Thursday, March 2, 2023


“The Role of Preaching in the Revitalization of a Congregation” 

Rev. J. Ronald Knott 




Louisville, Kentucky 

October 31, 2015 




Before I get into my topic, I would like to say that I have always had a passion for preaching. That might sound like an oxymoron coming from the mouth of a 72 year old Catholic priest who has been preaching for 47 years (46 years for Catholic churches and 1 year as a campground minister for the United Church of Christ) and is very aware of the stereotype that Catholics do not value preaching. It might shock you to know that I have about 90% of all the homilies I have given over the last 45 years in hard copy and computer files. Several hundred of them are on tape.  


My passion goes back to a funeral for a distant relative at the Stephensport Baptist Church, Stephensport, Kentucky, when I was seven years old. In those days, Catholics were taught that if you had to attend a Protestant service like a funeral or wedding, you were not to participate. At seven years old, I remember sitting there listening to the excited and dynamic preacher and lively gospel music saying to myself, “I know I am not supposed to like this, but I do!” I remember it clearly.  


In Catholic seminaries, like Saint Meinrad Seminary, of the 1960s, we were not allowed to preach until we were ordained deacons during our very last year. I, however, wanted to learn how to preach. During the summer of 1968, one year before I was ordained a deacon and two years before I was ordained a priest, I signed up to be a campground minister in a United Church of Christ program called “A Christian Ministry in the National Parks” for seminary students from various Protestant seminaries. I was the very first Catholic to sign up for that program. I was trained at St. Richard Episcopal Church in Chicago and was assigned to Crater Lake National Park. I was the preacher and I was assisted by a Disciples of Christ female seminarian who served as a music minister and an Episcopal seminarian who served as an education minister. I preached twice a weekend all that summer at generic Protestant services in the campgrounds of that beautiful national park.  I also served as a night desk clerk at the lodge, a fill-in bartender and the MC at the Miss Crater Lake beauty pageant. 


My passion for preaching intensified after my ordination to priesthood. Immediately after ordination, I was sent to live alone in “Bible Belt” of southern Kentucky in an area where I was the first resident Catholic priest ever – in the history of the world! I was ask to pastor two very small churches with less than 12 members together. When I entered a local independent Baptist Church to attend my first ministerial association at the invitation of the local Southern Baptist minister, I was asked to leave. It seemed that every minister in the county was preaching on the radio. At the invitation of the local radio station, I had my own radio ministry on Sunday morning, but I was eventually thrown off the air while I was away for vacation after pressure from some of the local ministers.  


When I was ordained a priest in 1970, I assumed that I would follow the typical track at that time. I would serve in a large urban or suburban parish as an associate pastor for a couple of turns and then become a pastor of a small parish or two before working my way up to a large parish. When I was chosen to be sent to the “Bible Belt” of southern Kentucky to be part of a Catholic evangelization push, I was shocked and totally unprepared for what I was being asked to do. My first job was to raise the funds for my own salary. Money for continuing education was not yet part of any ministry package at that time. Without funds, I was driven once again in my life to use my imagination.  


At the suggestion of the Presbyterian pastor, in the next town, I signed up with him, a Disciples of Christ minister and an Episcopal priest to study for a Doctor of Ministry degree offered by McCormick Seminary in Chicago in “Parish Revitalization.” I thought it would be the closest thing I could find to teach me a few things I needed to know, especially about evangelization. Without funds, I was given a full scholarship by McCormick on two grounds: poverty income and minority religion! By the way, I was the only one to graduate and my thesis was “How One Roman Catholic Church Dealt Assertively With Its Environments: Inside Weakness and Outside Hostility.” Not only did my own members not know much about their own faith, the local community was filled with anti-Catholic stereotypes and prejudices.  It was in that program that I discovered my mantra on “parish revitalization,” whether it be in the Bible Belt of southern Kentucky, the Catholic ghetto of central Kentucky or the urban core of downtown Louisville – if you want to revitalize a congregation, spend your time on preaching, your money on music and then they will ask for education.  


After ten years in the Bible Belt of southern Kentucky, I was sent to the so-called Catholic Holy Land of central Kentucky. To my surprise, I found myself focusing again on preaching in an effort to evangelize the life-long Catholics of a 200 year old rural parish in need of revitalization. To my surprise, what had worked in the Bible Belt, worked in that traditional Catholic ghetto.            


While a focus on preaching played the most significant role in the growth and revitalization of my first two small parishes, it wasn’t till I became pastor of our center-city Cathedral in downtown Louisville that I became totally convinced of the role of preaching in the revitalization of a congregation.  


Once a dynamic parish, especially around 1890-1910, it began to decline seriously in the 1950s and by the time I arrived there in 1983, it had dwindled down to about 110 persons, mostly retired older women living in two local senior living facilities near the cathedral. They was a smattering of visitors from the local hotels on occasion.  


Having heard of my “parish revitalization” degree from McCormick Seminary, the Archbishop of Louisville gave me a very simple job description – “Do something with it!” I was warned by the former pastor “not to get my hopes up” “because there aren’t any Catholics living downtown anymore.”   


My first day on the job, I took a lawn chair and went across the street to a small park and just sat there looking at it, looking at what was around it and what was down the street from it. Gradually, it occurred to me that I had about three choices, as far as growth: conversions to Catholicism, attract Catholics from other parishes and go after “non-practicing” Catholics that came downtown to work in the high rises around the Cathedral. I was aware that the second largest denomination in the US were “non-practicing Catholics.”  In  a few years, we earned the nickname “The Island of Misfit Toys.” 


In a few months, I had developed my three-pronged plan for revitalization: spend time on preaching, spend money on music and show obvious hospitality. Without spending a penny on advertising, I simply focused on preaching and asked my associate pastor to do the same. Word got out and they began to come. I borrowed $70,000 to start a music program. That budget grew quickly to $100,000. I stood at the doors of the Church with the associate pastor for each of our four weekend services – rain or shine. They continued to come. Every month we grew, simple because of our reputation for preaching first, and then for our music and hospitality. In the 14 years, I was there, we grew to 2100 members, with the average age being 25-35, then 35-45, then 65-75. Again, I remind you that we did not advertise. Word of mouth was our best friend. Among those who were “non-practicing,” we attracted a significant number of divorced and remarried Catholics, as well as Gay and Lesbian Catholics.  The “unconditional love of God” from the parables became the central focus of our preaching, something these people needed to hear, but did not really know about. Our budget grew from $90,000 a year to $900,000 a year without one single money talk! We gave away 25% of that $900,000 to local, national and international charities.  


Besides our outreach to “fallen away Catholics,” as a Cathedral we had the responsibility of reaching out to the community around us. This mission was eventually taken up by a new 5013C, an interfaith organization, called the Cathedral Heritage Foundation (now the Center for Interfaith Relations), with its own interfaith board. We basically made a pact with the interfaith community that said, “If you help us fix this place up, we will all use it!” It is now used for opening and closing services of religious conventions coming to downtown Louisville, community ecumenical celebration and services in good times and bad and a place of prayer during the day. This foundation established an annual Festival of Faiths which is still celebrated by a week of events celebrating the role of religion in the community. This 5013C raised over $22,000,000 to restore the buildings and has an annual fundraiser to support the work of   the Center for Interfaith Relations. The Cathedral houses a kitchen and dining room for the homeless in its basement, staffed and funded by the community at large, a ministry that has been going on since the `1840s.  The foundation also built a prayer park in an adjacent lot which it purchased. This park contains many religious quotes from the world’s religions, as well as a large fountain, tables, benches and relaxing trees and plants. 


In the last several years, including most of my year and half retirement from being director of continuing education at St. Meinrad Seminary, I have been leading priest retreats. In fact, I have done over 100 week-long retreats in seven countries, with about ten more on the calendar. I spend a lot of time in those retreats challenging priests of all ages to take preaching more seriously – for the good of the people they serve, as well as for their own good.  


As a former pastor who stills believe seriously in the power of preaching to revitalization of a congregation, there are a few things worth pointing out that have worked to help this happen.   


1.    Good preaching takes time.  Priests normally get one day a week off. As pastor, my associates and I took two days off – one for rest and one to produce a printable script for distribution. 

2.    If printed copies of homilies are used in the pulpit, I suggest highly that the preacher learn to write in  what is called an “oral writing style.” When people object that it sounds like he/she is reading it, that has more to do with the style of writing than the practicality of the technique. Most of us write homilies like we wrote term papers. No wonder they sound read! There is another style of writing that finds the precise word, the right turn of phrase and the cadence for the spoken word that most people cannot do “on their feet and out of thin air.”   

3.    Saving used homilies can be a gold mind of ideas for prayer days, days of recollection, retreats, books for spiritual reading and extended preaching occasions like revivals and parish missions.   

4.    Those who show up for Sunday worship are probably less than 50% of those we are called to preach to, so access to a printed copy of the weekend homily is one way to bridge that gap.  Besides “the faithful” we are called to find opportunities to preach to the mad, the sad, the ignored, the bored, other believers and the unchurched.  

5.    Not everyone can hear and not everyone can understand the language used by the preacher, so printed copies, recordings and even translations helps reach more people. 

6.    As pastor, I assumed responsibility to plan the preaching ministry of the parish, especially seasonally. This gave us an opportunity to do homily series during Lent, Advent and other liturgical seasons. 

7.    Money given for printed and recorded homilies was put into a preaching endowment. From this endowment, guest preachers were invited on special occasions. 

8.    This is a strictly personal point of view. I believe in preaching from the pulpit, rather than walking around the sanctuary or up and down the aisles. In a Catholic church, the pulpit, the altar and the chair from which the priest presides are considered sacred objects. When I preach from the pulpit, my own personality is downplayed in favor of my official role as preacher in the assembly. Visually, it becomes less of my own word and more the Word of God that is being announced. It reminds me that I am preaching God’s Word and not my own. But, as I say, this is a personal point of view. 

9.    As a pastor, I considered Sunday preaching as a form of “group spiritual direction.” Spiritual leadership is about the ability to influence people to move from where they are to where God wants them to be through invitation, persuasion, personal example and the skillful use of language from the pulpit. Influencing people, not only individually but as one body, to move deeper and deeper into discipleship is the goal of Sunday preaching by a pastor. 

10.                       Here are a few thoughts from Pope Francis that I have intuitively used in my preaching ministry, long before he said them. “The preacher has the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the heart of the Lord and his people.” “To speak from the heart means that our hearts must not just be on fire, be we must also truly understand the biblical text.” “After calling upon the Holy Spirit in prayer, we need to give our entire attention to the biblical text, which needs to be the basis of our preaching. Whenever we stop and attempt to understand the message of a particular text, we are practicing “reverence for the truth.” This is the humility of heart which recognizes that the word is always beyond us, that “we are neither its masters or owners, but its guardians, heralds and servants. This attitude of humble and awe-filled veneration of the word is expressed by taking the time to study it with the greatest care and a holy fear lest we distort it.”  “Preparation for preaching is so important a task that a prolonged time of study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity should be devoted to it. A preacher who does not prepare is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received.”  “The preacher needs to keep his ear to the people and to discover what it is that the faithful need. A preacher has to contemplate the word, but he also has to contemplate his people.” “Let us also keep in mind that we should never respond to questions that nobody asks.” “Another feature of a good homily is that it is positive. It is not so much concerned with pointing out what shouldn’t be done, but with suggesting what can be done better. In any case, if it does draw attention to something negative, it will also attempt to point to a positive and attractive value, lest it remain mired un complaints, laments, criticisms and reproaches. Positive preaching offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity.” 

11.                       Nemo dat, quod non habet.” Before we can be a Samuel, about whom it was said, that “not of a word of his was permitted to go without effect,” we have to be a Jeremiah about whose preaching was said, “it was like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grew weary holding it in.” 

12.                       Here are a couple of my favorite quotes about preaching. St. Gregory the Great said this, “The preacher must dip his pen into the blood of his own heart then he can also reach the ear of his neighbors.”  When using personal examples, we must also remember the wisdom of Johnny Sain: “People don’t want to hear about the labor pains, they just want to see the baby.” Nobody wants to hear how bad you had it, they want to know how you overcame it. About “contemplating, not just the word itself, but the people who will hear it,” St. Gregory Nazianzus said this, “One and the same exhortation does not fit all. According to the quality of the hearer ought the discourse of teachers to be fashioned.” A sermon tailored to faithful members will not necessarily speak to those alienated or on the margins of the Church and vice versa.   

13.                       In short, the famous Dwight Moody, the other Dwight Moody, said it best, “The best way to revive a church is to build a fire in the pulpit.”  


So far, I have talked about the role of preaching in the revitalization of a congregation. Serious preaching can do that! But what I would like to end with is a little something about the affect serious focused preaching has on the one who preaches. Preaching well not only leads others to sanctification, but also to personal sanctification. Serious preaching revitalizes the preacher as well as the parish. A preacher cannot handle that much Scripture in a serious and care-filled way, letting it penetrate one’s being, without it having on effect on the one who handles the Word and the one who hears it preached.  


Preaching has been such a part of my own spirituality that I want to be buried clutching a Lectionary. The Archbishop of Winnipeg heard me say that and actually presented me with a copy of the Canadian Lectionary for my casket at the end of the retreat I led for him and his priests. Saint Meinrad Archabbey has a casket business and one of the perks from working there is a free casket. I am now fully ready to go! 


Let me end with these two challenges! If you want to revitalize about any congregation, and your own faith in the process, claim your pulpit for spiritual leadership and claim your pulpit for personal sanctification! Truly, it is in giving that we receive!   







Tuesday, February 28, 2023



People immediately recognized him. They scurried about the surrounding countryside and began to bring in the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.
Mark 6:53-56

A year or two ago, I was given an old photograph that was taken in September of 1950 of my mother sitting in a chair surrounded by the first five of us seven kids. My mother has a forced smile on her face. She is holding my baby sister in one hand and comforting another sister, who is crying her little heart out about something, with the other. The rest of us are leaning in toward her like she was a warm stove on a cold day even though it had to be a hot day since most of us were dressed in shorts and tee shirts. My mother has that tired, almost overwhelmed, look on her face like a mother dog with one too many pups – with two more yet to go!

Today’s gospel reminded me of that old childhood photo. No sooner than Jesus’ boat had landed on the other side of the lake, he was surrounded by another crowd of needy people who had come to get something out of him. They came to get. They came with their insistent demands. To put it bluntly, they came to use him. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Where were these crowds when Jesus needed something from them? When he needed comfort and support as he hung on the cross, they were not there!

Always taking and never giving is one of the shameful characteristics of human nature. It is not uncommon for many young people today to see their homes as being there to cater to their comfort and convenience. It is there that they eat and sleep and get things done for them. Unlike years ago, many today do not see it as a place where they ought to contribute.

There are those who simply use their friends and relatives. They see these people as existing to help them when they need help and to be forgotten when they cannot be made of use. Many never send a birthday card or even make a quick phone call to check on family members. The only time they are heard from is when they graduate and get married. It’s almost like getting a bill or a gift request. I experienced a similar dynamic when I was teaching those in the seminary who were about to be ordained. They would excitedly show me the invitations to their Ordinations and "First Masses." When I asked to see their “thank you cards,” many would give me a blank stare as if they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about! It is as if some of them believed that they were being ordained “to be served, rather than to serve!”

There are those who use the Church. They want the Church to baptize their babies, marry their young adults and bury their dead. They seem to believe that the Church exists to serve them, but they have no duty whatsoever towards it. They are the ones who are the first to whine that “church is boring,” but they show up late, never sing, never answer the prayers, put a wrinkled one-dollar bill in the collection, never sign up for a ministry and leave early. In their minds, it is up to others to “make it interesting” and “be there” for them when they need it!

There are those who use God. Their only prayers are requests, or even demands, if they are in a crisis. Someone put it this way. “In American hotels there is a boy called the “bell-hop.” The hotel guest rings the bell and the “bell-hop” appears; he will fetch anything the guest wishes on demand. Some people think God is some kind of universal “bell-hop” only to be summoned when something is needed.

If we were to be honest with ourselves, we all do this to some extent. We need to stop sometime and examine our consciences on this one matter. How much of our prayer is about offering worship, praise and thanksgiving compared to how much of our prayer is about requests for some need that we have?

Sunday, February 26, 2023


At that time Jesus was Jesus led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
Mathew 4:1-11

Today we are presented with two great “temptation” stories in the Bible – the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden and the temptation of Jesus in the desert. In the first temptation story, in the garden, Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent. They are seduced into “giving in” and the serpent wins. In the second temptation story, in the desert, Jesus is tempted by the devil but refuses to be seduced and the devil loses. Both temptation stories present us with evil that appears, on the surface, to be good but underneath is bad. Adam and Eve fall for the serpent’s good-sounding offer. Jesus sees through the devil’s good-sounding offers and resists them.

At his baptism in the Jordon River, Jesus heard his Father say to him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Not understanding what those words actually meant, he goes to the desert, a place free of distractions, to hear himself think, to discern his path forward and get some clarity about the direction of his ministry.

We are told that Jesus was “tempted” by three attractive options offered by the devil during his desert retreat. (1) The devil suggested to Jesus that he could attract a lot of followers if he would just turn rocks into bread. Jesus said “no” because he knew that there were enough resources already to feed the poor. What was needed was not “magic bread,” but people changing their attitudes toward sharing those resources with the poor. (2) The devil suggested to Jesus that he could get lots of followers if he would just suspend the laws of nature and jump from high buildings and land unharmed with the help of angels. Jesus said “no” because he knew that if people would just open their eyes, they would see that life as it is already a miracle. He knew that with a new way of seeing, they didn’t need dramatic stunts and cheap miracles. (3) The devil suggested that if he would just align himself with political power, he could easily accomplish his mission. After all, who would make a better king than Jesus? Jesus said “no,” because he knew that if they turned their sights toward God, they already had a king!

After rejecting these three attractive offers for going forward, Jesus comes out of the desert with his simple one-word answer. Metanoiete! Change the way you think! You don’t need magic answers! You don’t need dramatic stunts! You don’t need outside power! All you need to do is change the way you look at the things right under your nose, the way you think about things you see and you will see God already working right there in front of you!

The story says that Jesus was “tempted.” What exactly is a “temptation?” A "temptation" is a personal inner struggle between good and evil, both appearing to look good, with a choice that has at its base a desire to do something, especially something wrong or unwise. Temptations are such a part of our everyday living that they get their own special mention every time we say the Our Father. We pray that we will "not be led into temptation."

I am reminded of our first reading from the Old Testament Book of Sirach just week before last. “Before you are life and death, good and evil, whichever you choose shall be given you. No one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin.” (Sirach 15:15-20) That is worth repeating! "Before is life and death, good and evil, whichever we choose will be given to us!"

A lot is made these days of our "right to choose," but little is said about our responsibility to choose wisely and even less is said about our responsibility to accept the consequences of our choices. Many of us today are like kids who go through life eating the filling out of the Oreos and throwing the cookies away. We want freedom without the responsibility that goes with it! We want the right to choose, but we are not necessarily willing to accept the responsibility and consequences that go with our choices. Even our country is famous for its citizens' Bill of Rights, promulgated in 1791, but it was only this year that a new book by Richard Haass, entitled The Bill of Obligations about our obligations as citizens, was published to balance them.

We may have the right to eat French Fries and Chicken Nuggets three times a day, but we also have the responsibility to eat healthily. If we only exercise our right to eat whatever we want, without accepting our responsibility to eat well, we will sooner or later have to accept the consequences of our choices. In school, we have a right to skip classes, but we also have a responsibility to go to class. If we only exercise our right to skip, we must be willing to accept the consequences of our flunking out of school. If we only exercise our right to a credit card, without accepting our responsibility for paying for what we charge, we will sooner or later have to accept the painful consequences of our choices – a cancelled credit card and a ruined credit score for years to come! Our culture is filling up with people who keep trying to beat this basic truth!

One of the benefits of being a young adult is finally being able to enjoy the freedom to make your own choices. One of the upsides of the freedom to choose is the ability to build your own life the way you want it through a series of personal choices. One of the downsides of that freedom to choose is the freedom to ruin your life through a series of poorly-thought-out choices. The freedom to choose, combined with the ability to choose wisely, is the ideal. Yet there are many who cannot handle their freedom well and end up losing it. Giving into the temptation to choose what appears and feels good at the moment, without the personal discipline to choose what would actually be good over the long haul, is a recipe for disaster.

Hearing about people ruining their lives has actually become a favorite American entertainment. Many think it is funny to watch stupid people on trash TV tell the world how they have ruined their lives and the lives of those who have been associated with them. Every day people like Judge Judy, Jerry Springer and Maury Povich make big bucks featuring people who have ruined their lives and the lives of those around them because of the poor choices they have made. They have the "freedom to choose" but choose poorly. They have the "freedom to choose" but they don't have the ability to discern what is of value. Illegitimate children, ruined marriages, sexually transmitted diseases, financial ruin, family disintegration, squandered opportunities for a good education and loss of reputation are only a few of the consequences of making choices without the ability to choose wisely.

To be able to "discern what is of value," we must develop self-mastery. By self-mastery, I mean we have to be able to name and then "stand up to" our temptations, to our addictions, to our cowardice and to our laziness in order to create the life we want to have! We must be able to "handle" ourselves and "handle" our cravings - for a higher purpose and for our long-term good. We must be able to continually clarify what we really want out of life, constantly focus our energies to reach for what we want and consistently deal in truth rather than in deception. People with self-mastery approach their lives like an artist approaching the task of producing a work of art. People with self-mastery know how to discern what is of value and use what they have discerned to live on purpose! The spiritual disciplines of both East and West speak often of the practice self-mastery.

One of the sad things about our culture, in which freedom of choice is so highly honored, is the growing tendency to deflect responsibility for our bad choices after we make them. We throw the blame onto others. If our culture is to survive, the freedom to choose simply must be combined with personal responsibility. To demand the freedom to make our own choices and then throw the blame on others when those choices backfire is the height of cowardice and irresponsibility - and yet it is so very popular in our culture. As Flip Wilson's character used to say all the time, "The devil made me do it!" As we hear all the time on TV, "It was my parents' fault. They didn't raise me right!" "It was right there for the taking. What could I do but take it! They shouldn't have made it so easy to take!" Freedom without responsibility is wreaking havoc all around us.

When enough of us have the ability to discern what is of value and when enough of us have the self-mastery to choose what is of value, marriages will improve, families will improve, neighborhood will improve, the economy will improve, churches will improve, nations will improve and the world will improve. These problems can only be fixed one person at a time. In reality, no one can save us from us, but us! Yes, lack of self-mastery has a direct impact on the quality of multiple areas of people’s lives. Those who cannot establish mastery over their appetites and impulses will no doubt see many aspects of their lives quickly unravel. The ability to subordinate a lower impulse to a higher value is the essence of a satisfying life. Leonardo da Vinci was right when he said, “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”

The ability to discern what is of value and self-mastery in the face of severe temptation is at the heart of Jesus’ desert experience. To do his Father’s will, not his own, Jesus had to be able to see the difference between what “looked good” and what was “actually good.” Once he was able to discern what the will of his Father was, he had to have the self-mastery to follow it, no matter how tempted he was to do otherwise!