The Catholic University of America

Commencement Address by New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly
The Catholic University of America
East Portico, The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Washington, D.C.
Saturday, May 16, 2009

Archbishop Wuerl; Father O'Connell; members of the Board of Trustees. Thank you for the privilege of this degree. It is an honor -- especially for a Catholic -- to be invited to deliver the commencement address at so renowned a university, on the steps of this great basilica.

Today's ceremony rivals the installation of the Archbishop of New York last month, which I attended at St. Patrick's Cathedral. At the time, someone noted that the Vatican and City Hall had a practice, centuries-old, of naming Irishmen to head the New York Archdiocese, in the first instance, and the New York City Police Department, in the second.

Now, I can't explain this preference for the Irish, but Archbishop Dolan did. He said it was just further evidence of the infallibility of the Pope.

More than a hundred years ago, acting under Papal charter, a council of U.S. bishops made an historic decision to establish a national Catholic university not in New York or Philadelphia, but in the heart of Washington, D.C.

The bishops did that because they wanted to place this institution squarely in the middle of American public life. They expected the school and its graduates to make powerful contributions to society -- ethical contributions. What better place to do it than our nation's capital, the seat of government.

As the towering achievements of Catholic alumni show, the bishops' plan succeeded beyond even their inspired dreams. I suspect many of you chose to be here for the same reason that they did. I suspect that early on you felt a pull towards the center of the action and the crucial issues of the day.

You sought to leave your mark in architecture; in politics; in business; in law and canon law; in engineering; in nursing; in theology; or in one of many other disciplines in which Catholic University excels.

You could not have chosen a better place to start your journey or a more critical moment. America is at a crossroads. The economic crisis has led to a national reexamination of what constitutes meaning in our lives and in our work. For too long, the allure of money alone led many of our brightest down the narrow path of material enrichment.

To quote the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, "we were doing financial engineering instead of real engineering--creating complex financial instruments to make money out of money."

That path proved to be illusory. The result, for many, is despair over the loss of even this shallow sense of purpose.

In contrast, you have acquired the values of a Catholic education that, if properly nurtured, can lead to genuine reward and sustain you no matter what challenges life brings.

In the words of Pope John Paul II, "faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." You have those wings now. Today, conscience and tradition demand you put them to good use.

My advice to the class of 2009 is: tell the truth, be loyal to your friends, but not blind to their failings. Set a standard of ethical conduct for yourselves and be true to it no matter what. Whatever perceived advantage in your personal or public life that is sacrificed by doing the right thing is not worth attaining if it means compromising what you believe in.

One other thing: I have never made a career decision based on money, and I have never regretted it. Simply put, money is overrated.

I can see all of you with loan payments and your parents cringing. I understand just how difficult the job market is right now. I know it's tough out there, but the economy will come back.

Even now, America has plenty of money and plenty of moneymakers. What it needs is idealists. I urge the class of 2009 to be America's new idealists.

Somewhere between Dallas, Vietnam and Watergate, our idealism was shattered. Idealism was the great casualty of my generation. But it is rising again in yours.

America needs new, energetic voices to counter the message, emanating from some quarters, that says all government is suspect. The class of 2009 should be that voice.

America needs the conscience that counters the lie that the poor are responsible for their own plight. The class of 2009 should be that conscience.

America needs the confidence to refute the proposition that self-interest should come before all other interests. The class of 2009 should have that confidence.

Americans are, by nature, generous and optimistic and we need to reclaim our heritage. You need to reclaim it.

I was told a story about a retired General Electric employee that I'd like to share with you. He had immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine during World War II. He came by way of Russia, by way of Germany, by way of France. He was a refugee.

Along the way he met American soldiers, the first Americans that he had ever seen. The Americans were full of hope. They were full of optimism and idealism. They laughed easily and looked to the future.

He knew no one like them. They were unencumbered by the old European notions of family position, of wealth, of status. They were free of the elitism that held so many back.

He said he saw the Americans as "a new tribe" completely and irresistibly different from his experience, and he desperately wanted to be a member of the tribe. Now, that was 60 years ago. But despite today's economic turmoil, the world still sees Americans in much the same way.

We need to live up to that. We need to practice charity at home, and not be afraid to remain engaged abroad. America needs optimists. It needs idealists. America needs the class of 2009 to be engaged in the world.

If your country asks you to serve, say yes. If it doesn't ask, volunteer.

We need to have the kind of faith in ourselves that the world has in America. We need Americans who believe, as President Kennedy did, that "here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."

Congratulations, graduates. God bless you. God bless America.