The Catholic University of America

May 15,2010

Father O’Connell Urges New Graduates to Aim for Greatness

Choose self-sacrifice and stand by what is right even if it isn’t popular, he said

  Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., delivers the Commencement address to the Catholic University graduating class of 2010. More photos.

In his May 15 Commencement address, Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., wished the 121st graduating class of Catholic University “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.”

His Commencement address began with a story of how President Abraham Lincoln once laconically critiqued a Washington, D.C., church sermon because the pastor “never asked us to do something great.”

Father O’Connell, the president of Catholic University, indicated to the 1,400 new graduates that he didn’t want to make the same mistake that pastor did.

“As president and leader of this university community, I want to ask you ‘to do something great,’ ” he told the graduates and their thousands of family members and friends assembled outside the east entrance of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

   Related Links

> Text of Father O'Connell's speech

> Coverage of the Baccalaureate Mass and text of Father Bob's homily

> Videos of the Commencement, Honors Convocation and Baccalaureate Mass

> Commencement photos

“It is for us … to achieve greatness by sacrifice: putting what we have and who we are at the service of others,” he continued. If the graduates do that, he said, “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 believer,” he said, “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.”

This was Father O’Connell’s final CUA Commencement as president, since he has decided to step down this summer after 12 years marked by the strengthening of the university’s Catholic identity, the expansion of the campus by 49 acres, the building of a new student center and multiple student residence halls, the welcoming of Pope Benedict XVI to the campus in 2008, and unprecedented growth in the university’s enrollment and endowment.

Father O’Connell chose to give the Commencement address himself this year in response to requests from CUA students.

A number of awards and honors were bestowed at the Commencement:

CUA Chaplain Rev. Robert Schlageter, O.F.M. Conv., displays the President's Medal he received at Commencement.

• Receiving the President’s Medal, the university’s highest honor, was Rev. Robert Schlageter, O.F.M. Conv., the university’s beloved chaplain, who also will be stepping down from his CUA service this summer. During his 12 years at the university, Father Bob, as he is known, befriended thousands of students, more than doubled the number of students who serve as student ministers, and set up discernment groups through which almost 70 students decided to enter the seminary or religious life. As a result of his leadership, 50 percent of CUA students who identify themselves as Catholic go to Mass on campus every Sunday, a figure that is roughly double the national average for college students.

• Receiving an honorary degree was Ida Cammon Robinson, who in the 1940s and ’50s earned CUA bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. One of only four women of color in her 1947 graduating class, she faced down the unjust hardships of the time and went on to high-profile nursing roles in Washington, D.C., serving as director of the School of Nursing at Freedmen’s Hospital and director of education and training at Children’s National Medical Center.

• Awarded the James Cardinal Gibbons Medal, the CUA Alumni Association’s highest honor recognizing service to the Church, the country or the university, was Sister Alice Zachmann, S.S.N.D., who in 1982 founded the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. It became a powerful force in advocating for victims of repression in Guatemala and lobbying for better U.S. policy decisions regarding that country.

• Receiving the President’s Award, the highest distinction given a graduating senior in recognition of service, leadership and outstanding scholarship, were Kara Fitzgerald, a social work major from Newtown, Conn., and Jonathan Jerome, a theology and religious studies major from Charlotte, N.C. Both have been outstanding students and spiritual leaders on campus, participating in CUA-sponsored mission trips to other countries, serving as student ministers, and leading RENEW prayer and fellowship groups on campus.

At the end of the Commencement ceremony, just before he delivered the benediction, Father Bob gave a spontaneous last word to the audience.

Turning to Father O’Connell, he said, “You’ve thanked everyone at this great university. We cannot end this ceremony without thanking you. You’ve done great things here, day in and day out.” Gesturing toward the students, he added, “You did it because you loved them.” The audience broke into applause.

Commencement was held during two days of graduation events that included an Honors Convocation at the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center, the Baccalaureate Mass at the Basilica, and a ceremony that inducted 50 students into the honor society Phi Beta Kappa.

On May 28, the Columbus School of Law will confer 300 degrees at its commencement, which will feature Paul R. Michel, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Federal Circuit, as speaker.

Commencement award winners  
Gibbons Medal winner Sister Alice Zachmann, S.S.N.D. (second from left) and honorary degree recipient Ida Cammon Robinson are pictured with Father O'Connell and Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, CUA chancellor.   Father O'Connell is joined on the Commencement stage by President’s Award winners Kara Fitzgerald and Jonathan Jerome. The award is the highest distinction given to a graduating senior.

MEDIA: For assistance, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in Catholic University’s Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.

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