Wednesday, December 21, 2016



The Bellarmine University Board of Trustees  voted unanimously on September 6, 2016 to award me an honorary doctorate degree. 
It was awarded last night at the December 21, 2016 graduation ceremonies.  

Bellarmine University Board of Trustees

Dr. Doris Tegart, Interim President, places the Doctoral hood over my shoulders. Dr. Melanie Prejean Sullivan, Director of Campus Ministry, assisted in adjusting the hood.

Dr. Tegart handed me the diploma.

December 21, 2016
Commencement Address
‘A Hopeless Case?”
Rev. J. Ronald Knott
I was completely shocked and honored when I got the call that I was going to be awarded an honorary doctorate by this University. After seventeen years of relishing being a campus minister here, I had retired from Bellarmine University back in the spring, retired from St. Meinrad Seminary the year before that, retired from the Archdiocese of Louisville a little before that and I have been collecting Social Security for about a year before that. After all that retiring and collecting, I thought I was finished.  I thought that all I had left to do was to find a place to die – hopefully in a socially acceptable situation!

I am not the type to get awards like this. Oh, I have won a couple of awards in the last few years, but not enough to invest in a trophy case just yet. I am not a million-dollar donor. I am not a successful businessman or well-known politician. I didn’t graduate in the top of my class and I didn’t invent anything. There are no buildings or streets named after me. I was the MC at a Crater Lake National Park beauty pageant once, but I have never won one personally. Even Don Knotts had an “s” at the end of his name and I don’t. I am not a Monsignor like Father Horrigan who started this place. I am simply a priest from a humble background who has ended up amazed to be where he is today -  all because of God’s amazing grace, my own unrelenting determination, the help of a whole lot of good people and a dab of luck. 

If I were to list my greatest accomplishment, it would not be any of the things listed in my introduction, it would be overcoming crippling bashfulness to become an international speaker, in eight countries on well over one hundred occasions! From stages like this, I have looked into the eyes of more Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops and priests than is healthy for one person! Yes, I have stood and talked in front of all those clerics, without batting an eye, usually a week at a time, and lived to talk about it!  I have preached in front of thousands and thousands of Catholics, people from other faiths and people of no faith at all.  From the feedback, the thing I am consistently known for is my simple, direct and straightforward speaking style.  I may not be the best speaker in the world, but I do know how to do “short and sweet,” so here goes!

All of you can listen in, and hopefully get something out of this, but tonight I want to speak directly to you graduates who struggled to get here today. Yes, I admire the winners of awards and scholarships and I congratulate them, but those of you who really struggled are my kind of people and I want to share a bit of what I have learned, especially with you! Yes, I do hope it will also be helpful to everyone here, in one way or another. 

I grew up in a Walton’s Mountain kind of town down in Meade County. I am John Boy, the first in my family to graduate from college. I was told almost every day as a child that I would never amount to a hill of beans. When I flunked the altar boy test in the second grade, sweet Sister Mary Ancilla told me that I was a good kid, but predicted that I would, in her words, “never be any good around the altar.” When I wanted to come up here to Louisville, out of the eighth grade, to the now-closed St. Thomas Seminary on Old Brownsboro Road, my pastor reluctantly filled out the papers, but predicted that I would not last till Christmas! After limping through my first year of seminary, the head priest called me into his office to tell me that he was sending me home, calling me, to my face, a “hopeless case.”  I had to beg for another opportunity. (To get through the seminary, you need to get good at groveling! My groveling career was launched that very day!) His last words to me were to call me “a ball and chain around his leg for six years!”

 Even when I completed four years of high school seminary, four years of college seminary and four years of graduate school seminary, on the day of my ordination, a woman cornered me at the reception and asked how long I had gone to school. When I answered “twenty, counting grade school,” she stepped back, gasped, and said, “My God, you could have been something!”  Graduates, I feel like I have been swimming against the stream all my life!

Friends, here is my point! In the words of W. C Fields, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to!”  As a graduate of the “School of Hard Knocks,” from which I have three earned Doctorates, I have learned that if you want to get on in life, you have to do two things. First, you need to shut out those negative discounting voices of the people around you. Second, and even harder, you need to shut out that negative discounting voice in your own head. Henry Ford said, “Those who believe they can and those who believe they can’t are both right.” Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us!”

The 12 years it took for me to get to priesthood was a piece of cake compared to the 47 years of staying in the priesthood! In almost every assignment I have had as a priest, I have been told by those who were there before me “not to expect any results” because “nothing can be done” because of “this or that” reason. I deliberately chose not to believe any of them and I have seen both small and large miracles in most of those places, not because I am some kind of miracle worker, but simply because I refused to believe their negative predictions, as well as those my own mind tried to invent. I have learned that people declare certain situations, other people and themselves “hopeless” because it is easier that way. If you declare situations, other people or yourself “hopeless,” you don’t have to do anything!  Nobody expects you to do anything about “hopelessness!” Here is another quote from George Bernard Shaw that has guided me over the years. “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them.”

One of the most useful things I learned from my tough childhood is that “there has never been a rescue party out looking for me” so I have needed to practice self-rescue. To do that I have learned to be imaginative and creative and look for alternatives, rather than look for someone to blame or someone to fix it for me. Another of my very favorite quotes, one I used regularly in Bellarmine Baccalaureate homilies, is also by George Bernard Shaw.  “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” 

All you, “barely made its,” listen up! One of my very favorite things to do is to walk down the hall way at my old seminary, where they hang the class pictures. I like to stop at the year 1970, the year I graduated and was finally ordained a priest. Some of the biggest brains and jocks, the ones that most of us could never measure up to, the ones everybody “made over,” bombed out a long time ago and some of us ugly ducklings, in a classic “tortoise and hare” scenario, are now swimming with swans! Maybe you have the heard the joke about what they call the person who graduated at the bottom of the class in medical school? They call him or her “Doctor!” As Yogo Berra said, “|It ain’t over till it’s over!”  So I say to you, it ain’t over till it’s over, so be forces of nature, not feverish selfish little clods of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to make you happy! Claim you power! Take the road less traveled! Believe in yourself! Dare to dream! Work hard! Be determined! Remain focused! If you do that, then good luck will find you.

Remember! “It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to!” “Those who believe they can, and those who believe they can’t, are both right! Maybe someday in the distant future, Bellarmine University will give another really nice award like this to yet another former “hopeless case” who “could have been something.” Maybe that “someone” will be you!

To close, let me quote a few lines from the song “Defying Gravity” from the musical WICKED.

I'm through accepting limits
    'Cause someone says they're so.
Some things I cannot change
But till I try, I'll never know.

To those who ground me,
Take a message back from me!
Tell them how I am defying gravity -
I'm flying high, defying gravity.

And soon I'll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz -
No wizard that there is, or was,
Is ever gonna bring me down!

Remember graduates, they don’t call this a “commencement” for nothing!  

Dr. Melanie Prejean Sullivan, Director of Campus Ministry, with whom I worked for seventeen years.
Dr. Doris Tegart, Interim President of Bellarmine University


Chicago, Illinois

I was much younger (thirty-six with a beard and long hair) when I got my Doctor of Ministry degree from McCormick Presbyterian Seminary in the Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. Scarlet (outside of the hood) is the color for ministry degrees. McCormick Seminary's school colors are blue and white (inside of the hood). Three stripes on the sleeves signify doctorate degrees. 

I attended, and prayed at, over thirty Bellarmine graduations from 1999-2017. I watched thousands of graduates accept their degrees. Every year, I watched the graduation classes grow, finally growing so big that spring graduations had to be moved out of Knights Hall and be held outdoors on the athletic field. I am so honored to be part of the Bellarmine University as the longest serving campus ministry in its history. Receiving an honorary doctorate is just the icing on one big delicious cake. 

The spring 2016 graduates are shown on the left side of this photo. This was what I thought was my last graduation ceremony.

Towering above the graduates (top right, just out of camera range) is my beloved Our Lady of the Woods Chapel where I had Mass every Sunday from the time it was opened till I retired last July. Before that we were in the small St. Robert's Chapel across from the theater in Wyatt Hall.

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