Catholic Colleges’ 2013 Commencement Speakers

Highlights and Concerns From Graduations Across the Country

For graduation ceremonies, the outlook was a bit brighter than in recent years, as many Catholic colleges and universities chose as commencement speakers high-profile Catholics who are exemplars of the faith.

Among them are Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.; Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston at Regis College in Weston, Mass.; Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.; Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md.; Colleen Carroll Campbell at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio; and George Weigel at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, N.H.

In comparison to previous years, this year there are fewer speakers who are problematic.

"Any scandal is extremely troubling," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, "but thus far, the trend is very exciting. It appears that we have more cardinals and bishops speaking at commencements than we have scandals and other issues. That’s outstanding."

Yet he does note that out of 200-plus Catholic colleges, it is still a small percentage, as compared to the speakers who are prominent businessmen and women or political leaders. The Cardinal Newman Society keeps tabs on which colleges promote an authentic Catholic identity.

Reilly said Notre Dame’s leadership deserves as much praise for inviting Cardinal Dolan as criticism for honoring President Barack Obama in 2009. "This is precisely what a leading Catholic university ought to be doing," said Reilly, who was also excited to see Archbishop Lori speak at Mount St. Mary’s. 

"It would be appropriate if every Catholic institution would honor these leaders, especially in this year, for what they are doing for the Church universally. If not for fighting as hard as they are, the hope for a resolution to the HHS [Health and Human Services] mandate would be far less."

Cardinal Dolan, who serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke at Notre Dame’s 168th commencement on May 19.

On Pentecost Sunday, Cardinal Dolan focused his address on what a Jewish alumnus told him was the "secret of Notre Dame": the Mother of Jesus, Our Lady — Notre Dame (whom the Jewish people call Miriam).

As a new "classmate" with his honorary degree, the cardinal emphasized that "she’s not just our patroness, but our model. It all comes down to this: She — Miriam, Mary, Notre Dame, Our Lady — humbly, selflessly, generously, with trust, placed her life in God’s hands, allowing her life to unfold according to his plan."

Cardinal Dolan said the university challenges everyone to reply, "Fiat! Yes!" as Our Lady did. "Here, our goal is not just a career, but a call; not just a degree, but discipleship; not just what we’ve gotten, but what we’re giving; not just the now, but eternity; not just the ‘I,’ but the ‘we’; not just the grades, but the Gospel."

Counseled Cardinal Dolan, Our Lady reminds us that "we’re happiest when our plans are consonant with his (God’s)."

"There, indeed, was the secret of Notre Dame — not something, but someone: Our Lady, who gave the Divine a human nature and invites us, equipped, please God, with what she’s given us here to do the same," he concluded.

On Sunday May 12, Archbishop Lori, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty for the USCCB, delivered the commencement address at Mount St. Mary’s.

In his commencement address, Archbishop Lori quoted a sentence from a writer in YouCat (the youth-focused Catechism) as the major message he wanted graduates to leave with: "Mastery of the moment is mastery over life."

He showed them how this plays out in every decision each day to build character through authentic virtue.

"If you want to know who you are and who you can become, know Jesus!" he said. "If you want to know what real virtue is, follow him!"

And he spoke of trusting the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patroness of the university.

"In every circumstance of her life, in every single moment," Archbishop Lori emphasized, "Mary chose what was good and true and beautiful — and conceived in her womb the Author of goodness, truth and beauty. … She knew better than anyone else that ‘Mastery of the moment is mastery over life.’"

In Ohio, at Franciscan University of Steubenville’s 65th commencement exercises on May 11, author, EWTN host and journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell addressed the graduate students, while R. James Nicholson, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, addressed the undergraduates.

Campbell, who will soon anchor EWTN’s new nightly television newscast live from Washington, encouraged the graduates to "know how to say Yes when God calls you to scrap your plans and do the unexpected." She also urged them to avoid growing too comfortable in their plans, vocations, careers and more, so as not to get "stuck clinging to what God asked of us yesterday, and so find ourselves unable to heed his call on our lives today."

"Imagine what the world would have lost," she said, "had [St.] Francis gotten stuck on his original interpretation of God’s call and failed to embrace the more radical mission the Lord had planned for him."

And Nicholson urged graduates to persevere in faith: "When the going gets tough, and it will on occasion, resort to prayer. God doesn’t want you to fail."

He reminded them of Jesus’ words — that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light — and said that, through the power of prayer, he both survived Vietnam and found his wife of 46 years.

Noting the graduates are at a time when freedoms of religion and conscience and the sanctity of marriage are threatened, he said, "therein lies your mandate and your opportunity" to reverse the downward spiral of culture.

But not all commencements were so faith-enriching.

"On the other hand, you have the choice of Boston College," Reilly pointed out. "It’s really more scandalous than the honors to our American president at Notre Dame [in 2009]."

Boston College, a Catholic and Jesuit institution, honored Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who delivered the May 20 commencement address.

"The Prime Minister Enda Kenny is very actively trying to legalize abortion in Ireland and has even threatened to imprison priests if they do not break the seal of the confessional," noted Reilly. "He is not simply a man unfriendly to Catholics, but an enemy of the Church."

In fact, Cardinal O’Malley announced his decision to boycott the event. Boston archbishops traditionally deliver the Benediction at Boston College’s commencement.

"Since the university has not withdrawn the invitation, and because the (prime minister) has not seen fit to decline, I shall not attend the graduation," Cardinal O’Malley said in a news release. "It is my ardent hope that Boston College will work to redress the confusion, disappointment and harm caused by not adhering to the bishops’ directives." He referred to the USCCB’s instruction that Catholic institutions must not honor those whose views conflict with Church teachings.

While he did not attend that commencement, Cardinal O’Malley gave the commencement address at Regis College on May 11.

Citing the need to bring the Gospel to contemporary society, Cardinal O’Malley told graduates, "Our task is to turn consumers into disciples and disciple-makers."

Using vivid examples and stories from Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI and others, he said that Catholic education must offer "training in a way of life which is increasingly alien in the secular world, where our concern about unborn children or the sacredness of marriage makes us appear quaint and even nettlesome."

He added, "We must also break the bad habit of presenting the Church in such a way that people are deceived into thinking that they can be Christians and remain strangers. The privatization of religion in today’s climate of New Age individualism is anathema to the Gospel message of community, of connectedness in the body of Christ."

Concluded Cardinal O’Malley, "Our hope is that today’s graduates will discover more deeply the radical sense of our vocation to live the social Gospel, to put others first and seek the last place, to be close to Jesus, who came to serve and not to be served. Love and justice must motivate us to work for a transformation of our own heart, so that we can transform the world around us."

Meanwhile, a problem surfaced at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, the same day, with commencement speaker Maria Otero, former undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights at the Department of State under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Cardinal Newman Society reported that Otero was a leader promoting access to reproductive services, including contraception and abortion, even before her work with the current administration, including being a member of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health.

Reilly also pointed out a few other problematic situations, among them the University of San Francisco, which "has been clearly compromised on the issue of homosexuality," he said. "This comes up repeatedly."

The choice of Barbara Garcia, San Francisco’s public-health director, as one of the commencement speakers, "who pushed through funding for sex-change operations, is part of the ongoing scandal at the university," said Reilly.

On the other hand, down the California coast, on May 11, at Thomas Aquinas College, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo addressed the largest graduating class in the college’s history.

During his address, the cardinal told the graduates to be confident in their faith: "Don’t water down Catholic doctrine.

"The culture needs correctives, but also positive enrichment of the kind of thinking you learned — to bring it into the public square in your jobs or occupations, whatever it may be."

He also referred to Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on beauty to transform culture. Catholics need to "go through the beautiful," Cardinal DiNardo said. "It may be the beautiful that will transform things — because the true and the good are not being picked up by lots of people."

Looking eastward, on May 4, Wyoming Catholic College hosted commencement speaker Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa, Okla.

And on May 18, the University of St. Thomas in Houston welcomed Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and founder and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, to give its commencement address.

Across the nation, truth was a popular theme.

On the East Coast, Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., welcomed Archbishop Charles Brown, the apostolic nuncio to Ireland, to address the Class of 2013 for commencement on May 11.

"You enter a world which, more than ever, is drifting aimlessly on a sea of relativism, while at the same time is being convulsed with spasms of anger directed at traditional moral values," Archbishop Brown told graduates. "In such a world that you enter into as college graduates, what is the gaudier — the joy — that a Catholic carries in his or her heart? What is the spes — the hope — that this gaudium can bring to the anguish of our contemporary world? And I would propose something very simple and foundational — something that your education at Christendom College has reinforced, nurtured and explored: truth."

As Archbishop Brown explained, "Truth exists. … And that truth and the search for truth is worth everything. … By loving the truth and living the truth, you will have an effect on everyone you come in contact with."

Truth was also discussed at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen’s May 4 ceremony, which welcomed George Weigel as its commencement speaker. Weigel — whose latest book is Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church — is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Weigel focused on the importance of living what is true, good and beautiful, especially as an exemplar to the challenges of today’s world — "the challenges posed by the erosion of Western culture and its slackening grasp on the true, the good and the beautiful," he told graduates.

Weigel told them their role now is what history and Providence is casting them into.

He called this "the role of being the lead generation in an evangelical Catholicism that is a culture-reforming counterculture." That means, he said, to "live in the truth."