May 15, 2010
The Catholic University of America's 121st Commencement
Address by Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., president
|Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., delivers the Commencement address at The Catholic University of America. O'Connell is stepping down after 12 years as president of the university.|
I want to tell you a story about our 16th and, perhaps, greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. His biographers tell us that he was never baptized, never joined a church, and rarely mentioned Jesus. His widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, once remarked after his death, “He was a religious man always but he was not a technical Christian (Daniel Burke, “Lincoln’s Faith Still a Puzzle, Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2009, page B09).” He did go to church services on occasion, not too far from here at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. On one of those occasions, President Lincoln listened intently to the sermon of the pastor. After leaving the church, the president was asked by his Pinkerton secret-service guard, “What did you think of the sermon, Mr. President?” Lincoln paused and said with obvious hesitation, “It was … good.” The guard inquired, “You didn’t like it?” to which Abraham Lincoln responded, “He never asked us to do something great.”
Archbishop Wuerl, members of the Board of Trustees, my university colleagues, dear families and guests of the graduates, and, especially, members of this class of 2010:
Today you will graduate from The Catholic University of America, 1,400 undergraduates, graduates and doctoral students. Today, no doubt, you will reflect on your studies and research, your interactions with faculty, staff and peers, your life and time here at CUA over the past several years. Today you finish one chapter of your life only to commence another, with your bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in hand. As president and the leader of this university community, I want to ask you “to do something great.”
In his immortal Gettysburg Address — a speech for which he was roundly criticized during his lifetime — we hear, again from Abraham Lincoln, words that addressed a completely different situation than the one that brings us together here, but that have significance for us just the same. Lincoln said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here.” Those brave soldiers in blue and gray, drenched with the red of their blood, whose names have been all but forgotten, made the greatest sacrifice for a great cause they believed in. Their greatness came not from being remembered or from any speech given to honor them. No. Their greatness came, as it always does, from what they did because of who they were and what they made of themselves. Their greatness came, as it always does, not from doing what was easy, but, rather from doing something that required sacrifice. Their greatness came, as it always does, not only from what they had been given but, rather, from what they chose to give away. And so it was, and so it is and so it shall be with you.
Your diploma from The Catholic University of America represents years of effort on your part. As you examine that parchment in a few moments, as you read your name underneath CUA’s name and seal, I ask you to see on that page the sacrifices made on your behalf by your parents and those who love you most; the lessons taught by a dedicated faculty; the support and friendship of those who surround you now in long gowns and silly hats; and, finally, your own labors and life here. With all of that as background, see also in your diploma one more important thing: an invitation to do something great.
Shakespeare once wrote, “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon us (Twelfth Night, II, v. 159).” Let’s face it: Most of us are not born great. Still fewer of us have greatness thrust upon us. It is for us, the vast majority, to achieve greatness by sacrifice: putting what we have and who we are at the service of others.
Architects and engineers; philosophers and theologians; nurses and social workers; musicians and actors; librarians and lawyers; teachers, politicians, psychologists, scientists, historians, journalists, linguists, accountants, economists, mathematicians --- these and many others are the disciplines represented here today for which The Catholic University of America will confer degrees that you will take with you. Do something great with what you have learned and experienced. Your efforts will mean precious little if you are content to graduate magna cum mediocrity, willing to ignore all the sacrifices that have brought you to this moment. Do not just “leave” the university today — live what the university has given you, live what your parents have given you, live what God has given you and give it away to a world, to a humanity that needs our unique brand of greatness, your unique brand of greatness, to make it a better place tomorrow than it is today. Make no mistake about it: this is no easy task. A diploma on a wall somewhere is no greater than the frame that holds it. Take the diploma to heart, take it in hand and add to all that diploma represents passion and enthusiasm and conscience and integrity and the desire to serve others. Blend that diploma with a life and profession lived well and you will make a difference, you will do something great. It will take time and effort and sacrifice, for sure. You probably will not become famous — most of us do not — but you will become known for whom and what you are among those to whom you matter most and who matter most to you. The young, naïve idealist may hope to see his or her name in lights one day. The mature, seasoned realist prefers to see light shine from within his or her mind and heart.
The 19th-century English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray said it well when he wrote: “To endure is greater than to dare; to tire out hostile fortune; to be daunted by no difficulty; to keep heart when all have lost it; to go through intrigue spotless; to forgo even ambition when the end is gained --- who can say this is not greatness (The Virginians, 92)?”
The believer acknowledges that he or she is a child of God, created by God in his image and likeness. We acknowledge and profess that here at The Catholic University of America. That truth of faith plants the seed of greatness in our souls. How we nurture and water and grow that seed is up to us, my dear graduates; it is up to you.
Belief in yourself and God’s gifts to you. Gratitude for what you have been given. Courage in your convictions. Willingness to sacrifice for a greater, even inconvenient good. Confidence in the presence and love and grace of God. The wisdom to choose what is right and to stand by it when the prevailing culture says that’s not necessary or advantageous or comfortable or politically correct. “Great things are done when men and mountains meet” (William Blake). Your education here has been an early step. Do not let it be your only, your final step up the mountain. I cannot tell you where the path of life will lead you but as you make your way on life’s journey, set out to do something great. You will not travel alone for the great work to be done is God’s.
I began my remarks today quoting a truly great American president. As you leave The Catholic University of America, let me end by quoting another who spoke in this city almost fifty years ago. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy --- the symbol of a new generation of Americans at the time --- concluded his inaugural address with these memorable words:
"With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."