The Catholic University of America

May 18, 2013

Acclaimed Poet: Church as a Path To Destiny


Dana Gioia addresses the graduates during the Commencement ceremony. View more photos in the photo gallery.

> See videos of Catholic University Commencement

In a speech filled with poetic grace, Dana Gioia, poetry professor and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, told The Catholic University of America Class of 2013 that his family and the Catholic schools he attended empowered him to seek his destiny.

Speaking at the 124th Annual Commencement, held on the east steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Gioia described the Church as “a living tradition that would nourish me if I had the courage and resolve to become an artist myself.”

Gioia, the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California, said that as a Catholic, he was “part of a communion that went back 2,000 years to ancient Rome and Jerusalem to the Caesars and the Apostles.”

“I knew I stood at the center of the Western tradition — intellectually, artistically, spiritually.” This was a tradition that included philosopher-saints such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and artists like Michelangelo, Mozart, Dante, and El Greco, he said.

Gioia, who had received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree just moments prior to his talk, also noted his own life’s passages and lessons learned from them.

“I was born among the working poor, into a family full of immigrants,” he said. “My family had little money and less education.”

No one in his family had ever gone to college, and both of his grandfathers had left school by the age of 12. Many people in his family spoke little or no English. By the law of averages, Gioia said, he should have had an average life.

But, “my life has not been an average one,” he continued. “I have enjoyed a degree of success, fame, and financial security beyond anything my parents or grandparents could have imagined. When I look back on my own life to ask why I have succeeded, I see two things at the center: My family and the Catholic Church, especially the Catholic schools I attended for 12 years.”

He spoke of his education by the Sisters of Providence — how they pushed him to master skills outside the curriculum. Gioia learned how to play the piano, attended concerts, and fell in love with poetry and art through their efforts. And he received early lessons in elocution by reciting the poems he had grown to love. Later, he learned Latin and theology.

At left, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chancellor of the University and archbishop of Washington, stands with honorary doctoral degree recipients Rev. John P. Foley, S.J., Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Dana Gioia, with President John Garvey, right.


“I got a great education,” he said. “But I learned something beyond academics from these dedicated nuns, priests, and brothers. They always linked what I was learning to things of the spirit.” During his early school years, Gioia said he developed “a Catholic sense of life as a purposeful journey, a pilgrimage, if you will, or a quest through time toward eternity.”

He told the graduates that a “very Catholic” sense of human existence has guided him through life.

“A Catholic education trained me in the habit of high imagination. It gave me the long view through history into the past and into the future, and even beyond time into eternity. This habit filled me with a sense of the richness of our existence in a world where we feel the presence of things both visible and invisible. What better training could a young poet ask for?”

Gioia concluded his remarks by noting that he did nothing to deserve all the love and hard work his parents, the nuns and priests, and his teachers had shown him. It was freely given. And so he has tried to spend his life, he said, paying back a least a small portion of the blessings he had received.

Catholic University President John Garvey then addressed the new graduates.

He said he has spent much of his time on campus with students talking about the virtues. “This is my last chance to address that subject with our departing graduates,” he said. “Perhaps it’s fitting, on such a festive occasion, to say a word about joy.”

Garvey noted that the Church doesn’t see joy as a formal virtue, but rather as a fruit of the Holy Spirit.


Related Links



> Dana Gioia's Speech
> President Garvey's Remarks
> Baccalaureate Mass Homily

> Photo Gallery


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> Couple Takes a Different Path to Graduation
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> Commencement Ceremony

Joy is often confused with pleasure, but they are fundamentally different. “Joy is a more profound sentiment,” he said. One finds real joy in God’s love.

“That is the way to begin – by looking for God’s love. But finding it is not a one-time thing. And enjoying it is like, in fact it is, being in love. We have to work at it. We have to find joy in what comes our way. We have to learn to be joyful.”

He offered the graduates three pieces of advice for finding joy.

“First, don’t be fooled by pleasure. It won’t give you lasting joy, and it can distract you from the real thing.

“Second, discover the thing in life that brings lasting satisfaction, and make that your priority. Loving God, your neighbor, your vocation — this will bring you joy in the long run.

“Finally, Christian joy begins with seeing God in all things. It is sustained by loving him in all things. But that requires that you don’t stop looking for him. Look for God. Love Him. Be joyful.”


In addition to Gioia, Catholic University awarded honorary degrees to two other individuals at the ceremony. They were Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics, University of Chicago, and Rev. John P. Foley, founder and chair emeritus of the Cristo Rey Network.

Timothy R.W. McEvoy, who earned a bachelor of science degree, received the President’s Award, which is the highest honor given to a graduating senior in recognition of service, leadership, and outstanding scholarship.

The University also conferred the Shahan Medal for Service to two CUA employees who are retiring. Elaine Walter, professor of music, has been on the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music faculty since 1963 and served as its longtime dean. Alyce Ann Bergkamp, assistant dean for the School of Arts and Sciences, has worked for the University since 1973.

Graduates applaud as degrees are conferred.


The University conferred approximately 1,500 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees during the ceremony. The Columbus School of Law will confer approximately 290 degrees at its commencement ceremony on Friday, May 24. That ceremony will take place at 11 a.m. in the Great Upper Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

This year’s law school commencement speaker is William T. Robinson III. Robinson recently finished a term as president of the American Bar Association. He has focused primarily on civil litigation at the trial and appellate levels for over 40 years, with extensive experience in commercial litigation, class actions, product liability defense, environmental litigation and medical malpractice defense.

The Benjamin T. Rome School of Music Wind Ensemble, conducted by John H. Mitchell, provided the music for the ceremony. Renditions of the national Anthem and the Alma Mater were sung by Daniel J. Noone, who received his bachelor of music at the ceremony.

Other graduation events held over commencement weekend included an Honors Convocation and a Baccalaureate Mass, both held on May 17 at the Basilica. At the end of the Mass, the community recognized 12 students who are devoting at least one year to volunteer service, 10 students who are entering the religious life or priesthood, and seven students who are entering the military.



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