The Catholic University of America

122nd Annual Commencement Remarks
John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
East Portico, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 14, 2011

  President Garvey with Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, CUA chancellor

It is my privilege to give you a parting word. My next communication will be about your contribution to the Annual Fund. I have spoken this year about a number of virtues – justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude. The Speaker of the House reminded you of the importance of humility, patience, and faith. I want to mention just one more before you leave campus.

Two weeks ago Pope John Paul II was beatified. A million and a half people turned out for the occasion. Many were young people like you. He is the pope of your generation. You may have attended a World Youth Day with him. You probably remember where you were the day he died. Down the road you will probably remember where you were when he was canonized.

I remember another date. 30 years ago yesterday an attempt was made on his life. Four bullets hit him and he nearly died of blood loss. In the days afterward John Paul II asked people to pray for the man who shot him. Two years later the pope met privately with the shooter, who was then in jail. The photographs of that meeting were among those aired most often during the news coverage of John Paul’s beatification.

There was something powerful about that simple act. John Paul II did some magnificent things in his life. He changed the map of Europe. He wrote brilliant theology. He inspired young people. But he might be most remembered for his act of mercy.

Mercy is a tricky virtue. It is related to justice. But justice is easier to understand, because everyone gets his due. Christians know that isn’t the complete story; and it’s a good thing, because we are sinners, and sinners (forgive the old-fashioned and judgmental language) deserve hell. If we are bound for heaven (and we hope we are), it’s because of God’s mercy.

In The Merchant of Venice Portia puts it this way:1

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Mercy is a gift. First and foremost, it’s a gift from God. It’s not something we can pay back. (That would be justice.) As one of Graham Greene’s characters says: “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone – the . . . appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God.”2 And when we show mercy, we do it in imitation of Christ. He instructed his disciples to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

The virtues say something about who we are. The cardinal virtues speak to the goodness of human nature. The theological virtues speak to our heavenly end. The virtue of mercy shows that we have received a gift. It tells the story of our salvation.

“OK,” you’re thinking, “you’re gone off the rails. This is commencement. You’re supposed to be telling us to wear sunscreen and change the world. What’s mercy got to do with it?” Here’s the point. I like to involve students in university decisions. Young people take their responsibilities seriously. You respect confidentiality better than faculty do. When you serve on disciplinary boards, you are stricter than your elders. You are uncompromising in your judgments – of movies, food, public figures, parents. I admire your integrity. It is part of the idealism that makes it a joy to live and work with you.

Mercy is foreign to the idealist. It is a grandparent’s virtue. Some time between now and 2041 you should learn it, and I want you to start today. Unlike justice it doesn’t follow rules. If we replaced punishment with mercy, we would have anarchy. Article II of the Constitution entrusts mercy to the President, and gives him unreviewable discretion, because we can’t make it a general rule, and there is no formula for applying it.

But in the love of two people it is essential. There, there is no room for just desserts. You must make it your rule always to give and forgive. (You will fail, but you’ll get the proportions right.) In your friendships too, you should replace judgment with mercy. And if you practice this virtue on your inner circle, it will soften the sharp edges of your ideals just enough, and make you a much more effective leader, lieutenant, teacher, doctor, architect, or conductor.

And now I have a last word for you. Enjoy yourselves this weekend. You have been in school for 17 years, some of you continuously. It’s now time to leave. But it’s been a lovely place to be, and you should enjoy the last few moments before you step out.

God bless you all.

1 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.
2 Greene, Brighton Rock.