Tuesday, July 9, 2024


Given to the Bishop and Priests of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa
Rev. J. Ronald Knott

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

As I put on this Roman collar, it occurred to me that it has been the source of both joy and pain. At one of the receptions following my ordination, an angry young woman confronted me in front of a circle of friends. “How long did you go to school for that,” she hissed, pointing to my collar. When I answered her, “twenty years counting grade school,” she responded, “My God, you could have been something!” I suppose she meant a doctor or lawyer, but obviously she could not imagine anyone in their right mind choosing priesthood! As a very young priest, I was kicked out of a ministerial association meeting being held in a local church, down in the southern part of the state, when I showed up in it for my first meeting. The host minister left the room when I entered and sent a note back in by his secretary that read, “I can no longer in conscience be part of this group now that it has a Catholic in it! Please leave my church!” During the worst days of the sexual abuse scandal, I caught myself, one day, putting my hand over it at a stop light here in Louisville. It takes a lot of courage to wear a Roman collar these days, so I ask you to lay aside any prejudices or already arrived at conclusions and keep an open mind.

I am a Catholic priest, yes, and very happy being one for over 46 years now. In fact, I am happier today than I was when I started. Let me be clear about one thing, however! That is not an accident. I decided, even before I was ordained, to commit to becoming happier and happier at this as the years rolled by. I decided that if I were going to be a priest, I was going to do all I could to be a happy, effective priest or I was going to get out.  I am still working my program. 

I am a Catholic priest, yes, and very happy being one for over 46 years, but that is not all I am. I like to put it this way. I am consciously Christian, deliberately Catholic and unapologetically ecumenical and interfaith in my approach to life. I have always resonated with this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This, too, could be a personal belief. I have heard it said that heroism can be redefined for our age as the ability to tolerate paradox, to embrace seemingly opposing forces without rejecting one or the other just for the sheer relief of it, and to understand that life is the game played between two paradoxical goalposts: winning is good and so is losing; freedom is good and so is authority; having and giving; action and passivity; sex and celibacy; income and outgo; courage and fear. Both are true. They may sit on opposite sides of the table, but underneath it their legs are entwined. (Gregg Levoy in "Callings")

I have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from a Catholic seminary and doctorate from a Presbyterian Seminary. My spiritual adviser in the last Catholic seminary I attended was a Disciple of Christ minister. As a Catholic seminarian, I worked as a campground minister in Crater Lake National Park for the United Church of Christ. I was a major part of founding two interfaith organizations: an interfaith campus ministry program at Somerset Community College called IF and the Cathedral Heritage Foundation (now called the Center for Interfaith Relations) when I was pastor of the Cathedral of the Assumption on Fifth Street. I have attended a bar mitzvah at The Temple, prayed at the mosque on River Road and meditated at a Quaker meeting in Berea. I have taken students of various faith traditions (and none at all) on five trips to the ecumenical monastery in Taize, France. That unique monastery is made up mostly of Protestant monks and only a few Catholic and Orthodox members.) I have close friends who are agnostic and atheist. I am comfortable relating to millionaires and street people – often in the same day. I have preached in Baptist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. I have been honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. I admire people as diverse as Rev. Kevin Cosby, Christy Brown, Muhammad Ali, the husband and wife Rabbis Raport at The Temple, Catherine Spalding, Jerry Abramson, The Dalai Lama and Pope Francis. My ideas attracted a $2 million grant from the Lilly Foundation to study and address the issues facing priests in their first five years of ministry. Part of the grant enabled me to start a program to help international priests acclimate to American culture. They now make up 30% of all of us. As a result, I have been able to meet and interact with hundreds of these men from over twenty countries. I know people from all over the world and interact with them almost every week. I am proud that I can do all that, be a firmly committed Catholic and be at the top of my game as an effective priest at 72 years of age. I do it because I work at it. 

I love having all this variety in my life. I have always believed that those who agree with us bring us comfort, but those who disagree with us bring us growth. All this variety in life has expanded my mind. I have a high tolerance for different perspectives, but I have no tolerance for bigots, meanness, cruelty, laziness and whining. Whiny priests, especially, get on my nerves! As I tell my fellow priests and their bishops when I have spoken to them in a hundred dioceses in nine countries over the last several years: “If you are happy, speak up! If you are not happy, find a way to get happy! If you can’t find a way to get happy, then do the rest of us a favor and shut up!” (You have to blunt with priests to get their attention.) I haven’t been shot yet so I will probably keep doing it! 

I am proud of my happiness level today, yes, but I want to repeat – it is not an accident! I made a commitment many years ago, with God’s help, to be where I am today. I believe with all my heart that “change is inevitable, growth intentional.” 

One of the quotes that guides me in all this is one from George Bernard Shaw. "This is the true joy in life...the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."

I was born at home, on April 28, 1944, in a very small, very rural town, along the Ohio an hour down-river from Louisville, in Meade County. Almost dead on arrival, I was delivered by my country midwife grandmother. As a result, I have been fighting for life from day one! 

The most courageous thing I did as a young man was to leave that small town in 1958 and come up here to Louisville to go the old St. Thomas Seminary out on Brownsboro Road. I knew I wanted to be a priest in the second grade and never changed my mind after that. The problem was that I could not get adults to take me seriously. My parents neither encouraged or discouraged me. They thought I was going through a phase and that I would outgrow it in time. My pastor refused to fill out the papers for me to go to the seminary until I begged. He relented after predicting I’d be home before Christmas. I was only fourteen. Even as I was leaving that little town, a couple of adults made bets in front of others that I would not finish my first year. I was almost thrown out of the seminary in my second year of high school. The Rector called me a “hopeless case” to my face and threatened to send me home. He relented only after I cried for a second-chance. His last words to me five years later, in front of the whole class, were: “Knott, you have been a ball and chain around my leg for six years!” My experience of the St. Thomas Seminary approach to seminary formation was, “We know you are a fatally flawed human being and we will eventually prove it!” 

I next went to the Benedictine run St. Meinrad Seminary over in Indiana just north of Tell City. My experience of the St. Meinrad approach to seminary formation was, “We know you have gifts and talents and we will keep digging till we find them and help you make them grow!” When I arrived there in 1964, their approach scared me even more than the St. Thomas Seminary approach because I thought if they were to dig, they would find out that I didn’t have any talents! I responded by trying to become invisible. 

Their approach obviously began to seep into my subconscious because the most courageous thing I did as a seminarian during those years was to stand up to my own cowardice. I grew up believing that "life is something that happens to you and all you can do about it is to accept it.” As a result, I arrived at St. Meinrad Seminary, twenty years old, extremely bashful, backward and scared of life. However, one day on a fire-escape, during a smoke break, I blurted out a decision I had made somewhere in the very depths of my soul to a friend of mine from Indianapolis. “Pat, I am so damned tired of being bashful, backward and scared that I am going to do something about it, even if it kills me!” 

On that fire escape that day, I decided to take charge of my own happiness and quit blaming other people for the way I experienced life. Realizing there was no recue party out looking for me, I decided to quit waiting to be rescued. I decided, to paraphrase the words of George Bernard Shaw, “to be a force of nature, rather than a feverish little clod of grievances and ailments, always complaining that the world will not get together and make me happy.” I decided to quit playing the blame game and make myself happy, no matter what pastoral assignment I got, no matter who the bishop was, no matter what ideological direction the church or country took! I started with baby steps and moved deliberately and courageously toward bigger and bigger steps. The rest is history. I have been working my program ever since and I am still working it today! I plan to keep working it till God calls me home! Thanks to that "fire escape decision" I am still making the decision daily to live deliberately, consciously and on purpose. I have soared beyond my wildest imaginations! Because of that “fire escape” decision, I went from being too bashful to read in front of my classmates to being an international public speaker! I have been the featured speaker in over 100 week-long programs in 9 countries. Because of time, I have so far turned down speaking engagements in Singapore, India, Tonga and Nigeria. Because of that “fire escape” decision, I have gone from crippling self-doubt to being honored as a recognized leader in my profession. 

I have learned that indeed change is inevitable, but growth intentional. The opposite of intentional growth is “spiritual suicide.” I would define “spiritual suicide” as the result of always saying “no” to opportunities to change, to grow and to learn. I have learned that to live deliberately, consciously and on purpose, one has to stand up to one’s own laziness and cowardice and make a passionate commitment to personal and vocational excellence – to who one is and what one does! We have to stand up to those discounting voices inside our own heads, as well as those coming out of the mouths of the people around us. 

I also believe that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I believe with all my heart that when we really commit to personal and professional growth, God shows up to help. W. H. Murray, in one of my all-time favorite and useful quotes, says this: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.” 

The latest manifestation is the decision to take charge of my own retirement rather than leave it up to my diocese to take care of it for me. Actually I have been taking charge of my retirement since ordination. For one thing, I wanted to own my own home by the time I retired so I started saving for it back in 1970. That is only one of many of my goals set years ago that have been met! 

When I retired two years ago, I knew one thing for sure. I did not want to look at retirement as a time to lay back, relax and start dying. I was not interested in playing golf every day, puttering around the yard or hanging out at the local McDonald’s with other old men who gossip till noon every day on free coffee! I wanted a Dylan Thomas kind of retirement. The poet Dylan Thomas said this: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In the words of Shauna Niequist, “I want a life that sizzles and pops and makes me laugh out loud. I want my every day to make God belly laugh, glad that he gave life to someone who loves the gift!”

I want retirement to be about “re-inventing myself.” I want to keep on living deliberately, consciously and on purpose. I do not want to continue hanging on to the stuff that I have always done – but just turning down the dial a bit. I want to keep serving in a new way with a renewed passion. I want to pick and choose what I want to do, but I still want to do! I want to be personally interested and interesting. I want to burn out, not rust out! Yes, I want to live what’s left of my life, deliberately, consciously and on purpose – just as I made up my mind to do, that day on the fire escape, back in college. 

So far, I am as busy as ever, but I have the luxury now of saying “yes” or saying “no.” I haven’t even waited around to be asked if I want to do this or that! I created my own plan and an organization to carry it out. I still write a weekly column for our diocesan paper. The Record, because I still enjoy it after fourteen years of doing it weekly. I am committed into 2018 to lead priests retreats in the United States, Canada and a few other countries because I am still being invited, because it is extremely interesting and because I can make some good money doing it to fund my new organization for retired people like myself. I am now volunteering down in the Caribbean, most especially the poor country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, off the coast of Venezuela. I have made four trips already and I have two more on the calendar this fall. 

My new organization is called the Catholic Second Wind Guild. Even though it has the word “Catholic” in the name because we need to be connected to some structure and organization down there, it is open to people of all faiths. or no faith at all, because we serve the poor and struggling regardless of their religious affiliation or lack of it. Remember, I consider myself as “consciously Christian, deliberately Catholic, but also unapologetically ecumenical and interfaith.” 

“Second wind” is a phenomenon in distance running whereby an athlete who is too out of breath and too tired to continue, suddenly finds the strength to press on at top performance. 

Traditionally, a “guild” was a group of professional artisans and craftsmen engaged in the same occupation who would associate themselves together for protection, mutual aid and service. These guilds performed other services for their members as well as the community at large.

Fundamentally, Second Wind is different from those typical volunteer organizations who take youth to places like that to paint and fix up individual homes. It is more of a clearing house for teams of retired professionals who want to use their talent, connections and resources to strengthen the lives of people down there by strengthening existing service organizations by targeting specific projects. (Volunteering in a warm climate in the winter doesn’t hurt either.) The first team of retired professionals is gradually coming together for a possible trip down in September. Our first project is to renovate the pastoral center in Kingstown so that it will be a comfortable and clean place out of which these teams of retired professionals can operate. So far we have three professional couples, one single and myself. I am still looking for professionals from the corporate world of kitchen equipment and furniture to complete the team. If any of you would like to learn more, or have any connections along these lines, please contact me. 

What I have tried to say today is this, change is inevitable, but growth has to be intentional. There are a lot of things we can’t control, but there are still a lot of things we can. We can be one of those people who believe that life is something that happens to them or we can be one of those people who is a “force of nature,” as Shaw called them. We can be one of those people who choose to live deliberately, consciously and on purpose – not only when we are young and starting out, but also when we go into retirement. Even in sickness and times of great loss, we can still choose our response to life’s challenges. One of my heroes, Victor Frankl who survived the Nazi prison system, noted this basic truth. “The last of the human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s response to any given situation.” In retirement, I choose to keep serving other people over pampering myself. 

I don’t know how I got invited today or why, but I am honored to be here. However, I don’t believe it is an accident that I am here today. It is serendipitous that your purpose of bringing together business and professional leaders in order to provide humanitarian services, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and to advance goodwill and peace around the world dovetails with my mission in retirement. Your mottoes of "Service above self" and "One profits most who serves best" resonates deep within my own heart. Thank you!















































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