For graduation ceremonies in May, many Catholic colleges and universities will bring what Blessed John Paul II would refer to as a “springtime” for Christianity in their choice of commencement speakers.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, has seen the number of controversial and blatantly scandalous speakers drop from 24 in 2006 to 14 last year.
“Certainly, the numbers are going down, which is very good,” Reilly said. He believes one reason is from a real assertive effort by the bishops to ban these honors, beginning with their 2004 directive “Catholics in Political Life.”
A sampling of 2012 commencement speakers shows that colleges faithful to the Church and magisterium continue to choose high-profile speakers who are exemplars of the faith.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York will address graduates of The Catholic University of America at the university’s May 12 commencement. He will be awarded the President’s Medal at the ceremony as well.
“He is a charismatic and joyful individual,” said CUA president John Garvey. “Whatever message he delivers to our graduating students, he will do so in a highly engaging way.”
Cardinal Dolan earned a doctorate in history at CUA.
Meanwhile, in Kansas, papal biographer George Weigel will deliver Benedictine College’s commencement address. The college has devoted this year to honoring John Paul II, according to college dean Kim Shankman.
“Our theme for the year was one of his favorite admonitions: ‘Be Not Afraid,’” she said. “We hope that our students are inspired by the witness of a man who used his scholarly gifts to reach millions ... and to contribute to public dialogue on so many crucial issues of the day.”
Mother Mary Assumpta Long, prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, will give the commencement address at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.
“She is one of the great voices in the Church today,” the college’s president, Michael McLean, said, noting that Mother Assumpta’s zeal for souls resulted in her founding a new congregation of sisters inspired by the New Evangelization.
“While Mother Assumpta will certainly be an encouragement to all our students, I think she will touch the women in our community in a special way,” McLean said. “Already, we have two graduates who are members of Mother’s congregation; perhaps there will be more.”
Franciscan University of Steubenville hosts Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., commissioner of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL); retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency; and Marie Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
The Register went to press before the general’s May 12 speech, but according to an excerpt from his speech released by the university, Hayden was to tell graduates: “I found that, as I became more senior in government and advanced to positions of greater responsibility, I was relying less on any professional expertise I had developed and more on the values and lessons I had learned from my parents and in Catholic grade school.”
He told Franciscan that no matter where he was in the world — the Balkans, Afghanistan, other remote outposts — he and his wife found a way to get to Sunday Mass.
Ave Maria University in Florida chose former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to give the commencement address.
“He was here at the groundbreaking as governor,” said Ave Maria’s president, Jim Towey. “Jeb is a role model of how a Catholic can quietly live his faith and make a difference in the world.”
In Massachusetts, Boston College tapped television journalist Robert Woodruff as commencement speaker for the class of 2012.
Woodruff sustained a traumatic brain injury from a bomb in Iraq, endured a long recovery, and now helps service members with comparable injuries.
“In selecting our commencement speaker, we look for individuals whose life accomplishments inspire students and whose work reflects a commitment to excellence, which is a goal of the Boston College educational experience,” said Jack Dunn, spokesman for the college. “For us, Bob Woodruff embodies these qualities.”
Similarly, the University of Notre Dame will have commencement speaker Haley Scott DeMaria, who overcame critical injuries in a 1992 bus accident involving the university swim team even though the prognosis was dire.
“She’s an incredibly inspiring individual and alumna who overcame incredible circumstances to even walk again, but graduated and has a family,” spokesman Dennis Brown said. “Her example of perseverance and hope, faith and love will be an encouragement to our graduates as they leave the school.”
In a press release, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, noted that in DeMaria’s many national talks there is always “a focus on God’s grace and the love and support she received from her family, friends and Notre Dame.”
Notre Dame is coming under fire for its choice of speaker for its graduate school commencement, however: Dr. Thomas Quinn, founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health. Said Brown, “Dr. Quinn is a distinguished alumnus and equally distinguished in his field. We think he will provide some inspiring words for our graduate students.”
The Cardinal Newman Society sees this choice as “clearly problematic” and points out that “family planning and condom-distribution projects” are facilitated at that center for global health.
“Our concern is: What is the mindset of a Catholic college or university when it chooses these people for honor?” Reilly asked. “Clearly, someone whose work regularly confronts Catholic teaching is not someone who should be at the top of the list.”
Some institutions of higher learning apparently disagree. When Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Mass., objected to planned speaker Victoria Kennedy because her views digress from Catholic teaching, especially on abortion and same-sex “marriage,” Anna Maria Catholic College disinvited her. Now Kennedy will be the convocation speaker at Boston College Law School.
A sampling of Catholic institutions picking commencement speakers who openly support abortion rights and same-sex “marriage” includes Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn., whose speaker, Gov. Dannel Malloy, strongly supports the Health and Human Services “contraception mandate.”
“He falls in the realm of very blatantly opposed to the Church on abortion and same-sex ‘marriage,’” said Reilly.
At Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu is another example of someone who is an extraordinary person in many ways, Reilly said, but that does not make him appropriate for honors because he supports abortion rights and same-sex “marriage.”
Still, colleges that have a track record of being consistently faithful to the magisterium consistently choose stellar examples of the faith, like Mother Agnes Donovan, superior of the Sisters of Life, who will be speaking at Christendom College.
“Working closely with the late Cardinal [John] O’Connor, she saw the need for a prophetic witness to the sanctity of human life in New York City,” said Timothy O’Donnell, Christendom’s president.
“The work of Mother and her sisters has been an inspiration to thousands across the United States. She is someone who daily brings the faith into the world. She is a talented, remarkable woman who responded and continues to respond to the will of God in a powerful way. What better example for our students?”
In the end, that is what commencement speakers are: examples for those who are graduating.
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.