Catholic Commencements: Graduates Look at Heaven and Earth

This year’s commencement speakers include sterling examples of Catholic life and witness in the world.

From left to right: The Catholic University of America, the University of Notre Dame and Franciscan University of Steubenville are offering graduates at commencement speakers who are faithful witnesses.
From left to right: The Catholic University of America, the University of Notre Dame and Franciscan University of Steubenville are offering graduates at commencement speakers who are faithful witnesses. (photo: L. Kragt Bakker /, Unsplash and Franciscan University of Steubenville)

SOUTH BEND, Indiana — As Catholic colleges and universities bid their graduating classes farewell, they have chosen speakers and conferred honors to give graduates one final message about their life and witness in the world.

This year’s choices are eclectic, encompassing prominent bishops, scientists and human-rights and pro-life advocates — and also Jesuit Father James Martin, the author of a controversial recent book advocating a new pastoral approach for ministering to Catholics who identify as “LGBT.”

At the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, graduates at May 20 commencement exercises will hear from two models of integrity. Judge Sérgio Moro, a federal judge in Brazil known for his leadership in the fight against corrupt government leaders, will deliver the commencement address. And Missionary of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel will receive the university’s Laetare Medal for “generously serving Christ in the most vulnerable” among migrants at the U.S. border.

Sister Norma told the Register that caring for these vulnerable families is “a beautiful way to give testimony to our faith” and gives glory to God.

Sister Norma also provides a model for graduates about how to build bridges with people, through a Catholic witness that always remembers the dignity of the human person before her.

“I just speak from my heart, I speak what I believe, and I do what I think is the right thing to do. And I just share that with whoever wants to hear me,” she said.

Graduates at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio, will hear a trio of speakers and honorees who model Catholic witness in three vital areas: religious liberty, science and media.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2013 to 2016 and the current chairman of the USCCB’s Committee for Religious Liberty, will receive an honorary doctorate of Christian ethics. 

Jeanette De Melo, the Register’s editor in chief and a member of Franciscan’s Class of 1998, will deliver the arts commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate of communications, as the university stated, “for continuing the legacy of excellent journalism at the National Catholic Register and fulfilling its mission to inform, inspire, challenge and equip active Catholics to engage the culture with confidence.”

Stephen Barr, a University of Delaware professor and director of its Bartol Research Institute, will deliver the sciences commencement ceremony and receive an honorary doctorate of Christian ethics for his work promoting an understanding between science and religion.

“The world of science is not a religious wasteland,” said Barr, a Catholic whose original research has contributed to the field of particle physics and cosmology. He told the Register he wants graduates to understand the conflict between science and religion is a “myth” and that the Church has “good answers to [their] questions.”

Barr, the president of the Society of Catholic Scientists, an organization founded in 2016 with 700 members in 35 countries, told the Register that in science “order is always found to come from a deeper order.” God’s existence, Barr added, “jumps out at me in the magnificent mathematical structures at the basis of the physical world.”

The Catholic University of America, the U.S. bishops’ university, will present to its graduates Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles as a witness on “the role of the family, the value of joy and simplicity as a path to holiness, and respect and dignity toward immigrants.”

Archbishop Gomez, who was born in Mexico, will deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate of fine arts.

The university will also confer honorary degrees on four other immigrants who have made important contributions to the United States and their communities, including Toufic Baaklini, the president and board chairman of In Defense of Christians, which advocates on behalf of Christians and vulnerable populations in the Middle East, and Maria Suarez Hamm, the longtime executive director of Centro Tepeyac, a pro-life women’s clinic in Silver Spring, Maryland.


Range of Speakers

Much like their secular counterparts, the approximately 220 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. have invited a range of individuals to come and speak to graduates at commencement exercises and to receive honorary degrees.

Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, which endured disruption amid harrowing wildfires last year, will present Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, and the board chairman of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, to offer the baccalaureate Mass and deliver the commencement address.

Creighton University invited Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, to address graduates. The Jesuit-run University of San Diego invited Adama Iwu, who was featured by Time magazine as a #MeToo “Silence Breaker” about the culture of sexual violence in politics. Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, invited U.S. historian David McCullough.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, told the Register that with the 2018 commencements and honorees, “the vast majority of selections, from a Catholic perspective, are neither extremely exciting nor offensive.”

Reilly said that while Catholic institutions do not “necessarily need to pick bishops, or Vatican leaders, or lay leaders that are doing Catholic things,” he is concerned that many institutions year after year avoid picking leaders who are “extremely important and extremely vital to [the Catholic community’s] interests.”

“This is an institution making a deliberate selection of one or a few people that they have chosen to hold up for honor, so the question is: What is the thought process that goes into that selection?” he said.



However, he held out some choices for strong criticism.

Reilly pointed out St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, chose Dr. John Raymond Sr., the president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin, to speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree May 13.

Raymond has publicly and repeatedly advocated and lobbied at the state and federal level for human embryonic stem-cell research, which always involves the destruction of the human embryo. The Catholic Church teaches the intentional, direct killing of human life is intrinsically evil and cannot be justified even by noble purposes.

St. Norbert College did not respond to the Register’s request for comment.

Reilly also criticized Sacred Heart University’s invitation to Linda McMahon, who head’s President Trump’s Small Business Administration but ran as a Republican Senate candidate in 2012 who favored legal abortion.

Deb Noack, the director of communications at the Fairfield, Connecticut, university, told the Register McMahon is a “former trustee and longtime friend of the university” who “has been frequently honored for her volunteerism and generosity.”

Noack said the university did not make its choices “based on one issue” and was “extremely proud of Linda” for her long history of advocating on behalf of those underserved in society.

Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and a consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, is scheduled to speak at Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Alabama, but has become the subject of intense controversy among Catholics, including an online pressure campaign to bar him from speaking venues, over his book Building a Bridge, which calls for the Church to change its pastoral approach to persons with same-sex attraction or who identify as LGBT.

Reilly contended Father Martin is “confusing the faithful and shamelessly encouraging those who would tear down moral standards on marriage and sexuality” — allegations the Jesuit priest rejects — and said Spring Hill College showed “a distressing lack of concern for the moral good of Spring Hill’s graduates and their families.”

Spring Hill College has stood firm in its decision to invite Father Martin to address graduates, noting the support of its alumni and that the priest is not doing a “book tour,” but will be talking with graduates about Jesus.

“Father Martin will share with our graduates his insights on spirituality and the blessings of living a purposeful life as they prepare to go out into the world as women and men in service of others,” Ashley Rains, the college’s assistant director of media relations, told the Register.


Guidance on Choices

According to Michael Galligan-Stierle, the president and CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), the U.S. Catholic bishops and presidents of Catholic colleges and universities have had an ongoing dialogue since 2000 about how Catholic institutions can best fulfill the mandates of Pope St. John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, to be a “a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture.”

Catholic institutions of higher learning educate 750,000 students, approximately half of whom are Catholic, according to ACCU’s data. 

Galligan-Stierle told the Register that while the U.S. bishops issued guidance related to political leaders and candidates in a 2004 document called “Catholics in Political Life,” and made clarifications in 2007, the major guiding document for education remains Ex Corde.

He said the discussion between the bishops and presidents is now known as the Catholic Higher Ed Working Group, chaired by Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York, and serves to help provide insights into how to provide authentic Catholic witness, particularly when hosting speakers or giving awards.

“I believe the dialogue going on between the presidents and the bishops right now is incredibly fruitful, helpful and worthwhile,” he said.

“At the end of the day, Catholic universities are called to be places where faith seeks understanding, where the Holy Spirit can continue to work, and the essence of being a Catholic is clear and forthright.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.



College Speakers

The following colleges, included in the Register’s annual “Catholic Identity College Guide,” and their commencement speakers.

Augustine Institute: Michael Dauphinais, professor of theology and chairman of the theology department at Ave Maria University

Ave Maria University: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Belmont Abbey College: Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama of Raleigh, North Carolina, is the homilist for the graduation Mass.

Benedictine College: Curtis Martin, the founder and CEO of Fellowship of Catholic University Students

The Catholic University of America: Archbishop José Gomez, USCCB vice president and archbishop of Los Angeles

Christendom College: Justice Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court justice

DeSales University: Father George Salzmann, of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, Class of 1971 and graduate school chaplain of Harvard University

Divine Mercy University: Dr. Benjamin Carson, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Donnelly College: Ben Lerner, American poet, novelist, essayist and critic

Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University: Sister Marie Morgan, member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration

Franciscan University of Steubenville: Jeanette De Melo, National Catholic Register editor in chief; Stephen Barr, president of the Society of Catholic Scientists and director of the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware

Holy Apostles Seminary and College: Mother Adela Galindo, foundress of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary

John Paul the Great Catholic University *

Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family: Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis will celebrate a graduation Mass and deliver the homily.

Mount St. Mary’s University (Maryland): Agnes “Aggie” Berenato, Class of 1980, acclaimed women’s basketball coach

Northeast Catholic College: R.R. Reno, editor in chief of First Things magazine

Sacred Heart Major Seminary: Archbishop Allen Vigneron of the Archdiocese of Detroit

Saint Vincent College: Maxwell King, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation

School of Theological Studies at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary: Andreas Widmer, director of entrepreneurship programs at The Catholic University of America Busch School of Business, author and former Swiss Guard under St. John Paul II.

Thomas Aquinas College: Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, and board chairman of the National Catholic Bioethics Center

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts: Christopher Check, president of Catholic Answers

University of Dallas: Distinguished alumni Tom Nealon, MBA, Class of 1988; and Miriem Bensalah-Chaqroun, MBA, Class of 1986

University of Mary: Benedictine Sister Michaela Hedican, past president of the Federation of Saint Benedict

University of St. Thomas (Texas): Helen Alvaré, professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University

Walsh University: Tony Hall, former U.S. ambassador and Nobel Peace Prize nominee

Wyoming Catholic College: Joseph Pearce, Catholic author and biographer

* Not yet chosen

— Peter Jesserer Smith