Sunday, May 21, 2023



Last Tuesday, I celebrated the 53rd anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. When I read the gospel for today, the Feast of the Ascension, I realized that its words have indeed been at the very heart of my past 54 years, if you count my one year as a deacon.

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them
to observe all that I have commanded you.
Matthew 28:16-20

Let me give you a quick synopsis of my own “going out to the whole world to proclaim the gospel” and what I have learned in the process. 

My earliest memory of being attracted to preaching took place when I was seven years old in the Cloverport Baptist Church, way down river, at the funeral of my maternal grandmother’s brother, Napoleon Chappell. At that time, I had never before stepped foot in a Protestant church, but even at seven years old, I was absolutely fascinated by that Baptist preacher’s dynamic preaching style. I was both enthralled and hooked! Back then, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to like it, but I knew that day that I did anyway!

Growing up, our parish priest was a good man, but I do not remember him ever being any good at preaching. I think he actually avoided it as much as possible! In the spring, he would say that it was too hot for a sermon. In the fall, he would say that it was too cold. I do, however, remember being fascinated by the preaching of the priests who would come through every few years or so to conduct a Parish Mission. A bit scary, they would shout and walk down into the congregation waving a Bible or a big crucifix and sometimes wearing a very large rosary like the Sisters who taught us in school! They kept me on the edge of my seat in anticipation of what they would say next! It was obvious that they were there to challenge us to become better Christians and better Catholics! Even as a child, I took them very seriously!

The next time I remember being attracted to preaching was at Saint Meinrad Seminary. When I arrived there in 1965 as a Junior in college, Vatican Council II was going on and I remember taking to heart these words from that Council. “Priests have as their primary duty the proclamation oof the Gospel of God to all.” Not only did I hear that challenge, but I was privileged to hear monks preach engaging homilies every day in the seminary chapel. I always looked forward to their preaching.

As much as I was attracted to preaching, I had a problem. I was so bashful that I was terrorized by even having to read in the seminary chapel. It slowly began to dawn on me that I needed to overcome this handicap if I wanted to fulfill my “primary duty” as a priest after I was ordained. I resolved, then and there, to do whatever I could to conquer my crippling bashfulness.

That resolve eventually led me to sign up for a summer program for seminary students offered by the United Church of Christ. Their program was called a “A Christian Ministry in the National Parks.” I was the first Catholic seminarian to sign up for their summer preaching program. After my orientation in Chicago, I was assigned to preach in the campgrounds of Crater Lake National Park in the state of Oregon. In the summer of 1968, I preached in the park campgrounds twice every weekend all summer long. When I got back to Saint Meinrad Seminary for my final year of seminary, when we were offered our very first course in preaching, I went into that course with more preaching experience than anyone else in my class. During that final year of seminary, I was ordained a deacon and was given opportunities to preach at Saint John Vianney Church and Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital here in Louisville where I had been assigned.

Two weeks after being ordained a priest here in our Cathedral, fifty-three years ago last week, I found out I was being assigned to the “home missions” down along the Tennessee border, to a parish the size of the state of Delaware where the Catholic population was only 1/10 of 1%. I was not happy, but I had no choice but to go. For ten years, preaching in a crowded sea of Protestant preachers became my main ministry. I was invited to preach three years in a row by the public high school graduating class of a school that had no Catholics in it's student body. This happened after I had been invited as a guest speaker to answer their questions about Canterbury Tales in their English Literature class. I also had the opportunity to teach Sociology and be an interfaith campus minister at Somerset Community College. I often preached "short church services" for the residents of a juvenal delinquent institution. Oddly enough, while I was missioned there, I was able to get my Doctorate of Ministry degree in "parish revitalization."

After ten years in the “home missions,” I was sent to central Kentucky to a 225 year old Catholic parish in Calvary, right outside of Lebanon, Kentucky. I went from an area with almost no Catholics to an area that was almost 100% Catholic! From there, after only 3 ½ years, I was suddenly sent to the Cathedral, a dying parish that was on the list of parishes being considered for closing. You heard me! The Cathedral was on a list of parishes being considered for closure. Some were pushing the idea of making Holy Spirit Church our Cathedral. Parish membership had dropped to only 110 members. By focusing mainly on preaching for fourteen years, we grew to over 2,100 members.

After leaving there, I went to preach to college students at Bellarmine University and to seminarians from around the world who were studying to be priests at Saint Meinrad. During fourteen of those years, I published a weekly column in The Record that contained summaries of many of my homilies. In the last 25 years, I have preached over 80 Parish Missions and published a few books of collected homilies. I preached over 150 priest and bishop retreats in 10 countries. I have even addressed two conferences of Bishops: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Antilles Bishops Conference. Finally, until COVID reared its ugly head and their volcano erupted, I was volunteering in the foreign missions of the Caribbean. I made 12 trips down there. I preached in their Cathedral many times, in the Bishop’s Pastoral Centre Chapel and in several of their parishes.

After that, I went back to our Cathedral for a short time, only to learn the hard way that “you can’t go home again!” I finally came here to St. Frances of Rome and St. Leonard, my first choice, and have been preaching here happily for the last couple of years! I have also been preaching to the elderly at least once a week, on weekdays, at the Little Sisters of the Poor. 

Why am I telling you all this? During all those years, I learned the truth of what St. Gregory Nazianzus said, “One and the same exhortation does not fit all. According to the quality of the hearer ought the discourse of the teachers to be fashioned.” I learned the truth early that when it comes to preaching, one size does not fit all. A preacher must change his style to fit the hearers in front of him. Let me list the groups I have preached to over the years in all those many places and the various ways in which I have tried to tailor my message depending on who was listening to me. All of them required a different approach and a different style. Preaching to college students is different from preaching to nursing home patients. Preaching to non-Catholics is different from preaching to Catholics. Preaching here is Louisville is different from preaching in the Caribbean missions. When preaching Midnight Mass, for instance, a preacher needs to remember that there are guests there who identify as "fallen away," "lapsed," "spiritual, but not religious," members of other denominations, other religions or none at all. To preach like everyone there is a practicing Catholic would be more than a "missed opportunity." It would border on being criminal! Here are some of those groups to whom we are called to preach the gospel.


These 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. Oddly, this may be the smallest of the groups to whom I have preached. This was my main focus when I preached in Calvary and as a seminary staff member at Saint Meinrad. My fellow Catholics, we priests must stop the routine of preaching to the choir and start paying attention to who are NOT here – stop the routine of giving 90% of our attention to 20% of the flock just because they show up on Sundays. When will we get it through our thick heads that the numbers of those who show up are shrinking right in front of our eyes and the warmed-over. in-house. pietistic, “church-chat” we are dishing out from our pulpits is not that appetizing to most of our people?

This brings me to the next group we are called to feed.


This group has been called “the second largest denomination in the United States.” They may still be registered members of a parish, but they 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,” “former Catholics” or “recovering Catholics.” This was my main focus when I preached at the Cathedral between 1983 and 1997, in my Parish Missions and quite often in my fifteen-year weekly Record column. Not all non-practicing Catholics are alike! I can list four different types of non-practicing Catholics and each require a different preaching style:

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. Many are immigrants or people of color.

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, may not have been strong to begin with or who do not identify with much that any religion has to say. They are just flat out bored with what they experience. This could be the biggest group of non-practicing Catholics.


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 in our Church. This was my focus when I preached in Crater Lake National Park, down in southern Kentucky, the Caribbean missions and at the Cathedral, especially in my work with the Cathedral Heritage Foundation.


These people do not identify with any organized religion. They describe themselves as “not interested in religion,” “spiritual, but not religious,” or “agnostics.” I have always found this group especially honest and fascinating. This group was my main focus in southern Kentucky, especially in Monticello.

Each of those groups require a different approach and a different style of preaching. We priests and deacons simply must move beyond our “one style” “take it or leave it” attitude.

In preaching to all these groups, I have tried my best over the last 50 plus years to carry out the words of Vatican Council II, “Priests have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all.” Because I consider preaching to have been my “primary duty” all these years, in my own funeral plans, I have asked to be laid out in my free Saint Meinrad casket, holding a copy of the Lectionary in my hands rather than a chalice that most priest are laid out with, holding in their hands. It is a gift given to me by the Archbishop of Winnipeg, Canada, after a couple of days of talking to him and his priests about their “primary duty” of preaching.

In all those years of preaching to such a wide-range of audiences, I have tried to heed the words of Saint Gregory the Great who said “The preacher must dip his pen into the blood of his own heart; then he will be able to reach his neighbor’s ears!” In other words, I have tried to share my own doubts, my own failures, my own sins and my own setbacks to show you that I am with you, not above you! I have tried to do it, not as a way to get sympathy or to impress you, but as a way to show you the path to your own transformation. To remind me of that, I have always tried to remember the words of the famous baseball player, Johnny Sain, who said, “People don’t want to hear about the labor pains, they just want to see the baby.” When sharing my problems, I have understood that people don’t want to hear about how bad I had it, they just want to know how to overcome their own setbacks and sins!

As I look out at you today and think of all the congregations in several countries to whom I have preached, let me say it again and again! I am SIMPLY AMAZED – FOREVER GRATEFUL! It has been an honor to share the Word with you and so many other people in so many places every Sunday! My "pulpit tour" today is a glimpse into the challenge of how I have tried to carry out the following words:

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

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