by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.
Father James: I was taught by Ursuline Sisters from Paola, Kansas through 6th grade, as we lived in Overland Park, Kansas. I was very active in the Church as an altar server and on weekends as a server in the convent. I have remained close friends with the Ursulines to this day. Beyond 6th grade, because of a move to New Jersey, the rest of my education was in the Public School system until college, when I attended the College (now, University) of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Dr. Knight: What did your family think about your entering the Dominican order?
Father James: My family was divided about my entering the Order, as I was a music major in college and a fairly accomplished clarinetist. Most relatives were opposed to my entering and “giving-up” music. My mother was luke-warm about my entering, but later became very supportive. My father was supportive from the start and encouraged me to “follow my heart.” His support was very instrumental in my being able to stay the course when I entered the novitiate.
Dr. Knight: You went to college and became an educator. How did you make that decision?
Father James: I made the decision to become a musician and more of a composer/conductor/director, once I entered the Order. I didn’t expect to teach as much as to lead choirs and use music in service of preaching.
Dr. Knight: What Dominican Charisms did you discern in your order?
Father James: I was most attracted to our fundamental and defining charism of preaching.
Dr. Knight: What was the mission of your order? Did you realize that mission?
Father James : Our mission statement reads: The Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Albert the Great communicate the Word of God through preaching, theological education and the promotion of justice and peace. This mission in the Body of Christ demands a vowed community life, liturgical prayer, and life-long study.
I felt very strongly about the mission of preaching from early on in my formation. Throughout my philosophy and theology studies, music grew to be more and more a part of my identity. While in formation, I switched my focus from applied performance on the clarinet to music composition and leaned on the Scriptures as the main source of my inspiration and writing. After a number of years, I signed a composing contract with a leading publishing house in the United States. Because of this relationship, I was able to combine sacred music and preaching in a most fulfilling way. Today, after nearly 55 years in the Order, I feel my dual identity as a composer/preacher very strongly.
Dr. Knight: After you finished teaching did you decide to pursue another ministry? What was your next discernment?
Father James: I have never taught in the classroom. I have taught choirs for decades now and continue to do so in my preaching of parish missions throughout the United States. Until 2015, I was on the road for nearly a quarter-century as an itinerant preacher. I preached as a rule with a Dominican Sister from the Sinsinawa, Wisconsin Congregation of the Most Holy Rosary. For over 20 years, we gave witness to the value of men and women preaching together, offering both male and female perspectives of the Word of God. With few exceptions, this was regarded as very refreshing and genuinely welcomed by the People of God.
My next discernment was thrust upon me when I was elected Provincial of the Province of St. Albert the Great in 2015. I had been in leadership 30-plus years earlier as Vicar Provincial for nine years. And I had served on the Provincial Council for 20 years. The 2015 election as Provincial caused further discernment and a major adjustment of my life. Being elected Provincial and learning to become Provincial are two very different things. The discernment process was ongoing for the first couple years of my first term. In 2019, I was re-elected to a second 4-year term. I am now in the 3rd year of my second term. Discernment of how to best guide the province in and through these challenging times in the Church and in this country is an on-going requirement of my religious life.
Dr. Knight: Do you think of your work in writing a journal part of your spiritual mission?
Father James: Many have asked me to write a book of my preaching and I have often considered doing so. At this point in my life and ministry, I do not believe I have the time to take the challenge on. For now, I believe my faith and theology come through the music I compose. I have well-over 100 published sacred music compositions and a dozen recordings of my work. I believe these are a powerful form of preaching through which much of what I believe is clearly made known.
Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?
Father James: Yes, I am most grateful for the gifts I have received in music, prayer, preaching, and study. I am also grateful for family, friends, and community – contexts through and in which I most often express and share my gifts. The mosaic of art, blended with prayer, ministry, friendship and leadership, is a challenging, yet beautiful opportunity in which to experience life in the Church and in the world.
Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading your interview?
Father James: I would like readers to see that as a Dominican, preaching is at the core of my being. It really is the foundation of absolutely everything I think and do. However, I believe it is also important for folks to see that I have not had to leave behind all that I ever was to become a preacher. I was able to incorporate my entire childhood of taking clarinet lessons into the role of preaching by applying music to the Word of God. I simply had to adapt my gifts to the needs of preaching. Once I found this to be true, I was able to learn that almost everything in life lends itself to preaching the Word of God. Every action, every thought and word, can be and should be applied to everything we learn in the Sacred Scriptures. Preaching opportunities are endless. The Mosaic continues to broaden, adding more and more color with every year of life.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?
Father James: The Church is losing its understanding of humility. A sense of singularity is impacting the Church and infecting it with what Pope Francis has termed, ‘self-referentiality.’ We are losing sight of our call to unity. Singularity is causing the same divide within the Church that we are witnessing in the United States and in other countries around the world. The Church needs to restore our foundation in Jesus Christ. Our varied ideas, philosophies and ideologies, even if imaginative and creative, are not the core of who we are. Jesus Christ is the one into whom we are baptized. If Jesus is not our core, our rock and our foundation, then our ideas, philosophies and ideologies are useless. Our divisions seriously damage and could destroy the future of the Church. We must return to our “Common Ground,” who is Jesus, the Christ. I believe this issue to be one of the greatest challenges of the future Church.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a follower of Christ?
Father James: There are almost too many joys to be able to count! Of the many joys of my Christian life, one is the real-life sharing of faith with others – family, friends, choirs, and in Dominican community. The joy I have experienced on a-number-of “Concert Tours for Peace” throughout Europe have been at the top of the list. Singing together at the tomb of St. Dominic in Bologna, or in the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome (Dominican World Headquarters), or at the Cathedral in Siena, Italy, or at the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi, among dozens of other venues – these have been among the highlights of my Christian, Dominican, and musical-ministerial life. Other joys have to do with preaching and sharing the Word of God with so very many people. Singing the Word in the Liturgy and bringing the Assembly into full participation in the music (as the Second Vatican Council encouraged) is a most powerful experience, almost beyond description. Baptizing a baby and saying the words, “I claim you for Christ,” brings me to tears every time I have the privilege of baptizing, without exception. These are just a small number of examples of my joy as a follower of Christ.
Dr. Knight: Are there any other issues you, as an accomplished writer, want to bring to your readers?
Father James: Just an encouragement to all people to see their own lives as channels of grace and peace and preaching in all that they say and do. We all preach by our lives, long before we ever speak. We need more preachers in the world today, not just those of us in the pulpit, but the kind who live what they pray every day! Once we all live what we actually pray, this world will be a different world. A few years ago, I wrote a song titled, “Becoming What We Pray.” The refrain sings: “It’s not up to God alone to listen to prayer. It’s not up to God alone to answer. But when the people of God become what we pray, the kingdom of God is revealed. When the people of God become what we pray, the kingdom of God is revealed. When the people of God become what we pray, the kingdom of God is revealed.”