116th Annual Commencement Address
James Towey, Esq.
Director, White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 14, 2005
Thank you very much, your Eminence Cardinal McCarrick and Archbishop Montalvo. One of the great things about you graduates attending The Catholic University of America is that you have these holy men here, and Father O?Connell, so when it comes to graduation day they call in a few chits and you have a beautiful day for it.
I want to thank them for their leadership and recognize my fellow honorees, Helene O?Neil, and all of the trustees of The Catholic University of America. And of course I think of Sandy McMurtrie, who was a very close friend of Mother Teresa?s and is one of trustees of this great university, and of course Father O?Connell and his administration and faculty and the priests and religious assembled today, all of the alumni here this morning, of which I single out a special one, my wife Mary, class of 1991, mother of my five children. But especially I want to offer my heartfelt greetings to the 2005 graduating class, their family members and friends. Congratulations!
Like His Eminence, Cardinal McCarrick, it?s impossible for me to begin without thanking God for Pope John Paul II and the gift he was to all of us. He loved this university. We all miss him.
My wife and I loved Pope John Paul II so much that we decided to name one of our sons after him. But that posed a dilemma, because my last name is Towey and that would have made his name John Paul Towey. I can just hear the kids in the schoolyard saying, ?John Paul Towey. We love you-ey.? It wouldn?t work. So we went with John to be on the safe side. Of course now we have a new pope known as Benedict XVI, so any of you graduates, if you decide one day you want to name one of your children after Benedict, I think you should do it as long as your last name isn?t ?Sixteenth-ey.? I don?t think that would work.
I?m sure I was chosen for this honor because of my working friendship with a modern day saint: President Bush, of course. I just wanted to see if you are all listening! But I am bringing you President Bush?s greetings this morning. I love working for him. And of course, I have a debt of gratitude to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It is true, I was legal counsel to Mother for 12 years. President Bush loves to joke about that. He says, ?What kind of world do we live in when even she had to have a lawyer??
I asked His Eminence how long I should speak this morning and he said, ?Jim, the people here are godly, holy people and you should feel free to follow the Spirit and go wherever you are led. But just know one thing: God wants you to keep it to twelve minutes.? So I?ll do that.
But I?ve been thinking a lot about the lives of Mother Teresa, John Paul II and Pope Benedict. Last month we saw the unprecedented outpouring of love that surrounded Pope John Paul II?s death and funeral. I had the privilege in 1997 to go to Calcutta for Mother Teresa?s funeral and to watch the presidents and prime ministers, the princes and queens, from countless countries, come and bow and pay their respects in much the same kind of procession.
So here?s my question: What was it about those two people that made the world admire them so much, love them so much?
The best answer I can come up with turns out to be the obvious one: We miss the Holy Father and Mother Teresa because they had been a father and mother to us. We knew that they loved us. We knew that they prayed for us. We saw them give everything they had for us. To put it simply, they had been our shepherds. And we knew that by following them, we would draw closer to God, and closer to each other.
Now our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, is doing the same, going before us as a shepherd. In his first Mass as Pope, he spoke of the fourth-century pallium, the pure wool garment that was draped upon his shoulders. He said, ?The lamb?s wool is meant to represent the lost, sick or weak sheep which the shepherd places on his shoulders and carries to the living waters of life.?
Graduates of the class of 2005, you have accomplished a great deal and stand here today with diplomas that may lead to any number of careers and pursuits. Here?s what I want to say: As you fulfill those careers and follow your dreams, I want to encourage you to become good shepherds.
A shepherd is someone who assumes the responsibility to love and care for those who face grave danger or might stray. Jesus spoke tenderly of them as ?sheep,? and today we see His sheep scattered everywhere: the children with no fathers, the teenagers with no direction, the elderly with no one to visit them, the refugees and immigrants with no place to call home.
These and others are the casualties of a culture where the strong often dominate the weak; where impressionable youth are bombarded with sexual and violent images and messages; and where God can be forgotten and suffering dismissed as meaningless.
The priest and prophet Ezekiel spoke nearly 2600 years ago with words that ring true today. He said:
Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost. So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts.
Powerful words of scripture, and I think it is fair to say that the culture in which we live today can sometimes look like the fields of Babylon in Ezekiel?s time. So many are hurting for lack of a shepherd. So many are lost for lack of a shepherd. Jesus said in St. John?s Gospel, ?Apart from me you can do nothing.? But in our culture, the message to God is often the opposite: Apart from you, I can do anything.
A scientist at Stanford University, a Nobel Prize winner no less, who successfully placed human cells in mice, recently announced that he now wants to create mice with entirely human brains. I am not making this up. This should alarm us all. Sixty years ago, the essayist E.B. White once spoke of the dangers that arise when man plays God. He described it as man ?stealing God?s stuff.?
This morning we must ask ourselves: When we play creator and mix mice and men; when we tamper with the institutions of marriage and family; when we calibrate whose lives are worth living and whose are not; and when we discount the lives of our poor, are we not playing God? Are we not ?stealing God?s stuff??
Those are questions for you graduates to ponder. Yet despite these cultural currents, I stand before you today brimming with hope. Mother Teresa and John Paul II visited the United States on numerous occasions and saw these same things and they never left without being inspired by America?s history and its capacity for moral greatness and heroic solidarity, particularly by you, our youth.
So I want to challenge you graduates not to flee from this culture but to engage it and transform it. If you, the graduates of The Catholic University of America, do not transform Main Street and Wall Street and Hollywood Boulevard and Biotech Park, then who will?
And I can think of no better way for you to do this than to become the good shepherds who revere life and who strengthen the weak and heal the sick and bind up the injured and lead the morally and spiritually lost to safety.
Thank God millions of Americans are doing this, including a lot people here assembled this morning, beginning with His Eminence and the other bishops, priests and religious and rabbis and imans, who have humbly chosen to follow God by laying down their lives for others.
And they aren?t alone. Before me right now are the many moms and dads and grandparents of you graduates. God alone knows the sacrifices your parents and family made along the way to get you to this day.
I have to say, with my own experience with these five children under 12 that we have, parenting can be tough. This past winter when the stomach flu was snaking through our home, our house basically turned into a Petri dish. The Centers for Disease Control should have given us a grant to study how bacteria are transmitted. I remember one night, it was 2 a.m., and Mary and I heard one of the boys getting sick and we rushed into the bedroom and discovered what amounted to a crime scene there on the floor and walls. I got down on my hands and knees to clean and I remember saying to myself, ?I wonder if these guys will remember this on their college graduation day?? Do I hear an ?amen? from any parents here?
The truth is, it is a lofty, beautiful calling to be a husband or wife, a mom or a dad. It is a privilege. It is an entrance into the lifelong process of becoming a good shepherd, of feeding sheep and tending sheep and loving sheep and leading sheep. America needs good parents who are willing to do as Mother Teresa used to urge, ?to love until it hurts.? And we need good foster parents, and devoted mentors and volunteers to love the legions of little ones who have no one.
There are other examples of good shepherds who today walk among us, such as our men and women in uniform, who defend America at home and abroad and many of whom have laid down their lives for our country. And there are more: Those in the teaching and caring professions are shepherds, and so are the bio-ethicists and theologians and lawyers who shepherd and safeguard the truth. It does not matter, graduates, whether you spend your day in an office or hospital or business or home. All those who work to build a culture of life, and who put the interests of others before their own, and who are not indifferent when ?God?s stuff? is stolen but instead do something about it, all are worthy of the mantle King David and Jesus wore.
I want to leave you with one lovely story that I hope you will take with you through life. I had the privilege to be with Mother Teresa on a number of occasions, but it was the last time I was with her that I will always remember the best. It was June 1997. She was 87 years old and was coming to the end of her life, and she knew it. She had suffered from malaria countless times, and by this point she basically was confined to a wheelchair. She arrived in the United States one last time, to visit Washington and then the Bronx. Mary and I were living in Florida and we loaded up the van with the kids and followed her to both places.
In the Bronx, at the convent where her U.S. headquarters is located, I was meeting with her to discuss some of the legal and business matters of her order, the Missionaries of Charity. We were on the third floor of the convent, and Mary and the children were playing in the courtyard below. As the meeting drew to a close, one of the sisters went behind Mother?s wheel chair to signal to me that Mother needed to go lie down. I said, ?Mother, Mary and the children are playing in the courtyard. Could they come up and get your blessing??
Before I could finish my request, Mother had risen from her wheelchair and looked excitedly out the window and said, ?Where are the children??
She died ten weeks later. I will never forget how Mother Teresa looked to see the children at play. Such a childlike heart! Such great hope in her eyes! This was the fruit of a life lived for others, a life given to God without counting the cost or sacrifice. To the end, like her friend John Paul II, she had been a good shepherd.
Graduates of the Class of 2005, as I stand on these same steps where those two saints once passed ? on a site dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of the Good Shepherd ? I leave you with these final words: Go and do the same.
May God bless each one of you. Congratulations. Thank you.
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Revised: May 14, 2005
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