123rd Annual Commencement Remarks
John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
East Portico, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 12, 2012
Cardinal Wuerl, Cardinal Dolan, honored guests, mothers and fathers, family members, graduates of the Class of 2012:
It is my custom to say a word to our departing graduates about one of the virtues. I have spoken in the past about big-time theological virtues like charity and hope; cardinal virtues like fortitude and prudence; and minor league virtues like mercy, constancy, benignity, and humility. To you I would like to say a word about patience.
‘Bad choice,’ you might be thinking. As virtues go it’s not heroic. It doesn’t hold a candle to charity, which St. Paul says is the greatest of all virtues. It shines weakly beside the fortitude of Hector and the justice of Aristides. Aquinas at one point even says “It seems that patience is not a virtue.1
But it is. And it’s not what you think. It is not the disposition to wait for what you want. Ted Williams was a patient hitter because he could take a few pitches to get one he liked. The same quality made him a great fisherman. Warren Buffett is a patient investor because he takes his time getting in and out of stocks. But these are skills, not virtues.
St. Monica spent 17 years praying for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine. This might seem like fishing or waiting for a stock to pan out, but I think it’s different. Patience is the disposition to await God’s grace. Monica was doing that. Ted Williams and Warren Buffett were not. Monica’s persistence in knocking on God’s door and waiting for an answer is what St. Paul meant when he said that “Love is patient . . . .”
Patience is the ground that virtue grows in. The lack of it was Othello’s undoing. He was too quick to suspect Cassio and doubt Desdemona. He did not consider that Iago might be spinning a web to catch him up. Shakespeare observes:
How poor are they that have not patience!
What wound did ever heal but by degrees?
Thou know’st we work by wit,
and not by witchcraft;
And wit depends on dilatory time.
Had Othello had Monica’s patience, his love for Desdemona would have had better soil to grow in.
I remember twenty years after the fact one of my blunders as a father. When our daughter Becky was six she announced, one morning as I frantically bundled the kids up for school, that school had been cancelled that day. I was too experienced a parent to be taken in by so simple a trick. When she became insistent I gave her a swat and told her to saddle up and get in the car. Turned out, there was no school. She has not forgotten my failure to observe due process. Nor have I. The lesson I learned that day was, hear people out. Even if you’re sure you’re right. Even if they’re six. They may have a point. Patience is the seedbed of humility, and justice.
It’s not just a virtue we employ in dealing with children and spouses. When I was 16 I went to nerd camp at Cornell to study math. I was from a small town, and the other kids were from Boston and New York City. It was the first time I’d ever met anybody who was smart. I struggled to understand Riemann sums in a class that had 800’s on their SATs. I would pound my pillow in frustration at night. I didn’t go as far as Ajax and impale myself on my own slide rule. But acting on some juvenile death wish, I started smoking cigarettes. It took me several years to learn patience with my own human failings – and the more important lesson that God had a good plan for me, and it didn’t involve approximating the area underneath a curve. Patience is the ground that hope grows in. The Koran tells us “O you who believe, seek assistance through patience and prayer; surely Allah is with the patient."2
If you were graduating from another college, I might now exhort you to follow your dreams and wear sunscreen. But I will suggest something better. Commencement is the beginning of a new life, and filled with uncertainties. The two biggest are: What will I do? And whom will I do it with? Will I be a lawyer, a painter, a nurse, or a mechanical engineer? And will I marry Agnes or join the Franciscans? Have the patience to answer these questions right. Get up every morning with the disposition to await God’s grace.
Before I close I want to extend my gratitude to a few people. First, to your parents. You wouldn’t be here today without their love and generosity. I want to say a special word of thanks to our parents who are also alumni of the University. A significant number of students graduating today have at least one parent who also graduated from Catholic University and we are delighted to welcome them back to the campus.
Would all parents and spouses of graduates please stand for recognition and our communal thanks?
I am very grateful for the presence of our honorary degree recipients and our commencement speaker. You offer our students examples of commitment, leadership and generosity of self, which I hope every graduate will remember throughout his or her own life. You honor us today with your presence and we are in your debt.
Finally, my personal congratulations to each and every graduate. You join the legion of alumni of The Catholic University of America and as you leave us, you carry with you the hopes and visions of our shared history in this holy enterprise. Enjoy yourselves this weekend. You have been in school for 17 years. 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 Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, Q. 136.
2 Koran 2:153.