At the 201st commencement exercises of Mt. St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., the second-oldest American Catholic university, noted Catholic author George Weigel delivered the commencement address I wish I’d heard when I graduated college.
George Weigel is the author of Witness to Hope, the authorized biography of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, from whom he learned much wisdom. In this address, Weigel shares some of John Paul’s profound insights on living life as vocation, on the real meaning of freedom, and on how our precious God-given freedoms depend on our character and virtue:
Some of you will do great things as the world measures greatness. Some of you will do great things as the Church measures greatness, joining the ranks of the great figures who have walked here on Mary’s mountain: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; Bishop John Dubois; Archbishop John Hughes; Bishop James Edward Walsh of the Class of 1910, a living martyr for ten years in a Chinese Communist prison. Who knows, perhaps one of you will even top Jim Phelan’s remarkable record as a basketball coach. But each of you can do great things in the one, essential way that Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, did great things. You can do the greatest thing of which human beings are capable: You can conform yourself to the will of God for your life.
. . . Many of you will enter the world of work after this graduation; others of you will continue your studies. No matter what you will be doing tomorrow, or next week, or next September, there is a lesson for you in the life of John Paul II: Don’t think of your life simply as a “career.” Think of your life as a vocation.
God has something unique in mind for each of you. There is something singular that each of you brings to the making of history. Think of your lives in those terms, and you’ll never fall prey to that most deadening of temptations: the temptation of boredom.
That is the kind of life — a life of high adventure in the greatest of adventures, the making of your soul — for which Mt. St. Mary’s has prepared you. For that is the entire purpose of Catholic higher education, rightly understood: Catholic higher education exists to form vocationally serious men and women in whom faith and reason support a transforming conviction — the conviction that every human life is, by definition, extraordinary. That is the conviction on which this university was founded. That is the conviction on which this university can and must build its future.
. . . [I]n the final analysis, our freedom depends on the content of our character as a people. That is how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked that his children be judged. That is how we should all wish to be judged. For character counts, both for the happiness of each of our lives and for the future of America.
Only a people of character will be able to understand that, as Lord Acton taught, freedom is not a matter of doing what we like, but of having the right to do what we Ought.
. . . Defending freedom today also requires that we be a people of virtue.
And what does virtue require of us?
Virtue requires us to acknowledge, and to defend, the first principle of justice, according to which innocent human life has an inalienable dignity and value that must be recognized by law. Never flag, never fail, never weary in defense of the right to life. Never give up on the great civil-rights issues of our time — the life issues.
. . . Virtue requires us to defend and promote the cause of freedom, rather than retreating into a bunker of hemispheric isolation and an iPod world of self-absorption.
Virtue requires us to live as John Paul II challenged the young people of the world to live: by never, ever settling for anything less than the spiritual and moral greatness of which, with God’s grace, you are capable. Never, ever settle for less than that.
The virtues that are the foundation of this American experiment in ordered liberty are known from both faith and reason. In spending these past years on Mary’s mountain, you have been immersed in both — in both faith and reason. As you walk off the mountain today, take both faith and reason with you. Nurture them in your mind, heart, and soul. Living your lives vocationally — living your lives as the gift to others that your own life is to you — you can give America a new birth of freedom.
And the confessors, the martyrs, and all the other saints who once walked here, on Mary’s mountain in the Catoctins, will be cheering you on, all the way.
Read the entire address here.
Those who share my love and admiration for John Paul II will also appreciate this quintessential anecdote from Weigel’s address:
It has been one of the privileges of my life to have spent more than two and a half decades chronicling the achievements, and explicating the thought, of a great man: the Servant of God Pope John Paul II. He was, certainly, a great man. Part of his greatness lay in the fact that he had a very firm grip on his own fallibility. In September 1997, the Italian Bishops Conference hosted a national Eucharistic Congress in Bologna. John Paul II was helicoptered up there on a Sunday night to give the closing address. A staffer at the bishops conference had gotten the bright idea that Bob Dylan would be a good set-up act for the pope. So, perhaps a half-hour before the Holy Father appeared, Dylan came out on stage before hundreds of thousands of Italians, floppy hat, guitar, harmonica, and so forth, and did a few songs, ending with his signature composition, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The Pope came out and, demonstrating his remarkable capacity to seize an opportunity, discarded his prepared text and immediately began talking about the Holy Spirit “blowin’ in the wind” of the modern world, and about Jesus Christ as the one road that all of us must walk down, for “Christ, who said ‘I am the way’ . . . is the road of truth, the way of life.” It was a remarkable performance. Three days later, I was at lunch in the papal apartment, and before I could even get seated after grace, John Paul II fixed me with that look across the table and said, “Who eeze Bob DEE-lahn?”
“Who eeze Bob DEE-lahn?” Priceless.