Thursday, January 11, 2024


She always wore her long hair rolled up in a bun on the back of her head, except when she slept.  


daughter of 
James Stephen Mills
Elizabeth Ann Basket

On Monday of this week, January 8, we celebrated the Baptism of The Lord. On Friday of this week, January 12, I will celebrate my deceased paternal grandmother's 134th birthday. What do they have in common, you might ask? As a country midwife, my grandmother is the woman who delivered me and baptized me when I was in danger of death right after I was born. I was thrilled that she got to attend my first Mass even though she died exactly one year later! When I celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I always think of her!

I always considered us having a special relationship. She lived across the road from us in my earliest years growing up in Rhodelia. I was always running back and forth across the road from our house to hers. I never knocked. I just walked in as if it were a branch location of my own home. I don't remember her talking all that much, but she was always teaching me something new. 

Around 1950, at age six, she taught me to churn butter for her in front of her new TV. She taught me how to grind sausage for her by turning the crank of the manual sausage grinder as she fed chunks of meat into it. Most memorable of all, she taught me to raise a vegetable garden by giving me a small piece of ground next to hers to raise my own little garden. She gave me the seeds, showed me how to plant them and let me use her hand plow to cultivate my little garden.  

She let me watch her make homemade soap outside in a huge black cauldron heated by a wood fire underneath. With a pocket knife, I watched her shave off curls of her homemade soap into the washing machine when she did laundry. She let me watch her render lard and taste the "cracklings" after the lard was pressed out of the pork cubes that were heated until they released their oil. What was left, after squeezing, resembled what people today would call the snack food "pork rinds." She always planted a row or two of flowers in her garden which she showed me how to tend. 

Even though she belonged to a group of women, informally called the "Rhodelia Homemakers," who met to "quilt" homemade quilts, to gossip a bit and to enjoy a pot luck lunch together (to which I was not invited nor wanted to attend), I did manage on occasion to crash the free lunch part - at least at the point when dessert was served! 

I clearly remember one particular day when she totally shocked me. She had an aggravating old rooster that was causing chaos in her chicken yard. All of a sudden, she reached out, grabbed it, wrung its neck, pulled its head off and let if flop around on the ground until it was dead. She looked at me and asked, "Guess what we are having for supper?" Answering her own question, she proudly replied "Chicken and dumplings!" Witnessing that sudden and unexpected turn of events, I was torn between shock and admiration! She didn't go looking for trouble from that mean old rooster, but she dealt with its trouble-making ways with quick and amazing finesse! 

If all this sounds like a TV episode of The Waltons, you are not too far off. Rhodelia, a town of less than 50 people in the early 1950s, would have made a perfect "set" for that TV production. We had a country store with a tiny post office inside. The postman even delivered live chicks and brought our school clothes ordered out of the annual Sears and Roebuck catalogue. If you needed a ride somewhere on his route, you could catch a ride with him for free. The country store had two gas pumps (regular or ethel). You could sell your cow's milk and eggs at the store where they "candled" the eggs (rolled them over a light box, one at a time, to make sure they did not have chicken embryos already growing inside) and tested milk for levels of butter fat content in its backroom "creamery" before it was picked up to truck on to a larger creamery business in Louisville. Today, I own that very egg-candling gadget (a tin can with an electric light bulb inside) they used back then to check the eggs for freshness - which I did quite often when I had a little "job" at  Harold and Verna Vessels' Country Store right beside our house.  

OK! So what if I am a "hick from the sticks" as some of my fellow high school seminarians here in Louisville called those of us coming from rural areas back in 1958? I am proud of my vivid memories of those early childhood experiences, especially those revolving around my "Grandma Knott" who delivered and baptized me the day I was born and who lived long enough to attend my "first Mass!" 


Tuesday, January 9, 2024


         Given at the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged on New Year's Day


The shepherds made known the message that had been told them about this child. 
Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.
Luke 2:16-21

This gospel passage reminded of that famous passage from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes that says:

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to give birth, and a time to die;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.

It is that last line that stood out today to me as I read it – “a time to be silent and a time to speak.”

Think of the Martha and Mary story. The shepherds were the activists, like Martha, in today’s passage. They told everyone about what they had been told by the angels. Mary, like Martha’s sister Mary, is the contemplative in today’s passage, who reflected in her heart about what had happened.

“A time to be silent and a time to speak” has been a daily part of my life over the last 54 years especially in preparing and delivering homilies.

I have never been one of those priests who believe that they can just get up and “wing it” without preparation because the “holy spirit will give them the right words” as they talk. I don’t believe it, I don’t practice it and I believe it is a terrible abuse of Scripture. If I do not have time to reflect on the readings and prepare a homily, I just tell people that “there will be no homily today” and sit down for a few minutes of silence.

I believe it so much that I have made plans to be buried holding a Lectionary in my hands. Vatican II taught us that the primary role of the priest of the priest is to preach. Because of that, the Lectionary has become my primary prayer book. The heart of my spirituality is not so much wrapped up in devotional practices as it is in “reflecting in my heart” like Mary and “telling people about what I have discovered” like the shepherds. “Telling people about what I have discovered” from reflecting on the Scriptures is not just about talking from the pulpit. Since I spend so much time “reflecting in my heart” like Mary, Like the shepherds, I write them out and publish them for people to read and re-read in books and on my blog, to hear on retreats and during parish missions. I write them out because some people cannot hear, others cannot understand English all that well and still others want to spend some time, like Mary, “reflecting on them in their hearts.” 

On a practical level, it would be wise for all of us to be like Mary, before we are like the shepherds. We should think before we speak. As Amy Carmichael said, "Let nothing be said about anyone unless it passes through the three sieves: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?"



Sunday, January 7, 2024



In the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
"Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage."
Matthew 2:1-12

As many of you know, I like to write. “Like” may be too mild of a word! It might be truer to say that I am “obsessive” about writing. Often, I write past midnight. Sometimes, I get up in the middle of the night, go downstairs and write for a half hour and go right back to bed. Most of you know that I was a weekly columnist for our diocesan paper for fifteen years. I decided to give it up a few years ago and transfer some of that time to writing for my blog. In the last 25 years, I have published a total of 40 books – two of them late last fall. Some are textbooks for seminarians. Some are for priests. Some are homilies. Most are for spiritual reading. Some have been translated into Spanish, Swahili and Vietnamese. One is a book of humor with real stories from my fifty years of ministry as a priest, many of them from my days as pastor of our Cathedral. So far, one of the most common responses to that book is: “We laughed out loud!” One was Bellamine Baccalaureate homilies.  One was a cookbook for priests learning to cook for themselves.  

Six years ago, I finished a little book entitled BETWEEN COURAGE AND COWARDICE: Choosing to Do Hard Things for Your Own Good. This is a very personal, autobiographical book that traces decisions I have made since I was six years old that have led me to where I am today. When I gave into fear, I withered as a person. When I stepped out in courage, I grew as a person. Many of the decisions I write about revolve around the decisions I made that led to the places I have been, the decisions I made that propelled me forward and the decisions I have made one after another that have brought me to this day. I wrote it as a personal whole-life review, but I also wrote it as a way to teach others about the benefits of facing down fear and embracing opportunities for personal growth and change.

Some people might refer to me as a "seeker" so this book came to mind when I prepared to preach on today’s gospel. What we have in the gospel today is a contrast of characters: King Herod, the paranoid self-focused narcissist and the Magi, the learned spiritual seekers out looking for God. If I had written a play, BETWEEN COURAGE AND COWARDICE, instead of a book, these two would be the main characters.


King Herod had come to power in Galilee at age 25. He was a man of unusual powers, physical vigor and political astuteness. He was a master at political maneuvers, endowed with boundless energy and ambition. At the same time, his passions were wild and ungoverned. Especially in his later years, they degenerated into tyranny and brutality. He was filled with fear and insecurity. He would do anything to hold onto power. The slaughter of the innocents was in harmony with the violence and paranoia of his later years, especially about the possibility of losing his throne. He believed that there was only room for one “king” and it would not be this “newborn king” the Magi were looking for. He is a perfect example of the paranoia that comes from always trying to protect oneself and the status quo.


At the other end of the spectrum, we have the Magi. These guys were driven spiritual seekers from the east. They were men on a mission! And, yes, they were from present-day Iraq of all places! They were part of a tribe of priest-teachers to the ancient kings of Persia. They were men with an eye out for God. Their job was to watch the heavens for any unusual activity. Unusual activity among the stars was a sign to them that God was up to something. An unusually bright star, combined with a feverish search for God, meant they had to check it out. The star they followed even had a name. It was called “the birth of a prince.” Astronomers today believe there actually was a dramatic star-event about this time in history. These seekers left everything that was comfortable and familiar to them and set out for new lands, for new insights and for new understanding. Their search led them to Jesus.

My friends, these magi, these ancient spiritual seekers have a lot to teach us about spiritual and personal growth. In a world of people obsessed with working on their outsides- how they look and what they wear, accumulating material possessions and protecting their power, these men teach us about passionately working on our insides: pursuing the truth, stretching ourselves and our potential. The Magi were people in charge of their own passions. They were hungering and thirsting for holiness and they were willing to sacrifice everything to have it. They also teach us that spiritual growth is always a risk, always dangerous, always requiring great personal courage, but always worth it.

My little book, BETWEEN COURAGE AND COWARDICE, makes the case that we only become fully ourselves when we face our fears and bravely choose to do hard things for our own good. The evasion of pain, the giving into fear, the preservation of the status quo, can be deadly when it comes to personal and spiritual growth. If we do not like who we are today, it is probably the result of hundreds and hundreds of small lazy or cowardly choices made over many years.

The Magi have something to teach us about building a fuller life. Jon Krakauer may have said it best when he wrote: “Make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security.”