On Saturday morning, May 17, Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, delivered the commencement address to the 64th graduating class of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. Over 6000 people attended the ceremony in Houston’s Reliant Arena. The University of St. Thomas was founded by the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers) in 1947 and is Houston’s only Catholic university, with a total enrollment of 3,589 that includes 1,609 undergraduate students. Fr. Rosica is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada and is President of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario (Canada). He is English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office at the Vatican and serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the University St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.
When I was invited to deliver the commencement address to the University of St. Thomas Class of 2014, my first reaction was: Who remembers what anyone says in a commencement address? I certainly don’t recall what was spoken at my commencements or graduations! There are other things to do on such a momentous day like today! Get the diploma and run! There’s a party waiting for us! Breathe a sigh of relief that the academic ordeal is over! Or perhaps there is a feeling of dread that the real world of work awaits me and the student loan payments must now begin! Then of course there are the parents and grandparents who made all of this possible and who are waiting with baited breath for that photo and that bear hug from dad! There are surges of pride deep in their hearts! “My son or daughter made it!” “They are no longer kids,” they say with tears in their eyes! And perhaps you are saying to yourself: “Ah shucks… it’s all so emotional!”
I have prayed long and hard these past weeks that a few of my words would stick today, unlike other commencement addresses we may have endured! I want to speak with you this morning about dreams and hopes and to stir things up on your graduation day. I want to invite you to start a revolution when you leave this arena today. First let me tell the story of two, famous, public, revolutionary figures known to each of you in this arena. You certainly heard about them in your history or political science courses. Evoking their memories always stirs up an audience like this one!
One year ago, we commemorated the 50thAnniversary of a great man’s dream – the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. When he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 28, 1963, and looked out over a quarter of a million people who marched on Washington, he electrified the nation with his magnificent rhetoric in the now famous “I have a dream” speech. Dr. King didn’t say, “I have a complaint.” Instead, he proclaimed to the massive crowd: “I have a dream.” He launched a revolution of civil rights, human rights and equality; of justice and freedom that were absent from what we believed to be the land of the free and home of the brave.
Dr. King had a voice that inspired you to listen. His message was so well crafted and so powerfully delivered. Throughout that famous address, King repeated many times, “I Have A Dream.” That message still brings tears to the eyes of any of those who listen whether they are black or white, young or old, American or Canadian, French or Italian, Palestinian or Israeli, Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew.
There was much for Dr. King to complain about for black Americans at that critical moment in American history. But Dr. King taught us that day that our complaints or critiques will never be the foundation of movements that change the world – but dreams always will. To spend our energies constantly saying what is wrong will never be enough to change the world. Nor will it ever change the Church.
Let me tell you about another world hero. Last December, the world mourned the death of the great Nelson Mandela of South Africa. He, too, had a dream and spoke about it in his Inaugural Speech as President of his country in May 1994. In that memorable address, he strove to motivate his people to move past the pain of their past so they can build their future. There had been a change in South Africa including the release of Mr. Mandela from prison. He has chosen to fan the flames of this change and move his country forward. Mr. Mandela wanted his people to understand that they are all important to their country, no matter what their origin. Through his speech Mr. Mandela began a revolution of his own to counter Apartheid and separation. He united his people together in an attempt to further the needs of the country as a whole. He inspired them to remember their dedication to the country they love and to work together to move forward.
I also want to speak to you this morning about four other individuals whose dreams and hopes, lives and witness, made a big difference in our world. You may not have heard about them in political science courses. But you certainly heard their names at UST- because their lives and visions are so intricately woven into the fabric of this university. Their names are Angelo from Italy, Karol from Poland, Josef from Germany and Jorge from Argentina. Three weeks ago Sunday, these four individuals were brought together in a very unique way in a piazza in Rome – we could say that it was an extraterrestrial party of sorts – with two watching from above and two taking part in the festivities from below. It was known as the Sunday of four Popes: two celebrating a canonization mass and two more in heaven graduating “summa cum laude” with the highest honors of our Church: they were proclaimed saints!
What united the four men was this fact: each of them experienced a name change in a small chapel in Rome; each was led to places they would have never chosen; each became a leader of a major world religion. Each was successor of Peter, a Galilean fisherman and each a Vicar of Christ on earth. Each had some wild dreams and hopes for the Church and even launched quiet revolutions by their lives. By virtue of the fact that you are soon to be a UST alumnus or alumnae, you are automatically revolutionaries for their causes.
Angelo Roncalli – St. John XXIII
First let me tell you about Angelo Roncalli, from a poor family of sharecroppers from the town of Sotto il Monte near Bergamo in northern Italy. At the age of 12, he entered the diocesan seminary at Bergamo and came under the influence of progressive leaders of the Italian social movement. He was a ordained priest in 1904, and learned early on about forms of social action and the problems of the working classes. In 1915 he was conscripted to the Italian army in World War I and served on the front lines in the medical and chaplaincy corps. In 1921 he was called to Rome by the Pope and made director of the office for missions in Italy. He was consecrated archbishop in 1925 and sent first to what was then ecclesial outposts on the periphery: Bulgaria, then to Turkey and Greece.
At the age of 64, Roncalli was chosen for the difficult post of papal ambassador to Paris, where he worked to heal the divisions caused by the Second World War. At age 72, he was made cardinal and patriarch of Venice. Known for his conservatism and deep humanity, he quickly won the affection of just about everyone. In 1958, at nearly 77 years old, he was elected Pope upon the death of Pius XII. He was expected by many to be a caretaker and transitional Pope, but he astonished the Church and the world with his energy and reforming spirit. He revolutionized the Church by calling for the Second Vatican Council in 1959 to address the burning questions of divided Christians and to bring the Church into the modern era.
On the night of October 11, 1962 – a day that began with the solemn opening of John’s greatest achievement, the Second Vatican Council, as he struggled with fatigue and the cancer ravaging his body, Papa Giovanni flung open the windows of the apartment in the Apostolic Palace and spoke to 400,000 young people who streamed to the Vatican that night. His voice still reverberates amidst the colonnades of that famous piazza 52 years later:
“I hear your voices. Mine is only a single voice. But what resounds here is the voice of the whole world; here all the world is represented. …My own person counts for nothing – it is a brother who speaks to you, who has become a father by the will of the Lord … but everyone together, in paternity and fraternity, and the grace of God, everything, everything … Let us continue, therefore, to love each other, to love each other so, by looking at each other in our encounters with one another: taking up what unites us and setting aside anything that might keep us in a bit of difficulty…
…[May] our feelings always be just as they are now as we express them before heaven and before the earth: Faith, Hope, Charity, the love of God, the love of our brothers and sisters; and then everyone together helped by the holy peace of the Lord, in doing good works.
John concluded his moving address on that unforgettable, magical night:
“When you go back home, you will find your children: give them a hug and say, “This is a hug from the Pope. You will find some tears that need to be dried: speak a good word: “The Pope is with us, especially in times of sadness and bitterness.” And then all together let us encourage one another: singing, breathing, weeping, but always full of faith in Christ who helps us and who listens to us, let us continue on our journey.”
On the day of John’s “graduation” three weeks ago in St. Peter’s Square, the current Successor of Peter said of Angelo Roncalli as he proclaimed him a saint:
“In convening the Council, John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader. This was his great service to the Church; he was the pope of openness to the Spirit.”
What does John teach us today? Just because you have an amazing degree from this prestigious university, never let it go to your head! Be humble. Be grateful. Allow yourself to be led by the Holy Spirit, whatever your religious tradition may be. To be great, become a servant-leader. In your newly acquired scholar’s vocabulary learned at UST, remember that the most important words you can speak in any language are “Thank you” and “I’m sorry.”
When you leave this arena today and go out into that real world, you will find your moms and dads, brothers and sisters: give them a hug and say, “Thanks for putting up with me during my university studies.” Throw your arms around your grandparents and tell them that you love them. You will find among family and friends some tears that need to be dried: speak a good word! And like St. John XXIII: encourage one another: singing, breathing, weeping, but always full of faith in Christ who helps us and who listens to us along the journey.
Karol Wojtyla – St. John Paul II
Let me tell you about another great man who launched a revolution: Karol Wojtyla, the one from the foreign country who was called to Rome in 1978 to light the world on fire. He grew up in the backwoods of Krakow, Poland, in the little town called Wadowice, not far from Auschwitz where many of his Jewish friends perished in the atrocity of the Shoah. From the beginning Karol was familiar with grief, suffering and loss, having lost his mother, father and brother at a young age. He knew the emptiness and evil of communism and the fleeting ideologies of his day. He worked in a rock quarry hauling huge stones on his back.
The young Karol heard the suffering and pain of his fellow Poles. He was a philosopher and actor who at age 58 would walk onto the world stage as Vicar of Christ. He was the center stage for nearly 27 years, and where he went, the world followed. He spoke truth to power and brought evil empires to their knees in a velvet revolution that marked the end of the communist regime. Walls and iron curtains came tumbling down before him because of his immense faith in God and in human beings. He bonded with young people in an incredible way… first as the robust, athletic, mountain-climbing pope, then as a broken, bent over, immobilized man ravaged by Parkinson’s disease. His mantra and call to arms was:
“Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid.”
On the day of his “graduation” three weeks ago in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said of Karol Wojtyla: “In his own service to the People of God, John Paul II was the pope of the family. He himself once said that he wanted to be remembered as the pope of the family.”
Pope Francis went on to say:
“[Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla], were priests, bishops and popes of the twentieth century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful – faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history…”
Graduates of 2014: Learn from “Papa Wojtyla” how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time. Learn from this truly great man how to live, to forgive, to suffer and to die unto the Lord. Pray for a small portion of the fidelity of Peter’s witness and the boldness of Paul’s proclamation that were so mightily present in Karol Wojtyla – now Saint John Paul II.
Joseph Ratzinger – Pope emeritus Benedict XVI
There is still another man who teaches us a profound lesson today: the brilliant, humble, kind German theologian and master teacher, Joseph Ratzinger, now known to the world as Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI.
With John XXIII, it was a language of brotherhood, fatherhood, motherhood, goodness and kindness. With John Paul II, it was ‘Be not afraid’ – an invitation to the Church to recapture its boldness and missionary self-confidence after years of inward reflection, rumination and self doubt that followed the years of the Second Vatican Council. With Benedict XVI, it was a revolution of the intellect and his leitmotif was that reason and faith need one another. Human reason shorn of religious faith becomes skepticism and religion shorn of the self-critical capacity of human reason becomes fundamentalism and extremism. His sweet refrain and gentle plea: we must be friends with Jesus if we wish to truly live.
Your years of study at UST took place during the momentous papal transition of 2013. Previous graduates of UST would have heard the question: “Where were you on 9/11?” Your class has perhaps heard another question: “Where were you on 2/11 – February 11, 2013, the day that the pope resigned?
St. John Paul II taught us the profound lesson of suffering and death with dignity. Joseph Ratzinger taught us the meaning of sweet surrender – of not clinging to power and the throne, of prestige, tradition and privilege for their own sakes. He taught us what it means to serve the Lord with gladness, humility and joy.
What lesson can we learn from Pope emeritus Benedict XVI today? By his bold and courageous decision to resign from his Petrine Ministry, Benedict told us that we must be painfully honest with the human condition, that we cannot be enchained by history. A man who had been the champion of tradition and labeled “conservative” left us with one of the most progressive gestures made by any pope. This man known for brilliant writing, exquisite kindness, charity, gentleness, humility and clarity of teaching, offered us the epitome of a courageous and humble decision that will forever mark the papacy and the life of the Church.
If today we are basking in Pope Francis’ light, we must be forever grateful to Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI who has made Francis possible for the Church and the world. We owe Benedict immense gratitude.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio – Pope Francis
How could I end these thoughts without a word about the current occupant of the Papal office – Jorge Mario Bergoglio – Pope Francis? I am certain that every single person in this assembly today has been touched in some way by this great man. For the first time in many years, ordinary people in the street are taking a new and more appreciative look at the pope and the Church. He has introduced to us a new way of speaking as he revolutionizes the ancient papacy and brings it into the modern world. Francis’ words ring out across the face of the earth with these sayings and so many more:
“How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor!”
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! Even the atheists. Everyone!”
“We have fallen into a “globalization of indifference.”
“I want things messy and stirred up in the church. I want the church to take to the streets!”
“I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
“God never tires of forgiving us.”
“I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.”
“An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.”
“Mercy is the greatest of all virtues.”
“The Church is not a tollhouse.”
“We need to promote a culture of encounter.”
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Aboard his return flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome last July and in response to a journalist’s question about a gay person’s spiritual life, Pope Francis stunned the world with five simple words: “Who am I to judge?”
Last Monday there was yet another zinger during his daily homily in the chapel of his residence in the Vatican guest house. Francis said that if a band of Martians showed up tomorrow wanting to be baptized as Christians, he would happily do so. He added a rhetorical question to join his “Who am I to judge?” line about gays as a signature expression of his pastoral approach. “Who are we to close the door?”
What lessons is Francis teaching us? He has not come to overturn doctrine and age-old beliefs that are the bedrock of our Catholic Christian faith! He wants to make those teachings understandable and part of our lives. Pope Francis opens doors to a faith that offers attractive, compelling answers to questions deep in the hearts of all men and women. There is something incredibly appealing here not only to Catholics, but to Christians… in fact to all men and women of good will. His words are addressed to an ecumenical and interfaith audience. Is it any wonder, then why the world is listening to him? Knowing we’re made for something more, knowing we have responsibilities toward one another and the freedoms we enjoy, makes us leaders in the renewal of our lives, families, communities, institutions, country, and culture.
Francis rejects the reduction of Catholicism to hot-topic moral issues. He does not want to reduce the church to discussions of abortion, gay marriage, contraception and homosexuality. In his comments, he makes a distinction between dogmatic and moral teachings, reminding us that they do not hold the same weight. With Pope Francis, the church must re-enter public discourse with a full-throated defense of the common good that rises above bitter partisan divisions.
Especially for those in the United States of America and for each of you graduates in particular, Francis stands for something much greater than division, rancor, labeling and meanness of spirit that have dominated politics and infected the Church. He calls for a church ‘of and for the poor’ that is not turned in on itself, but ‘in the streets.’ The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.” Francis speaks with authority and integrity because he has lived the church’s social teaching in his own ministry. He walks his talk and walks the walk.
Listen to Pope Francis’ words to you – the Class of 2014, to the 194 graduates of the School of Arts and Sciences, the 454 graduates of the School of Education, to the first 27 graduates of the UST School of Nursing, to 276 graduates and undergraduates of the Cameron School of Business, to graduates of the other departments of this great university. In his stunningly beautiful and profound Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”, Pope Francis writes:
“All around us we begin to see nurses with soul, teachers with soul, politicians with soul, people who have chosen deep down to be with others and for others. But once we separate our work from our private lives, everything turns grey and we will always be seeking recognition or asserting our needs. We stop being a people.” (#273):
“True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” (#88)
Today 1038 of you graduate from this prestigious and authentically Catholic University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. You have been marked by the lives of these six great individuals I presented to you today: Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and four great popes and leaders of the Catholic Church: Angelo Roncalli, Karol Wojtyla, Josef Ratzinger and Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They were dreamers and revolutionaries in their day and in our day. They were infused with the presence of God and the power of his Holy Spirit.
I dream that you will be articulate, intelligent defenders of the dignity and sacredness of every human being.
I dream that you will be courageous witnesses and citizens, reasoned, principled, articulate defenders of the faith and bearers and teachers of our tradition. Then the world will stop, sit up and listen to you, just as the world has stopped to listen to Martin, Nelson, Angelo, Karol, Josef and Jorge.
My great dream for you, graduates of the class of 2014, is that you join Pope Francis’ revolution of tenderness and mercy. The current Bishop of Rome continues to ignite his “merciful revolution” inside the Church and outside in the world by words and actions. And his holy fire is spreading across the face of the earth.
Become revolutionaries of tenderness, holiness and joy. Dream big dreams and share them with your friends. Hand them on to future generations. Don’t just complain and name all the things that are wrong with the world and the Church, but become the change you would like to see.
Share the goodness, discipline, knowledge and experience of community that you learned here at UST with the world around you! Go out to the geographical and existential peripheries of society to repair, rebuild and heal the Church and the world! And do it as grateful alumni of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas!
God bless you and may the Force be with you!