Commencement 2021: Catholic Colleges and Universities Return to Relative Normalcy

Catholic graduates have endured and overcame the challenges of the 2020-2021 school year.

Above, the University of Dallas postponed its baccalaureate Mass and graduation ceremony for 2020 graduates due to COVID-19 until Dec. 5-6, 2020.
Above, the University of Dallas postponed its baccalaureate Mass and graduation ceremony for 2020 graduates due to COVID-19 until Dec. 5-6, 2020. (photo: Anthony Mazur / University of Dallas)

An estimated 4.43 million students will be graduating from college or university in the United States this spring, including those from the more than 225 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. 

Catholic or otherwise, the Class of 2021 will graduate under relatively normal circumstances after the COVID-19 pandemic forced institutions of higher learning to scramble last year for contingency plans regarding commencement exercises. 

As with the quotidian aspects of college life — such as classroom learning and dormitory living — many schools were forced to forgo a formal graduation ceremony. 

At the conclusion of the 2020 school year, some institutions offered an online option with livestreamed baccalaureate Masses and commencement speeches, while others postponed last year’s commencement ceremonies to this year.

But for Catholic universities and colleges, in particular, the community interruption that COVID-19 restrictions caused went deeper than logistic challenges at sporting events or technological challenges for online classrooms. 

Not only could Catholic students often not meet as a student body to learn about the truth, but they also found it challenging to meet as the body of Christ to encounter the Author of the truth. 

With this year’s commencement exercises, however, the sense of completion will be particularly poignant for Catholic graduates who, as juniors, endured and overcame the challenges of the 2020-2021 school year. 

According to the schools interviewed for this article, this year’s graduation season will truly be a time to exhort departing seniors to find their way forward in life with the help of hindsight, through wisdom they learned in the classroom and earned in a pandemic. 

2020 college graduations
Clockwise from top: Thomas Aquinas College graduates toss their mortarboards at the most recent commencement in 2019, before the pandemic ensued. Christendom College graduate Parker Fiering smiles on his way to Christendom's 2020 commencement ceremony. And Benedictine College 2020 graduate Anna Miller smiles after receiving her cap and gown in early March 2020. A few weeks later, the country would shut down, and the 2020 commencement would ultimately be canceled. Many of the 2020 graduates iof these colleges are returning this May for a joint commencement with the 2021 class year.


The Catholic University of America

The U.S. bishops’ flagship, The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., will graduate more than 1,000 students this year at commencement exercises, to be held on May 15 at FedExField (where the NFL’s Washington Football Team plays) in Landover, Maryland. 

The day before, May 14, the university will be hosting its honors convocation and baccalaureate Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. According to Judi Biggs Garbuio, CUA’s vice president for student affairs, the Mass will be livestreamed.

CUA did not have a formal graduation ceremony last year because of COVID restrictions, opting instead for a virtual degree conferral, Garbuio told the Register. But this year, the graduates are grateful for a return to normal, she added, and look forward to “a single ceremony that they can attend together with their classmates, in a unique and safe setting, with four guests of their choice.” According to Franciscan Father Jude DeAngelo, CUA chaplain and director of the school’s campus ministry program, the signs of increased and renewed faith on campus means that CUA seniors are well prepared spiritually for graduation.

“Our students really hungered for communal worship and individual prayer before the Blessed Sacrament,” he told the Register, adding, “The unity of the body of Christ has been a source of great gratitude and renewal of spirit during some of the most difficult times this past year.”     


Benedictine College

Benedictine College (BC) in Atchison, Kansas, will hold commencement exercises outside for the first time in decades on May 15 in Larry Wilcox Stadium, the football facility on the college campus. Because last year’s commencement was canceled, both the Class of 2020 (about 135 of the 400 graduates) and the Class of 2021 (about 300 students) will participate.

The speaker at this year’s commencement was also last year’s scheduled speaker before the event was canceled: Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a BC alumnus (1991). 

Bishop Cozzens will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Benedictine.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, will celebrate the baccalaureate Mass, with Bishop Cozzens concelebrating. 

According to BC chaplain Benedictine Father Simon Baker, the school’s recovery from the setbacks due to COVID-19 were an opportunity for spiritual unity.

“The pandemic was positive in unexpected ways for our students,” he told the Register. “What do you do when life gets really complicated and difficult? You simplify. You take a step back. You go back to the foundation. So, in prayer, what is the tried-and-true method, what is the guaranteed way to hear God’s voice in prayer?”

For the graduating students, Benedictine President Stephen Minnis said that the commencement serves as a reminder of how far they’ve traveled — not only in their four years at the school, but in the challenges they faced — and overcame — in the year of COVID.

“These students should be proud of what they have accomplished. After years of being told that they were coddled, that they had it easy and that they have never had to suffer, they went through very difficult challenges and handled them beautifully,” he said, adding, “Now, we are excited to see the many ways they will take this spirit into the world in their careers, parishes and homes.”


Christendom College

Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, will be hosting commencement exercises on May 15, outdoors on the campus’ Campion Field sports complex. The event will be attended live and by livestream with more than 100 students graduating, said Zachary Smith, a spokesman for the college, adding that the event is being held outside in accordance with Virginia state guidelines. The commencement speaker this year is College Football Hall of Fame inductee and Notre Dame Fighting Irish football coach Lou Holtz. During the commencement, Holtz will be awarded the college’s Pro Deo et Patria Award for Distinguished Service to God and Country.

According to Amanda Graf, Christendom’s vice president of student affairs, the school has not only survived COVID but has also been strengthened as a community formed and informed by Christ and his Church. 

“Spiritually,” she told the Register, “I think it has been an opportunity to deepen our reliance on Jesus — not in a presumptive or magical-thinking way that assumed we would sail through this time without any challenges — but in a way that helped us to understand even more deeply how the Lord is present with us in our challenges and uncertainties.”

Besides being a celebration of achievements, Graf said, Christendom’s 2021 commencement will be a time for reflection “on the gifts one has received, on the challenges overcome and the opportunities ahead.” The education that this year’s Christendom graduates received has been supplemented, Graf noted, by the unforeseen circumstances that the pandemic had caused in both the community as a whole and for individual students. 

“I hope this year they feel proud of what they have accomplished and how they used their Christendom education and formation over the past year to persevere through a difficult time,” she said. 


Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in Santa Paula, California, will host two commencement exercises: one on May 15 for the 83 members of the Class of 2021 and one on May 29 for the 95 members of the Class of 2020. (The school’s recently opened campus in Northfield, Massachusetts, will have its first graduating class in 2022.) 

According to TAC’s academic dean, John Goyette, last year’s class did not have a graduation ceremony because of COVID-19 restrictions, although they did receive diplomas.

Thomas Aquinas College Class of 2020
This photo of last year's graduates, the Class of 2020, of Thomas Aquinas College was taken shortly before everyone had to leave campus in March due to COVID-19.

“We weren’t able to host a commencement ceremony last year,” Goyette told the Register, “but we will try to make this year’s ceremonies as much as possible like those of the past. The biggest difference will be that only graduates and their immediate families will be able attend, so as to accommodate social-distancing regulations. In addition, both the baccalaureate Mass and the commencement exercises will be held outdoors.”

The commencement speaker and celebrant for the baccalaureate Mass for TAC’s May 15 event will be Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois; Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, California, will be commencement speaker and celebrant for the baccalaureate Mass on May 29. For the TAC students of the two graduating classes, Goyette said, the commencement communicates continuation. 

“For our students, commencement is the culmination of four years’ disciplined effort, working their way tirelessly through the Great Books of Western civilization in all the major disciplines — including mathematics, natural science, philosophy and theology — to develop a deeper understanding of nature, man and, ultimately, God himself,” Goyette said. “It is, however, also only the beginning, which is why we call it ‘commencement.’ We hope our graduates will see this day as the next step in a life of growing in faith and wisdom.” 


University of Dallas

The University of Dallas (UD) will be celebrating its baccalaureate Mass on the school’s campus mall on May 15 and will hold commencement exercises for about 400 graduating students on May 16 at the Toyota Music Factory, a nearby off-campus high-capacity concert hall. The commencement speaker will be Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, Iraq, renowned for his support for and aid to persecuted Christians in his country.

According to Clare Venegas, UD’s vice president of communications and marketing, the school as a whole and the graduating seniors in particular learned a valuable lesson in charity over the past year and a half in addressing the COVID-19 restrictions. 

“There have been a lot of challenges, especially with having to navigate the changing landscape and protocols — masking, distancing — it’s all contrary to what we are as a close learning community,” she said. “We’ve learned to be extra patient with one another.”

The increased charity within the student body may have something to do with the fact that students have maintained a consistent fervor for the sacraments offered at daily Mass on UD’s campus. 

“COVID didn’t dissipate students’ desire for the sacramental life,” she said. “Even though we had to limit capacity at our campus chapel, we have been at maximum capacity at the daily Masses that happen. It made people appreciate the value of being in community and being able to be in the spiritual life together.”

The school’s commencement, newly named UD President Jonathan Sanford told the Register, is a moment for celebration and exhortation for UD’s Class of 2021.

“Our students have endured in pursuit of the true, good and beautiful through a period of great trial, making their achievement even more notable, and the fact that our culture now more than ever yearns for renewal makes this a particularly poignant opportunity to inspire and exhort them to be salt and light to the world,” Sanford said. “We will be reflecting on lessons learned over this last year, virtues like perseverance and courage that have been needed in new ways and which will be called upon even more as our students embark on the next chapters of their lives.”