Bishop Barron to Address Hillsdale Graduates; Catholic Colleges and Universities Also Slate Ceremonies


Bishop Robert Barron will address the Hillsdale Class of 2023 on May 13.
Bishop Robert Barron will address the Hillsdale Class of 2023 on May 13. (photo: Courtesy of Word on Fire)

When Free Will Baptists founded Hillsdale College in 1844, they possibly never envisioned a Catholic bishop as the school’s graduation speaker.

Yet Bishop Robert Barron is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at the school on May 13 — in what is definitely one of the more unexpected choices among this year’s roster of commencement speakers.

Bishop Barron, 63, is the founder of the Catholic media ministry Word on Fire and a popular podcaster. In 2011, he hosted a 10-part video series called Catholicism. He’s also the bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in southern Minnesota.

Evangelical Protestant Hillsdale is no longer affiliated with a denomination, but supports what it calls “natural law principles” and says “the moral tenets of Christianity … have been essential to the mission of the college.”

“I’ve always admired them. They’re great defenders of the Western intellectual tradition, which I do think is under assault today,” Bishop Barron told the Register in a telephone interview.

Last year, many rising seniors at the school said in a survey that they’d like to see a religious figure as the main speaker at their graduation ceremony, said Andrew Davidson, 22, a senior philosophy major and class president.

In March, former vice president Mike Pence spoke on campus. In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke there. Both are Republicans and baptized Catholics, and both are considered likely candidates for president in 2024.

“Hillsdale is a school that’s getting more noticed lately for the political figures it brings to campus. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But there’s a lot of interest in our class in focusing on unity, something that’s not political,” Davidson said.

Davidson, a member of the Anglican Church in North America, was one of the people who pushed for Bishop Barron to be invited.

“He is a unifying force in Christianity,” said Davidson, of Virginia, who plans to take a gap year before going to law school. “He’s Catholic, but a lot of his homilies and podcasts are about trying to tell lapsed Catholics and lapsed Christians about why they should come back to the faith.”

While not a Catholic school, Hillsdale has a strong Catholic presence. Estimates vary, but a survey by the student newspaper in 2018 found that 26% of students were Catholics. Some say the current figure is more like 35%.


Strong Catholic Presence

Mass is celebrated twice a week on campus, including once in the basilica-like nondenominational chapel. On Sundays, the local Catholic church in town, St. Anthony’s, is packed. The congregation includes many Hillsdale students.

About 20 non-Catholic students a year join the Catholic Church, said Regina Gravrok, the head of women’s outreach at the Hillsdale College Catholic Society.

About 90% of the students practice some religion. 

The curriculum at the school emphasizes great thinkers and the search for truth. Conversations about religion are common.

“Even non-Catholics are relatively friendly to Catholicism. I’ve spoken to some Protestant friends, and they’re pretty excited about Bishop Barron being the commencement speaker, too,” said Gravrok, 21, a senior English major from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who plans to work for Classical Learning Test after graduation.


Other Commencement Speakers

Below is a list of spring commencement speakers at several Catholic colleges that also take part in the Register’s annual “Catholic Identity College Guide”:


April 29

University of Mary

Bismarck, North Dakota

Shelly Lambertz, an oil executive, is the commencement speaker. She serves as executive vice president and chief culture and administrative officer for Continental Resources, an oil company based in Oklahoma City.


May 6

Magdalen College of the 

Liberal Arts

Warner, New Hampshire

Jay Richards, philosopher and author, is the commencement speaker. Richards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is the director of the foundation’s DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family. He is also the author of Eat, Fast, Feast (2020), a book that argues Catholics should rediscover fasting as a means of spiritual (and physical) health.


Walsh University

 North Canton, Ohio

Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda is the commencement speaker. Archbishop Warda, a Redemptorist and a Chaldean Catholic, is the archbishop of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. 

In November 2022, Walsh University signed a memorandum of understanding with the Catholic University in Erbil, for which Archbishop Warda serves as chairman and chancellor, “aimed at creating new opportunities for education and understanding in the Middle East.”


Ave Maria University

Ave Maria, Florida

Patrick Lencioni, a founder and the chief executive officer of The Table Group, a management consulting firm, is the commencement speaker. A frequent speaker on business matters, he is the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002), which describes the causes of office politics and staff failure. At 297, this year’s is the school’s largest-ever graduating class.


May 12

Franciscan University of 


Steubenville, Ohio

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City is scheduled to preside at the baccalaureate Mass and receive an honorary doctorate in Christian ethics. Archbishop Coakley, 67, the elected secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was chosen “for his strong pastoral leadership and many years of outspoken advocacy and defense of the dignity of the human person,” the school said in a written statement. At close to 800, the Class of 2023 is the school’s largest-ever graduating class.


May 13

Thomas More College of the 

Liberal Arts

 Merrimack, New Hampshire

Sohrab Ahmari, the founder and editor of Compact magazine, is the commencement speaker. Ahmari, 38, born in Iran, left nominal Islam for atheism and later left atheism for Catholicism. 

He was previously the op-ed editor of the New York Post and a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of From Fire, by Water (2019), a book about his conversion.


Benedictine College

Atchison, Kansas

Leonard Leo, co-chairman of the Federalist Society, is the commencement speaker. 

Leo, a lawyer and activist, has played a large role in recent selections for the U.S. Supreme Court by Republican presidents, and he has led campaigns to get those nominees confirmed by the U.S. Senate. 

“Leo is a champion of the rule of law, an advocate of global religious freedom, and a committed leader of many Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., and around the country,” the school said in a written statement

“He has engaged issues in the public square that lie close to the heart of the Church, providing an inspirational expression of the New Evangelization as envisioned by St. John Paul II.”

The Catholic University of


 Washington, D.C.

Arthur Brooks, the former president of the American Enterprise Institute, is the commencement speaker. Brooks, 58, is a social scientist, author and columnist. His most recent book is From Strength to Strength: Finding Happiness, Success, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (2022). 

“Too often our society sees the glass half-empty, looking largely at the negative. But Arthur Brooks is different: While a realist, he sees the world as a place where people can find purpose, happiness, and joy throughout their lives,” said Peter Kilpatrick, the school’s president, in a written statement.


Christendom College

Front Royal, Virginia

John Haas, a moral theologian and president emeritus of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, is the commencement speaker. He has served as a consultant on pro-life matters and health-care matters to the U.S. bishops’ conference.


Thomas Aquinas College

 New England campus

Northfield, Massachusetts

Daniel Flatley, trustee of the The Flatley Foundation, is the commencement speaker. Flatley, whose late father, Thomas Flatley, was a billionaire developer in Massachusetts, is a benefactor of the New England campus of Thomas Aquinas College, which opened in 2018. 

“As a layman and a philanthropist, Daniel Flatley sustains many of the institutions and apostolates that are vital to the function of the Church’s good works,” said Paul O’Reilly, president of Thomas Aquinas College, in a written statement.


University of St. Thomas

Houston, Texas

Leah Darrow, a personal development coach and entrepreneur, is the commencement speaker. She is the host of Your Next Step podcast.


Belmont Abbey College

Belmont, North Carolina

Belmont Abbey typically does not have an outside speaker at its graduation ceremony, a spokesman said. Speakers at commencement this year include the college’s president, William Thierfelder; a yet-to-be-announced student of the year; and an alumnus of the college.


May 14

University of Dallas

Irving, Texas

Paul Clement, a lawyer who has represented the Little Sisters of the Poor in their U.S. Supreme Court religious-liberty cases free of charge, is the commencement speaker. 

He also argued the successful appeal of Washington state high-school football coach Joseph Kennedy, who was fired by a public-school district for praying at midfield after games. 

Clement, 56, served as U.S. solicitor general from 2004 to 2008, during the administration of President George W. Bush. 

“Mr. Clement has served his community, his clients, and his country with remarkable integrity. He is a man of deep Catholic faith and exceptional character, and serves as a great exemplar for our students,” said Jonathan Sanford, president of the University of Dallas, in a written statement

The same statement quotes Clement as calling the University of Dallas “a model of a Catholic university.”


May 15

Wyoming Catholic College

Lander, Wyoming

Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver is the commencement speaker. Archbishop Aquila, 72, is the metropolitan of the Province of Denver, which includes the Diocese of Cheyenne, which covers all of the state of Wyoming. 

He is also a member of the board of directors of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which evangelizes students on college campuses.

May 20

Divine Mercy University

Sterling, Virginia

Paul Vitz, a senior scholar at DMU, will address graduates this year; he will officially retire after graduation, following a long career integrating Christian theology, especially Catholic anthropology, with psychology.

Thomas Aquinas College

Santa Paula, California

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, is the commencement speaker and principal celebrant of the school’s baccalaureate Mass. Bishop Conley, 68, is a convert from Presbyterianism. 

Bishop Conley is “a strong supporter” of Thomas Aquinas College “for many decades,” calling it “a bright light, leading the way to an authentic renewal of Catholic higher education in this country and beyond,” according to a written statement from the college.


Aug. 26

John Paul the Great Catholic 


Escondido, California

John Paul the Great is on a quarter system, with graduation in August.

This story was updated after posting.