Presented at The Catholic University of America
May 12, 2001
“Our president, members of the board of trustees, the administration, faculty, students, friends, parents, and graduating class,
As I begin this talk today – which happily for both you and me will be brief – I cannot help but mention the memories that Catholic University graduations always have brought. Years ago, before your parents were born, I was dean of students here and one of the university chaplains. Those were wonderful days and my memories are filled with great adventures, great happiness and the continuing great friendships that were fostered at that time.
I have a special memory of a graduation back, probably in 1964 or 1965. The president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, was to give the address and to receive an honorary degree. As a member of the administration I had a good place on the dais – although in those days it was in the gymnasium. As a matter of fact, I was sitting two rows behind the president. I had really never met a president of the United States before and this was an enormously exciting opportunity – or so I felt. When he finished his talk and went back to his seat a few rows in front of me, all those who were sitting right around him shook hands with him and congratulated him. I wanted to do the same thing and so I reached down two rows and congratulated him with a firm handshake too. The only problem was that I lost my balance and I almost fell. While I was falling I took two or three of the more important members of the faculty with me. I will never forget the look of surprise on the president’s face as three very distinguished university administrators or faculty began to topple out of their places in the makeshift bleachers. The surprise on his face was nothing compared to the looks of chagrin and disapproval that I got from the rest of the university administration, and in a special way from those faculty members who came close to losing their footing. The only one who didn’t give me a dirty look was the chancellor, Cardinal O’Boyle. He just looked, shook his head and laughed. He was certainly a great chancellor and I hope I can measure up to his ability to roll with the flow as he did that day almost 40 years ago.
It is certainly proper for the speaker at a graduation to congratulate you on your accomplishment, and that I do with all my heart. I want also to congratulate your parents and your loved ones whose sacrifices, not just monetarily, but in so many other ways have made possible this day. For many of you it is the termination of your life of study in a formal way. I would suggest that for none of you is it the termination of your life of study. You and I know that this world continues to change at an extraordinarily rapid pace and that none of us can say we’ve learned everything we have to learn. None of us can say that we are finished in the wealth of new experiences that are part of every day and of every life. This is a milestone, of course, but it is one of many and you must take this extraordinary privilege of a degree from The Catholic University of America and continue to develop, continue to learn, continue to experience the wonders of this third millennium of the Christian era.
But since I promised you a relatively brief address, let me get on with what I really want to tell you.
It is proper, of course, in every graduation address to tell those who are graduating that they have already made it and that the world is your oyster, ready to open and to find the pearl of great success within. That is both true and false. You are certainly prepared for life ahead of you, its joys, its sorrows, its challenges, its wonders, and that is good. But the world is not just out there for the taking, it is there for the making. You can certainly make a difference in today’s world but only if you use everything that you’ve learned and add on to it your own experience. The challenges of this 21st century are enormous.
This is a world which will enter a new period of globalization – whatever that really means, since it is already apparent that it has many definitions and means so many different things to many different people. You have to find out what is the essence of this new world in which you are about to enter. You have to find out what globalization will mean in your own lives, in the companies in which you will make your livelihood, in the universities in which some of you will teach, in the family life which will be the structure and the support of all the time which God will give you to make a difference in the world.
I cannot talk about your future work without expressing, as I always do, my deepest hope that for some of you it will be work in the Church. I pray that some of you will find vocations to the priesthood and religious life, that you’ll find that call that God is giving you even now as we gather together on this momentous day in your careers. The need that the world has – though not just the world, not just the Church – but everyone – the need that we have for great religious women and great priests and religious men is extraordinary. In a planet which sees itself as poised for the great scientific adventures in interplanetary travel, in medicine, in science and in commerce, the need for wise, courageous, generous and joyful men and women who will probe the deepest questions of the relationship of humanity with God and will be the guardians and the facilitators of the divine revelation to the men and women of this world – that will become ever more important as the world becomes ever more wrapped up in its own quest for happiness and success. To those to whom the Lord is speaking even today, I say do not be afraid to accept that challenge and do not be afraid to give Him your lives.
We speak of making a difference in the world, and every one of you in your heart of hearts is hoping that you will find your way to do that. For some of you it will be within the wonderful complex world of your own families and that will be enough to make you an extraordinary person and a great success. For many of you it will be in your chosen field of study. For some it may even be an influence on society and the world through your wisdom, your studies, your research and your leadership. Whatever it is, may I call your attention to one specific note that it must have. It must be something which reaches out to the poor, to the needy, to the newcomer, to the stranger, to the confused and to those who need your help.
There is a wonderful section in Pope John Paul’s apostolic letter on the Beginning of the New Millennium in which the Holy Father cites the great Gospel text of St. Matthew where the Lord tells us that he is present in the lives of the poor in a very special and personal way. That’s the Gospel which begins, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25: 35-37) You all know it well. The Holy Father goes on to say something which is worthwhile memorizing and worthwhile inscribing in our minds and our hearts. He says, “This Gospel text is not just a simple invitation to charity: it is a page of Christology which sheds a ray of light on the mystery of Christ. By these words, no less than by the orthodoxy of her doctrine, the Church measures her fidelity as the Bride of Christ.” (No. 49)
For the whole Church, for everyone who is a member of it, and for those people of goodwill who have no share in its life at this time, this is an enormously important and powerful call to take care of the poor. It is not a message which is given to challenge societies only or nations only, or governments only, or leaders of the Church only. It is a call which is made to every single individual and in a special way to those who are gifted as you have been and are, by your education and your talent and your opportunity to serve others. If you are not in some way willing to reach out to your neighbor, then you will lose one of the greatest adventures of your lives. If you are not willing in some way to find the means to make life better for some of the people around you, especially for those who have little or nothing, then you will lose the chance to make a difference and truly build a world of deep humanity and not just a world of cold and empty science. I offer you this challenge. It comes not just from our Holy Father, but from the words of the Gospels themselves. If you want to be fully human and fully alive, you have to be aware of your neighbor and your neighbor’s needs and you will have to be willing to reach out to that neighbor in love, in grace and in generosity.
And a final note that I have to share with you is this. Your neighbor is not just down the street, but across the world. In the new dimension of mankind which we call globalization, one of the elements which is evident and of great importance now is our need to recognize that what happens in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro has an effect on what happens in the canyons of Wall Street; what happens in the boardrooms of Prague may have an enormous effect on the markets of America; what happens in the deserts of Arabia can decisively affect the standard of living in St. Louis, Missouri.
This world has truly become globalized to the extent that every corner of our society has the ability to affect the lives in every other corner. We are no longer able to live as isolated heroes. We must find the way to live as committed passengers on an earth that moves so very quickly to its rendezvous with tomorrow and ultimately to its rendezvous with God. Never become provincial. Never become isolationists. Never become so wrapped up in your own self that you become unaware of the challenges and the greatness and the wonder of the rest of the world. Your generation will visit other parts of the globe with greater frequency and greater effectiveness than any prior generation in the history of the world. You cannot escape a global mentality. May the Lord help you always to make sure that you bring your own thoughtful, careful and sympathetic understanding to the fact that all of us, in the words of the great servant of God, Terence Cooke, all of us are merely brothers and sisters in God’s one human family. This is really the essence of globalization. Let it not be a time when the poor become poorer and the rich become totally separated from the needs of the rest of the world. Do not let that happen in your own lives. Strive not to let it happen in our society.
I have given you many do’s and don’ts. Perhaps more than you can handle in the joy and excitement of this graduation day. We are all so very proud of you. But we are all so very conscious that as you set out from this university you have so challenging an opportunity in today’s world. Make the most of it. Change the world. Don’t forget the poor. Don’t forget that what you do affects every corner of this globe. Don’t forget that perhaps the greatest lesson you have learned at The Catholic University of America is that God watches us and loves us and reaches out into our lives to make a difference so that you and I may make a difference too. God bless you. Thank you very much.”
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Revised: June 13, 2001
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