Interview with Fr. Jerry Knies, O.S.A.

Patrick Murphy: Hello, this is Patrick Murphy from the Midwest Augustinians. I am talking today with Father Jerry Knies. Father Jerry Knies is currently the Prior of the Augustinian Community of St. Rita Parish in Racine, Wisconsin. In the past, he's also been the Vicar Provincial and Personnel Director for the Augustinians. He has been the Director of Retreats, headquartered at Tolentine Center in Olympia Fields. He has also taught at St. Rita High School, Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, as well as the International College of St. Monica in Rome. He's also served in the 1960s before as the Master of the Professed for the Augustinians.

It's a great pleasure to have you, Father Jerry Knies. Thank you again for taking the time to take this interview with us. First things first, I like to ask the friars, what was it that initially called you to join the Augustinians?

Knies: It was, we used to call them, sermons in those days, but the Homily said... Father Ted Tack and Father Phil Foley gave at the parish. It was in high school. It was St. Gerald's in Oak Lawn. It touched me so, and I wanted to live with people like that. Maybe even do something like that.

Murphy: I've met Father Ted Tack once or twice, before he passed. I know that a lot of people feel that he spoke with a lot of passion and was very knowledgeable on Augustine. Anything you recall about Father Ted Tack, in particular, that might have moved you?

Knies: I can't think, except that it was the kinds of things that he would say, seemed to reach me at my age, in high school at that time. I was just impressed with his faith, his prayerfulness, and I wanted to follow that kind of way of life.

Murphy: He definitely did lead a great life. He led the Augustinian worldwide order for a number of years, and is considered by many to be a scholar of St. Augustine. Since the Augustinians trace St. Augustine's footsteps, centuries later, Father Jerry, what would you say the role is of the Augustinians today in society?

Knies: Our basic charism is to enable human community across the world, the best that we can manage it, to get people to understand one another across cultures and language barriers. I really believe that's a charism that is pretty much describing Augustine’s City of God. He's about the relationship of the church to a variety of cultures that he knew in those days, Roman and pagan. It really is the thrust of our charism.

Murphy: There's definitely a lot of ugly stuff that's going on, just in the past couple months. The things that are going on in Missouri, the things that are going on in the Middle East. If people were really more open to understanding each other's cultures a little bit more, and learning more about how to be peaceful Christians, the world would be a much more different place. The City of God, that was written by St. Augustine, it's a bit of a meaty book. Are there any things that really stand out to you, as far as how the Augustinians take the words from The City of God into their daily lives, serving in parishes and schools?

Knies: I don't know that you could say explicitly. It's something that ... In fact, I would say, probably most of us have not really read The City of God, but there's an attitude among ourselves that I can trace to The City of God. We take a thoughtful evaluation of different cultures, and how typical of our own culture, from the point of view of Gospel values, without offending anybody at the same time. Paying attention to the depths of the human condition, both its dignity, and so often, its misery; its troubles. Human life that we find around us. A lot of The City of God, just in the last few books, is directed towards how to engineer peace on earth. Something a bit more than just the absence of war. We know tranquility of heart and mind, and understanding.

Murphy: Since you're the Prior over in Racine, you live with the Augustinian Novices from across the United States. Do you guys ever get to talk about some of the concepts in that book? Have they read it at that stage in their formation, yet? Or anything about what we're speaking of right now?

Knies: What I do is... just last week... This is a new class now, I just started. Last week I showed them the movie, The Matrix. The Matrix is about a variety of illusions that we can nibble at and not know about. Gospel values enable us to see through those illusions, to find the reality of the human condition as it really is. Another one of the movies I use is called the Stoning of Soraya M. It's about original sin. Original sin is not just a theory in a theology book. Original sin is a reality that's murderous and painful and brutal. The movie, The Stoning of Soroya M. is about that. It's not a nice movie, but it is illustrative of, what is original sin, really? It is a horror, not a theory in a book. They catch on to it. They're not surprised.

Murphy: As you know, being able to support our novices and the men in formation in our vocations outreach program, that's one of the core components of the Continuing our Journey of Faith capital campaign. One of those is the Father Ray Ryan Trust to help build that. Father Ray Ryan has served as Provincial a couple times. As well as the Journey of a Lifetime Trust, to support the retired and infirm from Augustinians. Why would you say that the campaign to support those two things is important for the Augustinians right now?

Knies: Inasmuch as it supports the new generation of Augustinians, when I talk to these folks... I give the Homilies frequently during the week, and class once a week. Then we discuss some of these movies. The point is, these are the people in the next generation that are going to carry on the work that needs to be done, to instill Gospel values in the world, and it's awfully troubled without them. Much unnecessary pain that could be alleviated by simply talking about peace and justice issues. Also, telling them that it's not going to work, unless you're able to suffer the consequences of changing your own mind about how the world is to be. In the process of doing that, they're not going to earn any money for themselves.

Murphy: You bring up a good point, that in a few years, the men that are right now novices or in any other stage of formation, what the Province is, is going to be in their hands. What the Church is going to be, is in their hands. They're going to be working with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of many of the people that support the Augustinians today, so I would definitely see how that's relevant. For those men that are still discerning what it is to join the Augustinians or any other religious order or diocesan vocation for that matter, do you have any advice for them on discernment?

Knies: For the Novices?

Murphy: Or for anybody that's not in formation, yet. Somebody that's just looking and wondering what it's like to be an Augustinian or any other religious order?

Knies: I can say, what I honestly feel is that a vocation to a religious life, any religious life today, is hard to pin down and find a shape, because the Church, like the world, is changing so rapidly, with crossing the boundaries in the interchanging of cultures, and all this. The Church, itself, is changing, especially with Pope Francis now. It's hard to predict exactly what this one will look like. What I tell them is that you get two things you can count on, and the only thing you can really count on is your relationship with the Lord, and your relationship with each other and community. From there, you make it up as you go along. We don't have the same kind of patterns established for the future like we used to have. I think that's a good thing, and some people, of course, are upset by that. They're sorry that we don't do what we used to do. It's a different world, and life must adapt to it, or cease. Like dinosaurs.

Murphy: That's certainly good advice. I'm sure that the Novices that are right there with you, they enjoy your wisdom. Just looking at some of the things you've done, you've taught a lot, you've helped out with retreats and been in formation, and everything like that. I'm mostly curious about your role as a teacher with the Augustinians. Is there anything particularly about the Augustinian charisms that really influenced you as a teacher, teaching people all the way from St. Rita, Chicago, to St. Monica in Rome? Are there any values or lessons, charisms, that really helped you as a teacher?

Knies: Funny, you should ask that, because that's something that has been on my mind, as long as I can remember. One of the things I read in Augustine was, there's only one teacher, and that teacher is Christ. The best that we can do, let's say, by our teaching effort, remove the obstacles to hearing Christ's voice in the depths of ourselves. There's only one teacher, and the rest of us, all we do is help people to remember that Christ is the same in the beginning, to each of us. That has been a guiding principle in my teaching. I tell them, "I can't give you any insight, but I can help you find it." Pick it up for yourself.

Murphy: That's great, and that's very Augustinian, too, I would say.

Knies: Right out of the Gospel of Matthew.

Murphy: Yeah. Talking a little bit more about the formation work that you've done, the campaign, like I said, is to help build up Father Ray Ryan Trust, in addition to the Journey of a Lifetime. Did you know Father Ray Ryan, at all?

Knies: Oh, yes, I did, indeed. He's one of the heroes in my life, along with Ted Tack and Art Ennis in the Eastern Province. Oh, yes.

Murphy: I've heard that from many people, that he was somewhat of a hero figure. Are there any particular reasons with you, why you might consider him a hero?

Knies: Paradoxically I would say, he was the kind of a leader who was quieting with his presence. Not exactly stirring or controversial, but he had a certain quiet, peaceful presence that enabled people to find direction with him. He didn't have a commanding presence, that you would think mostly of a leader or hero, for instance, but certainly, a quieting, peaceful presence, and a certain wisdom, with a very good sense of humor, by the way. One of the things that he had was something like, there's much less there, than meets the eye. Talking about issues. He was filled with that kind of Irish stuff.

Murphy: Another fellow Augustinian, Father Bill Sullivan, told me that one of the things that he was known for was that he loved a good party. Can you verify that for us?

Knies: Oh, yeah, he loved ice cream, too. He loved ice cream.  He would go for ice cream at 10:00 at night, if anybody would go with him.

Murphy: That's great. I know that he is sorely missed. He is one of the Augustinians that has made a huge impact on hundreds if not thousands of people's lives.

Knies: He was good company. Really good company to have around, and a leader in that way.

Murphy: We talked about a good chunk of stuff, especially how the vocations and the men of the order, how we're handing off the Church with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Father. We're handing off the Church in their hands, in a couple generations, into their hands. Why would you say that other people, other donors, other people thinking about making a gift to the campaign, why should they make a special gift to the capital campaign?

Knies: Because we have a mission that will not pay for itself, but it's very, very valuable, not just to the Church for religious reasons, but just for the sake of human dignity. Augustinians have a charism to Grace that with, it's not obtaining opposition like an actor in a movie, like that, or something. We can depend upon the generosity of people to support, but it can't be sold to the New York Times or Consumer Reports, the kind of values that we try to instill and live by.

Murphy: That's very well put. Thank you, Father. That about concludes this. If any of our listeners want more information on the campaign, log onto Otherwise, email us. You can email the campaign director, or call the Province offices here at 773-595-4035. We'll let you get back to work, Father Jerry. Thank you once again for interviewing with us today. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.

Knies: Thank you, Pat. Thank you.

Murphy: All right, God bless.

Knies: Bye.


Posted on October 28, 2014 and filed under Jerry Knies O.S.A..