Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Filling Our Father’s House among other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Japan.
On Saturday, May 14, thousands assembled at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC for the Catholic University of America’s Commencement 2016 ceremony.
Comedy duo Jeannie and Jim Gaffigan were the asked by President John Garvey asked the couple months ago to be the speakers and the Catholic parents of five happily accepted.
“This couple has changed the face of comedy and the entertainment industry by putting the great adventure of marriage and family life on center stage. I have no doubt that our graduates will be inspired by the Gaffigans’ commitment to their Catholic faith, which shapes both their personal and professional vocations,” Catholic University President John Garvey said in a March 21 press release.
Prior to their speech, the couple received honorary doctorates in fine arts for bearing witness to the Catholic faith in the public square.
The couple spoke on the impossible things we can do with our lives, our faith, and our education. Their moving speech was filled with jokes and comedy, and their central message communicated what is deeply important in life: the closeness of family (and guacamole). Here’s the full transcript for you to enjoy:
Jim: Good morning, honored graduates of The Lutheran University of America…. (picks up paper) Oops, wrong speech. That’s for next weekend.
Jeannie: Cardinal Wuerl, President John Garvey, fellow honorees, Trustees, Faculty, members of the graduating class, and families and friends of the graduates, we are delighted to be here in beautiful Washingto,n DC and to address the class of 2016 on this defining moment in their lives. To be here on this day with you is a tremendous blessing. Please give yourselves a big round of applause.
Jeannie: We are so honored to have been asked to speak at your commencement this morning.
Jim: Not sure why they don’t have commencements in the afternoon…
Jim: I’m just saying things can commence at night too!
Jeannie: Today, after years of hard work, many sacrifices, long hours of classes and studying …
Jim: …And tens of thousands of dollars…
Jeannie: …You have come to this moment of incredible achievement: receiving your degree.
Jim: Then again Jeannie and I are getting a degree and we have only been here for an hour. So it’s not that incredible of an achievement for us.
Jim: When President Garvey asked us to speak at the commencement of The Catholic University of America, I had only one question: Who cancelled? I’m kidding. My actual question was, “How much are they going to pay us?”
Jeannie: Actually, our first thought was: “What an honor! ...But we can’t do it. It’s impossible.”
Jim: It’s impossible. We are in the middle of producing a television show.
Jeannie: And we have children.
Jim: Yeah, four wonderful children.
Jeannie: Jim, we have five children.
Jim: But only four of them are wonderful.
Jeannie: Anyway, the idea of giving a speech right now…
Jim: Especially an unpaid speech…
Jeannie: Seemed utterly impossible.
Jim: Yet, here we are.
Jeannie: This initial response of “It’s impossible” has come up many times over the course of our relationship.
Jim: We can’t get married right now. It’s impossible.
Jeannie: We can’t have a kid right now. It’s impossible.
Jim: We can’t write a book now. It’s impossible. I barely know how to read.
Jeannie: As you may have guessed, we have been consistently wrong about what is possible and what is impossible in our lives.
Jim: We can’t open a mail order guacamole business. It’s impossible.
Jeannie: Jim, we never did that.
Jim: Cause you never gave it a chance.
Jeannie: In spite of our self-doubts and our flaws, the impossible became possible.
Jim: But neither of us could have accomplished much of anything by ourselves.
Jeannie: We needed each other, we needed our family, we needed our friends and we needed God.
Jim: And we needed that mail order guacamole business. But this one was too weak in faith. “Oh avocados are too perishable. I’m scared!”
Jeannie: After my own graduation, I knew exactly what I wanted and how I was going to get it: regional theater, Broadway, film, and in between, be on some “Law and Order” episodes where I would play a disillusioned socialite that may or may not be involved in the crime that the entire episode is about but actually ends up helping solve said crime by giving her tearful testimony on the stand about how her best friend confessed to her.
Anyway, I had it all figured out. And I didn’t need anyone else’s help to do it. Not only did I not need anyone else’s help. I didn’t want it. I was going to do it by myself and I would show all of those haters that didn’t believe in me. Me, me, me.
It was pretty soon after I saw the six-hour long lines for the auditions for the Broadway shows that I realized “I better get a day job.” Using my liberal arts education, and I went to a Jesuit school so it was a “liberal” liberal arts education, I quickly got a job as a drama teacher and figured out I had a gift for working with children. I spent the next few years creating my own not-for-profit theater company producing full-scale Shakespearean productions with urban teens. And I did it all by myself. I had found my place at the table. It was at the peak of this mania that I met Jim. I knew nothing about stand up comedy or comics but I knew Jim was funny, talented and I wanted him to be a part of my company. But he was way too skinny so I encouraged him to eat more! You’re welcome.
Jim agreed to come work for me but at the same time, he needed my help. I would work with him on his first TV project. We are both really hard workers so our lives got very busy.
It was then we realized that if we didn’t work together on something, we would never see each other again. Oh, and then there was the whole “Love” thing.
When you have true love, you don’t only work for yourself. In working with Jim, I realized that I could also work for his career, towards his dreams and it was actually rewarding. And of course all those years of working with troubled kids prepared for a lifetime with Jim Gaffigan. How could it be that all my efforts to do everything by myself were not as fulfilling? Even though I was working tirelessly with urban teenagers, I was in charge. I was giving of myself but for myself. It’s funny how we can make even the most altruistic ventures about ourselves. Sharing your life with someone is not easy because it involves sacrificing control. And something beautiful can happen.
Jim: Some of you already have your lives planned out. Some of you are lost. When I sat at my graduation from college over 5,000 years ago I was both of those things. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I want to do something. It wasn’t until 4 years after my graduation that I final deciphered what my heart was telling me to do with my life: Pursue my dream of being a ballerina.
Of course I wanted to be a stand up comedian. I was relieved to discover this. I finally could focus my ambition on a passion. My one goal was to do stand up comedy on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Ten frustrating years later I stood on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater and lived out my dream. Following my appearance I was given an opportunity to do my own television show and in a way my career was off and running. I had a deep moment of peace followed by an impending sense of dread. I had achieved my self appointed goal but something was missing.
Where to now? What if career accomplishment was not the answer? I began to question everything. Beliefs I had doubted, I opened my mind to. Maybe marriage wasn’t giving up freedom. Maybe faith in something wasn’t naïve. Maybe putting others first wasn’t weakness. Maybe guacamole could be sold through the mail.
Before I met Jeannie I had lived across the street from a Catholic church for 15 years. I didn’t notice it. I never went in it once.
Because of Jeannie that same church became the place I was married, the same church my 5 children were baptized in and the church where once a week I’m reminded to keep focused on priorities.
God, family, then work.
Jeannie: I can’t take all the credit. My mother has been saying perpetual novenas for 15 years.
Even though you are the proud graduates of Catholic University, you are probably not as proud as your parents are of you. You have not completed this major accomplishment alone. Take a moment and look around you. Your classmates, your friends, your family - here with you. Cheering you on. Even the ones supporting you from thousands of miles away.
Jim: They all love you…and they would love my mail order guacamole.
Jeannie: Your studies here at Catholic University have enlightened your hearts and your minds and prepared you well for the challenges that lie ahead in your life, but it was your family that prepared you for Catholic University. Family is of the utmost importance. As you put your trust in God things that seem impossible will become possible. The love you are given and the love you give will be the most important force driving you through life. Life is nothing without love.
Jim: Remember happiness is not found in accomplishments, income or the number of Twitter followers you have. True happiness is found in family. Living for each other , sacrificing together and enjoy the blessing of fresh guacamole delivered promptly to your door.
Jeannie: Love what you do, love who you are and love those around you.
Jim: Getting anywhere without doing that?
Now that’s impossible.
Now get out there, and go get ‘em!
[Special thanks to the Communications team at Catholic University of America for allowing the use of this transcript]