As we approach the season of graduations, I thought I would share with you a few excerpts from my commencement address at the University of Saint Francis. These thoughts, addressed to graduating college students, are also relevant, I think, for our high school graduates and all of us on our life’s journey.
Since our life is indeed a pilgrimage, it is important always to keep in mind the destiny of that pilgrimage which gives meaning and purpose to our life on this earth: perfect life with God and all the saints, the blessed communion that fulfills our deepest human longings. On this pilgrimage, we experience a foretaste of this definitive happiness through the embrace of truth, goodness, and love.
The education imparted and received at a Catholic university is distinctive in this regard. First, in regards to the theme of truth. In contemporary culture, many people stumble through life because they do not know where they are going. There is a temptation you may face to seek quick success and to look for fulfillment in ephemeral pursuits. But we should ask ourselves: what makes life worth living? What is the real meaning of my life? Where am I going? What is the purpose of my life? What is the path to true happiness? These are the questions that are most important to ponder. At a Catholic university, one learns to consider these ultimate questions.
Skepticism or doubt about ultimate truth has led to what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “dictatorship of relativism” in today’s culture. Contrary to this, the Catholic worldview affirms the existence of ultimate truth, a truth that enables us to journey through life with hope, to see life as a voyage of discovery, and to orient our lives with reference to Transcendence. This is possible because truth is not confined to what is known through the natural light of reason, important as that knowledge is. The ocean of truth is boundless and includes the realm of faith as well as reason. The Church’s affirmation of the human capacity to know the truth, through faith and reason, rejects skepticism and relativism as well as religious fundamentalism. In the words of the great Pope John Paul II: Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves. Dear graduates, in your journey of life, I encourage you to continue seeking the truth, through these two wings on which the human spirit rises: faith and reason. Only then will you not merely stumble through life as if life were an insoluble riddle. We can indeed discover truth, ultimately in the One who called Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Through God’s revelation in Christ, we discover the ultimate truth about our life and our destiny.
On this pilgrim journey, the embrace of Truth necessarily includes moral truth. It involves the pursuit of goodness. Saint Paul gave simple, yet powerful, advice to the Romans when he wrote to them: “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I repeat this counsel to our graduates today. Ethics and morality are a necessary part of a truly integral and Catholic university education. To study business or science or any other discipline without the moral and ethical component leaves one adrift. One need only consider the damage inflicted on society and so many individuals because of a lack of ethics in the financial sector and the greed that led to the national and worldwide recession. One need only consider the harm to our society and culture when science, technology and medicine proceed without respect for the innate and inalienable dignity of human life. A culture of death, sown by totalitarian regimes in the last century, is also sown in democratic societies when freedom’s dependence on truth is denied. As Americans, we rightly prize our freedom. But freedom is not genuine if it is reduced to license to do whatever we want, even evil. The Second Vatican Council spoke of genuine freedom as “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in us” (GS 17). How will you use your freedom as you journey through this life? If we use our freedom to do whatever we want, for mere pleasure, or for merely selfish purposes, we find ourselves not only unhappy, but enslaved, the very opposite of true freedom. But when we use our freedom to do what we ought, in accord with moral truth, to do what is good and to combat evil, we find ourselves truly free and genuinely happy and fulfilled. May you remember the counsel of Saint Paul as you go forth from the University of Saint Francis: “overcome evil with good.”
The contrast between good and evil was brought to the attention of the world last Sunday, May 1st. Two icons were in the news. Early in the day, the Church and many in the world rejoiced at the beatification of Pope John Paul II, a true icon of goodness, a man of heroic virtue who exemplified for millions, indeed billions, of people the greatness of the human capacity, with God’s grace, to do good, to bring hope, to serve others, and to promote justice and peace. Later in the day, the world learned of the killing of another icon, not of good but of the evil that the abuse of freedom can reap, to the point of murder of so many innocent men, women, and children through acts of terrorism. What a contrast in the news last Sunday: Blessed John Paul II and Osama Bin Laden! In each of our lives, and in the history of the human community, there is this perennial struggle between forces of good and forces of evil. Saints and sinners. Love and hate. Grace and sin. Virtue and vice. The Second Vatican Council taught that “the human person is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.”
An integral Catholic university education is not just about the attainment of knowledge, it is about the cultivation of virtue. As beneficial as all your studies have been, they will only bear truly good fruit when accompanied by a moral life. Life involves a multitude of decisions. True happiness and human fulfillment come when we walk the path that leads to life, not death, following the guideposts that point us in the right direction: the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. We are constantly faced with decisive moral choices that invite us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the good. You will not find true happiness in wealth, fame, power, or achievement, however successful you may be, but you will find it in living a moral life, one that seeks to overcome evil with good.
Intimately connected with the embrace of Truth and Goodness is the embrace of the Beauty of Love since Love is the ultimate Truth and the greatest expression of Goodness. In his first encyclical, entitled “God is Love,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “love promises infinity, eternity, a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence.” “Love looks to the eternal.” “It is indeed ‘ecstasy,’ not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self toward its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.” I invite you as you go forth from the University of Saint Francis to walk that journey of love, the journey of the saints. It is the path “through the cross to the resurrection.” It is “the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit.” I invite you, our graduates, to accept the invitation addressed by Pope Benedict “to experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world,” for, as the Holy Father wrote: “Love is the light — and in the end, the only light — that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God.”
Dear graduates, may you go forth as messengers of truth, agents of goodness, and instruments of love as you continue your life’s journey!
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