125th Annual Commencement Remarks
John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
East Portico, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 17, 2014
|University President John Garvey
My thanks to Cardinal Wuerl, Cardinal Tagle, Andrea Riccardi, and Philip Rivers for making this year’s commencement such a happy occasion. To the parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, and friends of our graduates: thank you for raising them so well, sending them to us, and celebrating with us today. To our graduates: I’m so proud of you.
It is my executive privilege to say the last few words before you leave. I have been talking to you about virtue for four years, and I want to close with a few words about one of the cardinal virtues – fortitude, or as we now say, courage.
It’s the kind of virtue that makes you think big. It brings to mind leaders and heroes: George Washington, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill. It would be enlightening to talk about one of those luminaries. That would certainly be worthwhile. We have a lot to learn from them. But I am going to tell you two stories about my mom instead.
My father died of a heart attack at one o’clock in the morning, in bed with my mother, soon after their 50th wedding anniversary. We eight children were grown and living around the world. At 6:30 the next morning Mom called and said, “Dear, your father died last night.” Just like that. We all flew home and found . . . Mother in charge. We ate dinner, sat in the living room and laughed; Mother led us in the rosary. Then she said, “John, get me a scotch. I can’t understand why I feel so tired.”
When she was about 80 we decided that Mother needed to move in with one of us. We all volunteered, but by common consensus Annette got the honors. It meant moving to Denver, far from our home in Pennsylvania. Mother’s favorite place in the world was a little cottage there, where her children grew up and where she continued to live every summer. I remember my brother Denis telling me about taking Mom up to the lake for the last time one autumn day. She poked around her old flower beds, took a last look off the dock, then squared her shoulders and got in the car.
So, what’s my point? Courage is not just for epic adventures, for generals, saints, and heroes. Everyone needs courage to live well. And not just in life’s big moments. We need courage in small and ordinary ones too.
Mom didn’t start being courageous the day my dad died, or the day she moved away from our family home forever. She practiced courage by getting out of bed each morning to build a home and to raise us well. She learned fortitude in the ordinary challenges. When the time came to show us how to be courageous in the hard moments, it came naturally.
As you begin a new stage in your journey, be courageous. Start small. Have the courage to get out of bed and pray before work, even if your roommates think that’s weird. Go against the culture when it’s wrong about dating and sex and love. Don’t lose your dedication to the poor even if your coworkers don’t get it. Talk about God – it will take guts but you’ll be surprised at how many people want to hear what you have to say. Treat people as Christ would.
The small moments will ready you for bigger challenges – the kind that define your character. Each of you has a different path ahead of you.
- Some of you will be, as some of our alumni are, governors, senators, makers of public policy. Your campaign advisors will tell you your first job is to get reelected. Wrong. Risk your job to do the right thing. It’s the cause that makes the virtue.
- Some of you will be business leaders. There may come a day when you have to bet the company to do the right thing. It might be paying your employees a living wage; or competing honestly to win a contract; or engineering to avoid health risks. Do it. Have the guts to choose virtue over victory, if it comes to that.
- Some of you will be nurses and doctors: Nurture and protect life. It won’t always win you admiration. Too many people today want to put a price on the lives of the sick and dying. Have the courage to defend their value.
- Others will be scientists: Protect your faith. There may be no field where God is more absent and more needed than yours. Have the courage to bring him into it.
- Some will be academics: Have the courage to speak the truth, even when it will make you unpopular. Your students and colleagues will be shaped by it, even when they don’t admire it.
- Some of you will be priests, religious, and ministers: The world encourages us to live for ourselves. Embrace your vocation to live for others. Have the courage to swim against the stream. Bring love to a world that badly needs it.
Finally, many of you will be husbands and wives, moms and dads. That requires courage, too. We live in a culture that sees commitments as temporary and children as accessories. Going against that trend and making a commitment for life takes guts. As a parent, you are required not only to be courageous, but to teach courage. We learned about courage every day that we spent with Mother. She showed us what courageous faith is, how to be a courageous parent, and how to grow old with courage. It’s one of the greatest gifts she gave us. You’ll do the same for your kids. Start preparing for it – and all the other moments that will demand courage in your life – now. Live courageously. You won’t regret it.