was dark on the lake. On the way across the lake, they had experienced a storm and had just landed in an area with many caves in the limestone rocks along the shore. Many of these caves were used to bury the dead. At the best of times, this place would have been an eerie place especially in the dark. They landed at a perilous place, at a perilous hour and then found themselves in a perilous situation - a dangerous man, a “possessed” man, who "could not be restrained even with a chain." 

Growing up, the man would have believed what many Jews at that time believed – that no man would survive if he realized the number of demons with which he was surrounded. Probably mentally ill, he had convinced his wandering mind that a mass of those demons had taken up residence inside him! He was so convinced that Jesus had to make more than one attempt to heal him.  (1) First, Jesus used his usual method – an authoritative order to the demon to come out.  (2) When that didn’t work, Jesus demanded to know what the demon’s name was. It was believed that if a demon could be named, that would give the healer a certain power over the demon. (3) When that didn’t work, Jesus understood that the only way to cure this man was to give him a dramatic demonstration of deliverance - a convincing sign that his demons were indeed gone.

It doesn’t matter whether we believe in demon possession, the poor man believed in it. This is where the pigs come in! The poor man had been screaming and shrieking so much that he caused a herd of local pigs to stampede over a sea-side cliff and drown in the sea. It was the proof that the poor man needed that his demons had gone out of him and into the pigs. 

Later, those tending the pigs came to Jesus and saw the poor "mad man" that they feared so much, fully clothed and in his right mind. They were so freaked about the whole event that they asked Jesus to leave their area!

There is a part of all of us that is haunted by our own “demons” - our negative assumptions, our irrational fears and our bad memories. Many of us need external signs to be able to let go of them. There is also a part of us, like the swine herders, that even when good things happen to others, we cannot celebrate because we do not want our status quo upset. We would rather things will be left the way they were!  

We all need deliverance, whether it be from literal demon possession or an all-powerful delusion. Whatever it is, Jesus is willing to help us let go of whatever is holding us back from a life to the fullest!  This must be true because I was thankfully "delivered" from a life of pig farming!

 


Sunday, January 29, 2023

DON'T SETTLE FOR "GOOD ENOUGH TO GET BY"

 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Matthew 5:6

One of the things Bellarmine University is famous for is its Merton Library - the official papers of Kentucky's most famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, whose religious name was Father Louis.  There is a statue of him in front of Bellarmine's science building. I ought to know! I was the longest serving campus minister in its history at 14 years. The Merton statue was installed during my early years there and moved to its present location right before I left. 

One of my favorite stories about Thomas Merton involves an exchange between him and his friend Robert Lax. Lax asked Merton what he wanted to be. Merton answered, "I don't know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic." Robert Lax shot back, "What do you mean you want to be a good Catholic? What you should say is that you want to be a saint!" In defense, Thomas Merton responded, "How do you expect me to become a saint?"  "By wanting to," was Lax's response.

With that, Thomas Merton realized how often people say they cannot do the things they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach, the cowardice that says: "I am satisfied to do enough to get by, but I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments." 

How many of us really want to be saints, "to be in that number when the saints go marching in?"  Most of us are like St. Augustine when he prayed, "Lord make me pure, but not yet!" Most of us wouldn't mind being a saint, if we didn't have to change anything, especially if we didn't have to let go of our sins and destructive attachments

A "saint" is not a "perfect person." A "saint" is a person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, a person with a drive for improvement - both in who they are and what they do - a fierce commitment to their own lifelong formation, an unflinching quest for personal excellence. This does not mean we earn our way to sainthood through personal growth and good deeds. It means that we realize to the depths of our being that we are so loved by God that we want to respond to that love by trying to become all that we can be.

In his book, The Pursuit of Excellence, Tom Peters says about himself, "The idea of mediocrity scares the hell out of me!" "The fear of mediocrity" may be the secret ingredient in becoming a saint. Thomas Merton famously said that the "biggest human temptation is to settle for too little."  

We are in truth "saved by grace."  We are called to sainthood and we are given the help we need to respond. We do not come to that help, that help comes to us. We cannot make that help come to us, but we can open ourselves to its miraculous arrival. We can certainly cooperate with God in the process of becoming saints "by wanting to," by "hungering and thirsting for righteousness.”

I have started this homily by quoting from one of the most beautiful passages in the Gospels. We call these words “the beatitudes.” What they are, really, are descriptions of a truly “holy person,” a person who truly loves God. In reality, they are a set of talking points on Christian holiness, a checklist of the qualities a person possesses who seriously loves God.

Unlike the Ten Commandments, which stress the things that one who loves God should not do, this is a list of things that a person who loves God does do. It is important to remember here that Jesus is not saying “do these things and God will love you,” but rather “if you love God, these are the things you will do!” We do not do these things to earn God’s love, rather if we love God, we will do these things. So, what, then does a serious lover of God look like? How many of them describe you as a “saint in the making?”

(1) He or she is first of all “poor in spirit.”  What Jesus is talking about here is not merely economic poverty. Even the dirt poor can be greedy in their hearts. What it means, really, is the deep-down knowledge that when it comes right down to it, we own nothing and everything can be taken away from us in an instant. Every material possession, every blessing we have ever had, is a gift from God that was given to us, not to hoard, but to share. The more we have been given, the greater the responsibility we have to share.” “Poverty of spirit” is a basic knowledge that we are all poor, when it comes right down to it. No matter how rich we are, we are a heartbeat away from total poverty. We can’t take anything with us, when this is all over! As they say, “There are no pockets in shrouds!” A person who loves God, a person who is poor in spirit, never forgets that fact!

(2) A serious lover of God is able to mourn. One who loves God seriously knows that we are interconnected human beings and therefore never loses his or her ability to feel the suffering of others. A cold-hearted, self-centered, disinterested person is not a friend of God. A friend of God shares the compassion of Christ who was moved deeply by the horrible suffering of simple human beings and is never far from “the gift of tears,” as the saints called it.

(3) A serious lover of God is meek. A “meek” person is not a person who lets people walk over him or her. A “meek” person lives with the knowledge that he is never “a god,” but nonetheless always a “child of God.” In other words, he neither inflates his own worth on one hand, nor does he allow others to deflate his value on the other hand.  Being meek means to know who we are in God’s eyes- nothing more, but nothing less!

(4) A serious lover of God hungers and thirsts for righteousness. A serious lover of God does not dabble in religion, placing religion somewhere outside the realm of his daily living and daily choices.  Rather, he or she is a serious spiritual seeker, always trying to align his everyday life with Christian principles.  He or she strives always to close the gap between being a Christian in name and being a Christian in fact, while being totally free of religious fanaticism and doing spiritual violence to others in the name of orthodoxy.

(5) A serious lover of God is merciful. Being merciful means letting God be the judge of other people. It means giving people the benefit of the doubt, giving them a break, wishing them well on their path, knowing that with God, it isn’t over till it’s over, and with God there is always another chance. Yes, it also means living the maxim, “There but for the grace of God, go I!” Thomas Merton said, "The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all livings things, which are part of one another, and all involved in one another."

(6) A serious lover of God is clean of heart. A serious lover of God doesn’t just do good things, he or she does them for the right reason and with the purest of motives.  I tried to remind the seminarians at Saint Meinrad that it is a good thing to want to be a priest, but one must go into it for good reasons – to serve people, not for what priesthood can do for them. It is a good thing to give to the poor, but one can give to the poor, not because they love the poor, but because they will get their name in the paper or will have a building named after them. A serious lover of God always does good things, but he also does them for the right reason.

(7) A serious lover of God is a peacemaker. War is getting more and more irrelevant. We need to become as good at peacemaking as we have been at building sophisticated weapons. There will always be misunderstanding between people. One who truly loves God has the ability and the credibility to prevent disagreements from becoming a reason for violence. We need not think globally only. Families, marriages, neighborhoods, siblings and churches desperately need these peacemakers. When enough of us really love God, we will have enough peacemakers to move us closer to universal peace.  If you love God, you love his people! If you love his people, you will do what you can to bring them together.

(8) A serious lover of God will be persecuted, insulted and lied about. The brighter the light the fiercer the attack! Evil does not like goodness. Evil cannot tolerate the presence of goodness and so it attacks. One who seriously loves God is more than willing to take persecution, insults and lies, knowing that personal integrity is more important than comfort or approval.

So, the bottom line is this – you will know that you are on the path to sainthood if these "beatitudes" describe you! If these eight characteristics don't describe you, make a u-turn while you can, because you're headed in the wrong direction!      

 

 

 

 

 





Thursday, January 26, 2023

LOOKING FOR GOODNESS TO AFFIRM



GIVEN AT THE LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR ST. JOSEPH HOME
Louisville, Kentucky
January 14, 2023

Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinners
and tax collectors and said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard this and said to them, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

Mark 2:13-17

As I sat down to reflect on today’s gospel, where Jesus was attacked and condemned for being seen hanging out with the riff-raff and trash of society, I immediately thought of a little hand-written list of New Year’s Resolutions that someone sent me. It was in a child’s handwriting. Here is what it said, “This year I want to be more like Jesus. I want to hang out with sinners. I want to upset religious people. I want to tell stories that make people think. I want to choose unpopular friends. I want to be kind, loving and merciful. I want to take naps on boats!” Evidently, the person who wrote that, adult or child, was very familiar with the Scriptures because that is exactly what Jesus did!

Today we read about how Jesus “hung out with sinners.” His critics could not stand the fact that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. They wanted him to condemn them! Jesus gave them a perfect response. “Those who are well do not need a doctor, but sick people do!”

Those of you who know me, know that what Jesus did, is something I have tried to do in my normal practice! As a priest, I have specialized in reaching out especially to fallen away Catholics. For 15 years, I wrote a weekly column in The Record called “An Encouraging Word.” After 500 columns, I started a blog by the same name entitled “An Encouraging Word.” The personal philosophy behind my ministry as a priest has always been to look for goodness to affirm, rather than sins to condemn! I believe with all my heart that “we see what we look for!” If we look for sins to condemn in people, we will find plenty of them to condemn! However, I personally believe that the opposite is also true! If you look for goodness in people to affirm, you will find plenty of goodness to affirm!” I learned this growing up! From the time I was born, until I was about 21, it seemed that I was always being condemned because I was not perfect. Since I was not perfect, in my younger years I seemed to have carried a lot of feelings of “never being good enough!”

This was certainly true leaving St. Thomas Seminary here in Louisville! That training clearly focused on “sins to condemn.” When I entered St. Meinrad Seminary in the Fall of 1964, I entered into a new form of training that emphasized “goodness to affirm.” It changed my life and gave my ministry a new way to look at myself and to look out at you! Personally, I have never been inspired to change and grow through condemnation, but I have been inspired to change and grow through encouragement! Besides, who wants to come to church if you keep being condemned all the time? My firm belief is that most people are doing the best they can under their circumstances. Sometimes, all they need is a little encouragement from the pulpit!

I know I am right following the example of Jesus in today’s gospel. I have done it all my 52 years of priesthood and it works. I know priests who have run off more people from the church, through their judgment and condemnation, than you can imagine! In my own defense, I can point to one place in particular – the Cathedral of the Assumption from 1983-1997 when I was pastor. When I arrived there, the parish was down to 110 people, mostly elderly parishioners who lived in the two high rises around the corner. When I left, there were at least 2000 registered individuals.

How did this happen? It certainly wasn’t my looks, my personality or my intellect. I simply preached the “good news” of God’s unconditional love, especially for those who felt judged and unloved! They were attracted to that message, not to me! They used to call us “the island of misfit toys.” If you have ever read the child’s book, “Rudolf, the Red-nosed Reindeer,” you know what I am talking about. In that book, there is an "island of misfit toys” where broken toys could go to be repaired so they, too, could be part of Christmas! In the words of Pope Francis, we became 'a field hospital for the wounded and sick.'

We specialized in welcoming wounded and fallen-away Catholics. As the “mother church of the diocese,” we liked to say to them, “You can always come home to mother!” They came in droves because they knew they would not have to sit there and be condemned and “put down” every Sunday, but rather be energized by hearing about God’s love and mercy! 

“You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!” Personally, I was never inspired to change and grow through condemnation, but I have been inspired to change and grow through encouragement…and so were they! They came to church to be assured that God looks for goodness to affirm, more than sins to condemn, and that doing their best was good enough for God! 

THIS BOOK, AS WELL AS MANY OTHERS, CAN BE FOUND AT

ronknottbooks.com

 


Tuesday, January 24, 2023

ARE YOU GUILTY OF THE SIN OF WITHHOLDING?

               

Sure, he might be able to drive out demons, but he does it with the help of the prince of demons!

Luke 11:15

 

What we have here is a message about pettiness and jealousy in ministry that has been around since the beginning.   There was one thing the religious enemies of Jesus could not stand and that was his success in ministry. Since it was obvious that he was doing good things, the only tactics they had left to fall back on was to discredit his success by attributing that success to the fact that he was in cahoots with the devil. Since it was obvious to all that he had power to cast out demons, they attributed his power, not to God, but to the devil. Jealous of his power to do good, they slander him by telling people that his power to do good came from evil itself.  

 

Jealousy and competitiveness have been the dark side of clerical culture for a very long time and is alive and well today. When the apostles, James and John, were caught making a move to grab the best seats in Jesus’ new kingdom, they had to face the jealous indignation of the other ten apostles as well as a stern reprimand from Jesus. We may remember the story about John trying to put a stop to someone who was driving out demons in the name of Jesus because he was not “a member of the inner circle.” Then there is the story about Joshua doing pretty much the same when he complained to Moses that Medad and Eldad were prophesying even though they had not been “in the tent” with the others when the spirit came to rest on the other prophets.   Snubbed by some Samaritans while on their way to Jerusalem, James and John asked Jesus if it would be OK to call down fire from heaven and burn them up!   

 

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests dedicates quite a bit of space to the subject of clerical envy and competition. Whether you like his work or not, the late Father Andrew Greeley made a similar point in one of his books. He talks about the leveling that goes on in presbyterates, whereby priests are reluctant to applaud the work of other priests for fear that it will take away something from themselves. 

 

He says that, in the clerical culture, “to be a member of good standing, a priest must try not to be too good at anything or to express unusual views or criticize accepted practices or even to read too much. Some ideas are all right, but too many ideas are dangerous.” “When a layman mentions that Father X is a good preacher, the leveler priest’s response might likely be, ‘Yes, he preaches well, but he doesn’t get along with kids.’” Or, “He’s really good, but all he does during the week is prepare his sermon.” Or, “everyone says that, and it’s probably true, but he’s not an easy man to live with.” God help the individual priest who "shines" too much! 

  

In my transition class with the deacons at St. Meinrad, I always ended with a class on "the spiritual practice of blessing people." Blessing people is not about waving crosses over them, but looking for goodness in them to affirm. For some reason, this does not seem to come naturally to ordained ministers. It is a spiritual discipline that must be intentionally cultivated.  

 

A couple of years ago, I came across my notes for former student, Jorge Gomez’s class, the class of 2011. You may not know that Fr. Jorge, from Mexico, as well as a fellow seminarian, Stanley from Kenya, were killed in a car wreck a few weeks after his ordination. Here are the last words I said to Deacon Jorge to bless him on his way out of the seminary. “You have not forgotten that you do not have a vocation to the seminary, but to serve the People of God. You have a deep love and respect for your country, your family, your people and your community. You are very dedicated to “the people.” You seem to know instinctively that, as priests, we are “called from the people, to live among the people, to serve the people.” I also told them which saint they reminded me of. For him I selected St. Luke, whose heroes are always the underdog, the foreigner, the disaffected and the left out.  I am very happy I took the time to bless him with these words while he was still alive! Fr. Jorge would have loved Pope Francis’ homily where he said, “A priest who is not in service of his community does no good. He is wrong!”   

 

Brothers and sisters, our sin may not be so much about “what we have done,” the mean and nasty things we say about each other, but “what we have failed to do,” our withholding of clear and unconditional compliments.

 

St. Cyprian, in the Office of Readings for the Feast of Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian, put it this way. His words could be applied to religious women, lay ministers and fellow believers as well.  “Why should a priest not take pride in the praise given to a fellow priest as though it were given to him?  What brotherhood fails to rejoice in the happenings of its brothers wherever they are?”  

 

One famous American Protestant preacher described our sin best when he said, “The meanest, most contemptible form of praise is to first speak well of a man and then end it with a “but!” 

 


 

 


Sunday, January 22, 2023

A VOCATION - WE ALL HAVE ONE

               

As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Matthew 4:12-23

Please excuse me if you have heard this story several times. I have only one life, so I have to repeat some of my old experiences once in a while. As some of you already know from my many years of preaching at the Cathedral, at Bellarmine and writing in The Record, that I got my “call” when I was about six years old. No, God did not speak to me from the clouds. Mary did not appear to me in church. Something, however, happened when I was six years old that I have never forgotten. Since I was born and grew up in Rhodelia where there were no barber shops, an elderly man up the road by the name of Alvey Manning cut my hair for $.25. One day, one of his nephews who had recently been ordained, Father Henry Vessels, came for a visit. I just happened to be there for a haircut. Father Vessels paid no attention to me and I don’t even remember talking to him that day. At some point, he had taken off his Roman collar and coat and laid them on one of the beds. I don’t know what possessed me, but I sneaked into the bedroom, held the collar up to my neck and looked at myself in the mirror. Not knowing what got into me, I dropped it like a hot potato, as if I had broken every religious taboo in the Catholic Church.  Even though I was only six years old, I have never forgotten that experience.

The next time the subject of priesthood came up was a year later. I was in the second grade when Sister Mary Ancilla asked us to tell the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. I can still remember thinking, “should I or shouldn’t I” tell them! I can still remember urging myself to go ahead and say “priest” whether they laughed at me or not! The only problem was, I proceeded to flunk the altar boy test, not once, not twice, but three times! This prompted Sister Mary Ancilla to say to me, “Ronnie! You’re a good kid, but I don’t think you will ever be any good around the altar!” (As punishment, I made her sit in the front pew at my First Mass.) 

Throughout grade school, unfazed by Sister Mary Ancilla’s negative evaluation of my possible calling, I did not dwell on the idea of being a priest, but it was always there in the back of my mind. When it came time to go to high school in 1958, I found out that the church would accept young men to start their seminary training out of the eighth grade. Against the advice of almost everybody who knew me, even my pastor Father Felix Johnson, I decided to apply. He didn't want to fill out the papers for my going to the seminary until I groveled. Even then, he predicted I wouldn't make it to Christmas.  A month or two later, at barely fourteen years of age, I left home to begin a twelve-year seminary program to become a priest. Father White called me into his office during my second year of high school seminary and told me he was sending me home because "you, Mr. Knott, are a hopeless case." I had to grovel again for a second chance. (Actually, when I think about it, I have had a lot of experience at groveling!)

Finally, on May 16, 1970 I was ordained! It was hard, very hard, an uphill battle most of the way, but I never looked back, I have never been through an identity crisis for more than a day or two, and even today, I would not trade with anybody. However, even on my ordination day, a woman came up to me and asked how many years I was in seminary. When I answered 12, she stepped back and gasped, "My God! You could have been something!" Most of the time, almost fifty-three years now, I have loved doing what priests do. At age 78, almost 79, with the finish line in sight, I still hope to finish my life as a priest.

In today’s gospel Jesus notices two sets of brothers, fishing. He calls them to follow him, to become his disciples.  We are told they immediately dropped their nets, two of them even dropped their father, and followed Jesus.  Unlike the resistant and foot-dragging response of the Prophet Jonah, these guys are decisive and passionate.       

Throughout Scripture, different people respond differently to God’s call. Abraham and Sarah were old, “one foot in the grave” as the scriptures put it, when they were called to be the father and mother of God’s “chosen people.” Sarah was even caught snickering in her tent about the very idea of becoming a mother in her old age. Moses, who had some sort of speech impediment, tried to beg off when God called him to lead his people out of slavery. Because of his youth, David wasn’t even called in from the fields for the selection process to be King of Israel, yet God chose him over all his older and wiser brothers. The Prophet Isaiah tried to beg off because he had a foul mouth, but God chose him to be a prophet anyway, after washing his mouth out with a hot coal. The Prophet Jeremiah also tried to beg off, using the excuse that he was too young and pathetic at public speaking. God chose him anyway. Mary was barely a teenager when God called her. Paul was a fanatic Christian basher, but God called him to make a 180 degree turn and convert thousands to the Christian way of life.  Sts. Francis of Assisi and Augustine of Hippo were playboys of the worst kind. The scholarly St. Thomas Aquinas, when he was younger, was nicknamed “the dumb ox.” He was so fat that they had to cut out part of the table so that he could reach his plate. He became one of the Church’s most brilliant theologians. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a married Episcopalian when God called her to convert to Catholicism, to become a nun on the death of her husband, to start schools, orphanages and hospitals all over the eastern coast of the United States and finally to become one of a handful of American saints. These men and women join a long list, not only of very ordinary people, but also a long list of misfits, adulterers, losers, weaklings, incompetents, thieves and idiots that God has called to important work.

You are also called to called to carry on some part of Christ’s ministry to the world. Yes, you! God has a special job for you to do in your life that no one else can do. You cannot use the excuse that you are too young or too old, too unworthy or too short on talent. One of the most regular themes in scripture is this: God does not use the world’s standards for choosing those he calls. No, he “chooses the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness to him.”

Personally, I have always thought that marriage and the raising of children was the hardest of vocation. I have always admired those of you who were called to marriage and who have raised families. I don't know how you do it! I learned that when it comes to marriage, you cannot judge a book by its cover. I have presided at weddings where I had great confidence that the new couple would surely make it, but didn't. I have presided at other weddings where I was very doubtful they would last a year only to help them celebrate their 50th wedding anniversaries!  Obviously, God knows more about what he was doing than I did! 

From personal experience. I learned a long time ago, both as a seminarian myself and as a seminary staff member for fourteen years, that the best seminarians do not always make the best priests! In my own case, very few people had much hope for me making it to priesthood, much less lasting this long! I am pretty much surprised myself, but as Mary said to the angel, “with God, anything is possible.” 

Maybe you are young and have not yet heard your life’s call. If not, just remember that God has his eye of you right now, so be ready to "drop everything" and "go for it!" Maybe you are right in the middle of living out your vocation or maybe you have completed your life's vocation. Either way, I hope you can look back over your vocation and feel how I feel about my own call. My vocation is summed up in four words at the top of my new tombstone down in Meade County - “simply amazed – forever grateful.”  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Thursday, January 19, 2023

LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR: ONE OF MY RETIREMENT MINISTRIES

In my retirement, I have taken on several new ministries. I help out every week at either (1) St. Leonard Church or (2) Saint Frances of Rome Church and sometimes at both on the same weekend. (3) I have been working on building a new Family Life Center in our old grade school at my home parish of St. Theresa in Rhodelia. (4) Every week, I have Mass once or twice a week at the local St. Joseph Home for the Aged operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor just down the street from my condo. 

            A special Mass with the local Little Sisters including a few visitors from other homes.
Here, they are wearing their "summer and work habits." 

A special day when priests were invited to wait on tables. 

A typical day at lunch with Little Sisters helping serve the meal for those able to come to the dining room. 

Mother Provincial Julie (center, front row) from Chicago wanted to go to my home parish of St. Theresa down in Meade County. 

As an admirer of  the soon-to-be canonized  Father Augustus Tolton, first black priest to be ordained for the United States, Mother Provincial Julie wanted to visit his grandmother Matilda's grave in the old St. Theresa Cemetery. Father Tolton, his grandmother, Matilda Chisley and his mother Martha Jane (also from St. Theresa) were sadly and tragically all part of a large group of 19th century Catholic slaves. 
 

You can see we cleaned off and reset Matilda's stone. Compare this photo to the moss-covered one in the picture above which is leaning terribly. 

At all four places, I feel appreciated and loved. All four are all life-giving communities that I look forward to being with and hopefully offer a bit of assistance and service. 








Tuesday, January 17, 2023

MY REFLECTION ON THE BASICS OF SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP

Rev. J. Ronald Knott

"With what rashness then, would the pastoral office be undertaken by the unfit, seeing that the government of souls is the art of arts. Although those who have no knowledge of the power of drugs shrink from presenting themselves as physicians of the flesh, people who are utterly ignorant of spiritual precepts are often not afraid of professing themselves to be physicians of the heart."
St. Gregory the Great, “On Pastoral Care”

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” Matthew (7:15) reflects a problem of St. Gregory's own time, bad leadership even in the early church. Even today, not all who seek spiritual leadership in the church do so for the best reasons. Some are motivated by money and some are motivated by a need for the approval and the respect of others. Failing to understand or acknowledge the scars of their own past, some end up being more motivated by anger than by love, and still others seek positions of spiritual authority as a means of personal edification rather than an avenue to serve God.

“The quality and strength of one’s motivation are vital to any lifelong vocation. The temptation to seek priesthood motivated by power, privilege, status and security or to create a feeling of identity can be strong. Other effective motives would be to seek such forms of self-enhancement as comfort, exhibition or unearned affirmation. Likewise are the desire to do social work, to make a reparation for an alcoholic father, to satisfy maternal expectations, or to cover up a confused psychosexual life.  None of these deficit motivational patterns will sustain one for a long time.” (Rev. Desmond O’Donnell, OMI, “The Anatomy of a Vocation,” Seminary Journal,  NCEA, Winter 2003)

Emotionally needy people are especially drawn to the status and practice of ordained ministry. Since it takes humility and vulnerability to do so, some never examine what lies behind their desire to be a leader and are driven by unnamed demons. For this reason, the Church should take great care to screen out needy people who don’t understand who they are or who have no insight into their own motivations. If not, their neediness can derail even the best parishes in a very short time. This neediness can manifest itself in an insatiable need to be the focus of attention and affirmation, an authoritarian leadership style, hasty liturgical changes based on their personal preferences, an inability to listen and a disrespect for what has been done before their arrival.   Most, thank God, are driven by a genuine desire to do God’s work. 

The church today craves and needs good leaders, but at a time when society at large is displaying a growing interest in spiritual issues, there is an acute shortage of real spiritual leaders. The problem is not with people willing to present themselves as leaders, in fact “At the heart of America is a vacuum into which self-appointed saviors have rushed.” (Warren Bennis, ft 2 in Blackaby) People are so desperate for leaders that they are susceptible to following destructive and delusional gurus, would-be messiahs, almost anyone who promises miracles, signs and wonders and those who claim to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Most, however, simply endure and wait-out run-of-the-mill incompetents, many of whom are arrogant as well as ignorant. 

The first caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be: “a designated leader, may or may not be, “a real leader.” People seem to know intuitively that claiming to be a leader or holding a leadership position does not make someone a leader. Even seminaries are bewildered that so few real leaders are emerging from their graduating classes. Designated leaders are not necessarily real leaders. God’s call and ordination makes one a designated leader, but whether one becomes a real leader is additionally a matter of intention, skill and practice. Good will is not a substitute for competency. A true leader has the ability to unleash the power of individuals and direct it toward the goals of the community. The Good News, and its communication through word and deed, is what spiritual leadership is all about. Indeed, an ordination, a collar and a title do not necessarily make one an effective spiritual leader.  Indeed, the best scenario is when a designated leader is also a real leader.

One of the most painful lessons I had to learn as a new pastor was having the title of a leader did not necessarily mean that I was, in fact, a leader. I had accepted the title of pastor, but I was ambivalent and unprepared for all that a pastor of an important and visible church like a cathedral needs to be. As a result of my indecision and lack of focus, the associate pastor “took charge” and left me in the dust. Our constant clashes came to a head one day when one of the musicians screamed out at a tense meeting, “The trouble around here is that we have two “pastors!” It hit me like a ton of bricks: I had the title and the associate had the power. Instead of being angry at him, I decided to step up to the plate and commit myself to becoming a pastor not just in name, but also in fact.

The second caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be:  “know thyself.” Father William Moorman, coordinator of spiritual formation at St. Luke Institute, a treatment center for priests says this about some of our leaders-to-be, as spiritual leaders “we are entrusted with the unique responsibility of embracing the sacred intimacy of another’s spiritual life. Can this be possible if we are unable to embrace the mystery and the sanctity of our own identity? Too often candidates are looking for the identity of priests/religious as a vicarious personal identity, which is always a formula for disaster. Most often these individuals insist on external order to balance their internal chaos, and they never achieve the inner peace they long for in their spiritual lives. Spirituality for such persons reside outside themselves in spiritual practices, as opposed to embracing the mystery of God, others, and self.” Any formation program for “spiritual leaders” must assume reasonably integrated individuals, but Father Moorman notes that because of the shortage of seminarians, screening and formation programs are accepting and tolerating candidates with demonstrable personality traits such as dependency, avoidance, narcissism, and obsessive/compulsive behavior. (Pp.36-37 HUMAN DEVELOPMENT, vol, 27, no. 2 summer 2006) Priesthood, even today, offers seductions of power, prestige and flattery. This attracts those who are drawn to the status and practice of ministry along with their need to be the focus of attention and affirmation. This focus becomes even more pernicious if it is couched in the religious language about being servants.

Saint Gregory the Great, in his remarkably applicable work “Pastoral Care,” warns of those who “investigate spiritual precepts with shrewd diligence…but teach what they have learned, not by practice, but by study, and belie in their conduct what they teach by words.” As if writing about recent events in our church, he observes, “For no one does more harm in the Church than he who, having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly.” 

He goes on to warn those who enter into ministry with a divided heart, “The mind cannot possibly concentrate on the pursuit of any one matter when it is divided among many. It is as though it were so preoccupied during the journey as to forget what its destination was; with the result that it is so great a stranger to the business of self-examination as not to be aware of the harm it suffers, or to be conscious of the great faults it commits.”

Saint Gregory the Great, again with remarkable application to today’s reactionary young priests, warns of those “who…busy themselves with a variety of inquisitions, more than is needful, and fall into error by their excessive subtlety.” Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Rather, he says, “When the ruler prepares to speak, he must bear in mind to exercise a studious caution in his speech, for if his discourse, hastily given, be ill-ordered, the hearts of his hearers may be stricken with the wound of error, and when perhaps, he wishes to appear wise, he will by his lack of wisdom sever the bond of unity.”  Many unseasoned new pastors have done great damage to the church in their zeal for, but limited understanding of, “orthodoxy and truth.”

The third caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be: “Nemo dat quod non habet.” “No one gives what he does not have.” Saint Gregory Nazianzus put it another way. “Before purifying others, they must purify themselves; before instructing others, they must be instructed; they have to become light in order to illuminate and become close to God in order to sanctify.”  Indeed, as Father Howard P. Bleichner wrote, “Lofty prose is easily mouthed.”  It is easy to recite high ideals, but very difficult to live them.

 A fourth caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be: “Integrity is essential to leadership.” Gregory the Great says, “For one who is so regarded that the people are called his flock, must carefully consider how necessary it is for him to maintain a life of rectitude. It is necessary, therefore, that he should be pure in thought, exemplary in conduct, discreet in keeping silence, profitable in speech, in sympathy a near neighbor to everyone, in contemplation exalted above all others, a humble companion to those who lead good lives, erect in his zeal for righteousness against the vices of sinners. He must not be remiss in his care for the inner life by preoccupation with the external; not must he in his solicitude for what is internal, fail to give attention to the external.” He goes on to say, “For one who by the exigency of his position must propose the highest ideals, is bound by that same exigency to give a demonstration of those ideals. His voice penetrates the hearts of his hearers the more readily, if his way of life commends what he says.”

A fifth caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be: It’s not about you!” It has always been true for newly ordained priests, but one of the many downsides of a priest shortage is that the traditional “headiness” that comes with ordination is being exacerbated. Newly ordained priests and priests-to-be are so often “made over” and “focused on" during their days in the seminary and especially during their ordinations and “first Masses” that they begin to feel special, maybe too special. This powerful surge of special treatment can, unmonitored, lead quickly to the cocksure arrogance of clericalism and entitlement.  As Pope John Paul II put it, priests are not above the laity or alongside the laity, but for the laity. It’s not about us, but them!

The best advice to those who want to prepare themselves for “spiritual leadership” is to insist that they do serious inner work to see if they have the “right stuff” to practice the art of arts, to be physicians of the heart. Otherwise, they ought to be arrested for false advertising or dismissed as a menace to the People of God, even if they do mean well.