An Encouraging Word —The power of words

Father J. Ronald Knott
Father J. Ronald Knott

A bruised reed he will not break. Matthew 12:20

I’ve been called a lot of nasty things in my life, but I got a compliment recently from a former parishioner that erased most of any sting that may have lingered from all of them combined.

I know her. She does not throw around cheap compliments. She is not one to blow hot air up a priest’s alb. If she says it, she means it.

The words were spoken after 30 years of observation and reflection. They are sentiments that most of us priests work our whole lives to hear.

In her note she said, “There’s never been another priest in my life time that left such a positive impression on so many people as you have.”

I found myself deeply moved, sincerely humbled and desperately hoping that it could be true.

I have always known about the power of words to hurt and to heal. I started this column — now beginning its 14th year — to encourage people. My theory is that most people are doing the best they can and the last thing they need is a nasty note, a vicious email, a critical column or a mean-spirited sermon.

What people need is encouragement and inspiration, not mouthy condemnation and verbal perspiration, which does little to lift up their readers or listeners.

I know there are “ministry of rage” types who are trigger-ready with their mantra “but what about sin?” Pope Francis called what they have a burning desire to do, “the temptation of linking the proclamation of the Gospel with inquisitorial beatings of condemnation.”

“No,” he says. “The Gospel is preached gently, fraternally, with love.”

Pope Francis addresses their concern in a way that I am sure disappoints those who like to “go for the throat” in their efforts to “clean up the world.”

He says, “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 we can do 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 in complaints, laments, criticisms and reproaches. Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity.”

I came to Pope Francis’ view many years ago — during seminary. I would divide my experience of seminary in two general approaches.

The first approach was heavy on discovering sins, failure and mistakes and rooting them out — like a dentist looks for cavities and drills out the rot.

The second approach was heavy on identifying gifts and talents and creating a climate where they were encouraged to grow — such as a gardener in love with plants.

It was during the second half that I learned the spiritual practice of speaking positively to others, not believing others’ low opinions of me and how to encourage myself.

Father Ron Knott

To read more from Father Knott, visit his new blog:

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