Commencement ’19: College Speakers Run the Gamut of Faithfulness to the Church

A look at who is speaking where.

L to r: Peggy Noonan, columnist and former presidential speechwriter, will speak at the University of Notre Dame; Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron will speak at Thomas Aquinas College; and Curtis Martin, founder of Fellowship of Catholic University Students, will speak at Franciscan University.
L to r: Peggy Noonan, columnist and former presidential speechwriter, will speak at the University of Notre Dame; Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron will speak at Thomas Aquinas College; and Curtis Martin, founder of Fellowship of Catholic University Students, will speak at Franciscan University. (photo: Media handouts; 2008 Peggy Noonan photo by Meet the Press via Getty Images)

Editor's Note: Previously scheduled speaker at Thomas More College, Anthony Esolen, has been replaced by author Phil Lawler as of May 17.


It is commencement season across the nation, and the variety of commencement speakers and honorees range from strong voices for orthodoxy to proponents of views that directly contradict fundamental Church teaching and policies.

“This year, thus far, we’re seeing a number of good speakers, as we always do,” observed Patrick Reilly, president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society.

He pointed out that Franciscan University of Steubenville “always does a good job.” This year the Ohio college has tapped Curtis Martin and Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, for commencement on May 12-13.

Bishop Murry will celebrate the baccalaureate Mass and will be honored. Martin, the founder and CEO of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), will deliver the commencement address as well as be honored “for his evangelistic outreach efforts to tens of thousands of college students throughout the United States,” according to the university’s official program.

Reilly also singled out the commencement choices at the Front Royal, Virginia-based Christendom College.

“Christendom has three speakers who have had extraordinary impact on Catholic intellectual life, and two of them have had such a huge impact in the Church in our understanding on contraception and pro-life issues and the theology that lies behind it.”

On May 10-12, Christendom’s 130 graduates will hear Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer deliver commencement remarks; the EWTN host will also be honored.

Janet Smith will give the commencement address and be honored, while Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, will celebrate the baccalaureate Mass.

Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire Ministries, will deliver the commencement address and receive an award at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, on May 11. In an official statement, Thomas Aquinas’ president, Michael McLean, called the bishop “a faithful friend and champion of the college since becoming our regional bishop in 2015. … Bishop Barron has been a tireless and effective voice of the New Evangelization, bringing the salvific word of Christ to audiences that might otherwise never encounter it.”

Another bishop will appear on the same day, 980 miles northeast in Lander, Wyoming.

Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, will give the commencement address in a homecoming of sorts.

Bishop Ricken is one of the college’s three founders.

“His commitment to founding a strong Catholic college in Wyoming,” said Glenn Arbery, the college president, “has borne great fruit, attracting students from across the country and sending graduates into all walks of life.”

While these two colleges have invited bishops, Reilly notes that “there are almost no bishops [elsewhere].”

He suspects “that is from the fallout in the last year, and beyond, with all the scandals. Something we’ve always encouraged” is for colleges to present “prominent role models for their students, and yet bishops are picked very rarely,” he said. “It’s a shame because many bishops are excellent models, and some stand out, like Bishop Olmsted and Bishop Barron, who have really stood strong. We could argue that there’s no better time to celebrate the bishops who are standing strong and leading the faithful.”


Other Faithful Choices

Another college founder was spotlighted on May 4 in Warner, New Hampshire, when Northeast Catholic College hosted its founding president, Peter Sampo, as commencement speaker.

Northeast President George Harne told the Register, “Dr. Sampo has served Catholic education heroically for over 50 years … and has unselfishly passed on his learning through his teaching to generations … inspiring in them ‘the love of learning and the desire for God.’”

On the East Coast, at The Catholic University of America in Washington, international journalist Jesús Colina will deliver the commencement address on May 18. Colina founded two Catholic news sites, ZENIT and Aleteia.

“What we don’t do so often is recognize the importance and contribution of the lay vocation,” noted CUA President John Garvey in an official release.

“That is what we are celebrating this year,” said Garvey, adding, “The vision that Jesús Colina has for Catholic media is impressive. … With Aleteia, he is truly breaking new ground in his efforts to bring the word of God to an audience that is in many ways indifferent to the Gospel. This is what living out one’s lay vocation looks like.”

At Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimac, New Hampshire, author and teacher Anthony Esolen, since 2017 a fellow at the college, will be one of three speakers. Also speaking will be Kevin Ryan, founder of the Center of the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University. The third speaker will be the college’s president, William Edmund Fahey.

In the Midwest, the University of Notre Dame will host commencement May 19, when Peggy Noonan, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, author and speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, will deliver the address and be honored.

“Peggy Noonan is universally admired for the stirring prose, keen insight and the moral perspective of her commentary on America and the world,” said Holy Cross Father John Jenkins about the selection.

Notre Dame will also award its Laetare Medal to Norman C. Francis, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, founded by St. Katharine Drexel.

“In bestowing the Laetare Medal upon him,” Father Jenkins observed, “Notre Dame recognizes his leadership in the fight for social justice through educational empowerment.”

On May 11, in Atchison, Kansas, Benedictine College will host keynote speaker Mike Sweeney, five-time Major League Baseball All-Star and former Kansas City Royals player.

Off the field, Sweeney and his wife are founders of the Mike and Shara Sweeney Family Foundation, which supports Catholic and pro-life ministries.

He also founded the San Diego Saints Baseball Club, a Catholic travel-baseball organization, and Catholic Baseball Camps, Inc.


Questionable Choices

Other choices fail to encompass a full Catholic witness.

For example, on May 18 in Cincinnati, Jesuit Father James Martin, author of the controversial book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, will address the undergraduates at Xavier University. Father Martin’s writings have been criticized for minimizing the Catholic teaching that homosexual inclination is objectively disordered.


Problematic Choices

Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, New York, chose for its May 19 commencement speaker Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and for decades has helped former gang members finish their educations and find jobs.

Yet he also has publicly spoken in favor of same-sex “marriage” and women’s ordination and advocated for those in irregular marital situations to receive Communion.

Reilly said the Cardinal Newman Society “raised concern two years ago when Father Boyle was given an award by Notre Dame.”

He also pointed out the choice of Saint Mary’s College of California, which is east of San Francisco.

For the May 25 undergraduate commencement, U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier was selected.

DeSaulnier gets a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America and voted against the 2018 Born-Alive Survivors Protection Act and the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

And after one Supreme Court ruling on same-sex “marriage,” the congressman stated, “I celebrate this victory with the LGBT community and with members of my own family whose love now knows no boundaries.”

Reilly noted the University of San Francisco also is hosting concerning speakers, including  Helen Zia, an “LGBT” activist who will address graduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences ceremony and receive an honorary degree. In 2008 Zia and her partner became among the first same-sex couples to marry in California.

Boston College Law School has invited alumnus U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott from Virginia to be its commencement speaker on May 24. Scott has a 100% rating from NARAL, and he voted against the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, against “restricting interstate transport of minors to get abortions,” against making it a criminal offense to harm a child in the womb during another crime, against banning partial-birth abortions, against the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, and against the 2017 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), among other votes not in line with Catholic teaching.  

Days earlier, on May 17 in New York City, Manhattan College, a Lasallian-run school, will welcome U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Justice Sotomayor consistently votes with the court’s liberal wing, including in favor of same-sex “marriage” and against any case that might restrict abortion.

And Mark Shriver has been invited as a speaker at Mount St. Mary’s University near Emmitsburg, Maryland.

He is listed as a senior vice president of Save the Children, a charity which also has global pro-contraceptive goals according to its website.

His stances while he served as a state legislator in Maryland earned him a 100% pro-abortion rating from NARAL, and as a 2002 candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland, he stated, “Women’s issues are critically important and I will continue to fight for a women’s right to choose; family planning funds; maternal and child health funding and education for girls both here and abroad.”

“Mount St. Mary’s is extremely disappointing,” Reilly said. “This is one of the schools we recommend for Catholic education.”

He explained the current president has “dug in his heels and violated the university’s own speaker’s policy in inviting Mark Shriver for the commencement.”

Shriver voluntarily backed out of receiving a honorary degree because of the controversy, but the school is “insisting he will go forward with the commencement address, which is still a violation of the bishops’ policy and something we’re deeply concerned about. We have been hearing of other concerns at Mount St. Mary’s, and so we are actively reviewing whether the university should remain in the Newman Guide,” Reilly explained.


Other Selections

Several Catholic colleges have invited business leaders or social-justice advocates, many not commonly known.

For example, on May 19, at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas, graduates will hear from Emmet Flood, who acted as special counsel or acting counsel to some U.S. presidents.

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.