Commencement Address to the 50th Graduating Class of
Holy Apostles College & Seminary
Patrick J. Reilly
President, The Cardinal Newman Society
Given May 2, 2008 in Cromwell, Connecticut
Good evening Father Mosey, Father Hillier, Father Sheehan, Father Casey, college officials and directors, faculty, parents, family, friends, and of course the Class of 2008. Congratulations for all of your hard work, and thank you for welcoming me to your celebration!
I am very grateful for this honorary degree. On behalf of the staff, directors, and more than 20,000 members of The Cardinal Newman Society: Thank you, Father, for recognizing and sharing in the important work of renewing Catholic identity in American Catholic higher education.
I’m delighted to be with you today. The Baccalaureate Mass this afternoon was solemn and beautiful, an important sign that Holy Apostles College and Seminary is centered on what really matters. The result is a graduating class of seminarians, religious, and lay men and women, all with a thorough grounding in faithful Catholic theology and philosophy far exceeding what most other Catholic colleges provide.
I am not qualified to judge, but those who are tell me that Holy Apostles offers one of the nation’s best seminaries. It certainly is one of the best-kept secrets in lay Catholic education. You have a real cheerleader in Father Benedict Groeschel, one of America’s exemplary priests and a good friend also of The Cardinal Newman Society.
About three years ago, The Cardinal Newman Society decided it was time to turn much of our attention to promoting the best of Catholic higher education, both to help the most faithful colleges thrive and to hold them up as models for the renewal of those historically Catholic colleges and universities that to varying degrees have secularized in recent decades.
Last November we published The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, featuring the 20 American colleges and one in Canada that we identified as having the strongest and most consistent Catholic identity. Holy Apostles College and Seminary was selected for its strong core curriculum, its close ties to the local bishops, and its fidelity to the Magisterium.
Dear graduates, you should be proud to have a degree from Holy Apostles, and I am certainly proud to share this day with you and receive an honorary degree from such a wonderful institution.
You should also be aware that your graduation year 2008 is an extraordinary year for Catholic higher education. Just two weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States and delivered a challenge to Catholic college presidents and diocesan educators that will have a significant impact on Catholic education in this country. And by the end of the year, it appears likely that the great English convert and author of The Idea of a University, John Henry Cardinal Newman, will be beatified. There is even speculation that Pope Benedict may identify Newman as a Doctor of the Church.
Why is this important? Because in this country and throughout the West, there is what Pope Benedict calls a “crisis of truth” or an “educational emergency,” evidenced by young people increasingly losing hope and respect for human dignity because they lack knowledge about God and Christ’s teachings. This is largely a result of secularist academia which refuses to acknowledge Divine Revelation as truth. With the exception of Holy Apostles College and several others, this “crisis of truth” is found even in many of our Catholic colleges and universities.
When Pope Benedict spoke to Catholic educators on April 17, he presented a vision that looks beyond the debates over fidelity in Catholic theology courses and percentages of Catholic faculty. (Did you know that the majority of Notre Dame’s faculty will be non-Catholic in just a few years?) These are serious issues, but Pope Benedict says that Catholic identity “demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom.”
Therefore, the Holy Father firmly declares that today’s “crisis of truth” is rooted in a “crisis of faith.” We hear a lot of talk about moral relativism and political correctness and the decline of academic standards in a society that is afraid to bring faith into the conversation. But without faith, the mission of a college or university to seek and teach truth is severely compromised—perhaps especially at a historically Catholic institution that by its Catholic label claims assent to Catholic teaching and tradition.
Cardinal Newman faced many of the same concerns in 19th-century England that Pope Benedict today perceives throughout Western culture. In arguing for the essential place of faithful Catholic theology in the university, Newman chastised the “physical philosophers” who trust only those truths that are discovered by observation and the scientific method.
By contrast, theology begins with total acceptance of the truths revealed by God, and proceeds by deductive reasoning to seek understanding and application of Divine Revelation. Unlike discovered truths, which can always be challenged by new discoveries, revealed truths never change.
In his classic work The Idea of a University, Newman writes of the hostility to faith and theology that he experienced at Oxford University and elsewhere. It is similar to what we often see today in American higher education. Newman writes:
“[N]o wonder, then, that [the devotees of human observation and reasoning] should be irritated and indignant to find that a subject-matter remains still, in which their favorite instrument has no office; no wonder that they rise up against this memorial of an antiquated system, as an eyesore and an insult; and no wonder that the very force and dazzling success of their own method in its own departments [of science] should sway or bias unduly the religious sentiments of any persons who come under its influence. They assert that no new truth can be gained by deduction; Catholics assent, but add, that, as regards religious truth, they have not to seek at all, for they have it already. …When [revealed] Truth can change, its Revelation can change; when human reason can outreason the Omniscient, then may it supersede His work.” (Newman,The Idea of a University, p. 223-224)
In Newman’s time 150 years ago and again today, the secular esteem for scientific reasoning over theology—and attempts to limit theology to only what can be “proven” by observation and human reasoning—are both rooted in a lack of faith and contribute to the further secularization of Western culture. Newman writes:
“[I]t is Rationalism to accept the Revelation, and then to explain it away; to speak of it as the Word of God, and to treat it as the word of man; to refuse to let it speak for itself; to claim to be told the why and the how of God’s dealings with us, as therein described, and to assign to Him a motive and a scope of our own; to stumble at the partial knowledge which He may give us of them; to put aside what is obscure, as if it had not been said at all; to accept one half of what has been told us, and not the other half; to assume that the contents of Revelation are also its proof; to frame some gratuitous hypothesis about them, and then to garble, gloss, and color them, to trim, clip, pare away, and twist them, in order to bring them into conformity with the idea to which we have subjected them.” (Newman, Essays Critical and Historical, Vol. 1, p. 32)
“The Rationalist makes himself his own center, not his Maker; he does not go to God, but he implies that God must come to him. And this, it is to be feared, is the spirit in which multitudes of us act at the present day. Instead of looking out of ourselves, and trying to catch glimpses of God’s workings, from any quarter—throwing ourselves forward upon Him and waiting on Him, we sit at home bringing everything to ourselves, enthroning ourselves in our own views, and refusing to believe anything that does not force itself upon us as true.” (Newman, Essays Critical and Historical, Vol. 1, p. 33-34)
This brings to mind such vivid images of contemporary man—parked on the living room sofa in front of the television, bringing everything to himself in an age of entertainment. It is also an age of advocacy: the typical college student, for instance, is enthroned in his or her own views, which wiser professors and priests dare not challenge, and academic discourse has given way to power politics and the tyranny of political correctness, fed by lecturers who increasingly are brought to campus to advocate opinions rather than explore the truth of the matter.
Pope Benedict in his address to American educators also identifies faith as essential to learning, a proposition that many educators today simply reject. Pope Benedict says:
“Only through faith can we freely give our assent to God’s testimony and acknowledge him as the transcendent guarantor of the truth he reveals. Again, we see why fostering personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and communal witness to his loving truth is indispensable in Catholic institutions of learning. Yet we all know, and observe with concern, the difficulty or reluctance many people have today in entrusting themselves to God. It is a complex phenomenon and one which I ponder continually. While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. …A particular responsibility therefore for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief. It is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth. In choosing to live by that truth, we embrace the fullness of the life of faith which is given to us in the Church.”
Faith, then, is both at the root of Catholic education and its product. A Catholic education that acknowledges the unity of faith and reason opens the student’s mind and heart to God. It invites an entirely different way of observing reality, full of hope in the promises of Christ.
I am reminded of an op-ed column in The New York Times just a few days after the Holy Father departed from New York City to return to Rome. Drawing upon another essay about the Christian author C.S. Lewis by Michael Ward, a Cambridge University chaplain, columnist David Brooks contemplates the severe, practical way modern man views the world and how that contrasts with C.S. Lewis’ wonder at the mysteries of life. Brooks writes that today most people view space as “a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces.” But Lewis preferred the non-scientific but no less wise perspective of Europeans during the Middle Ages for whom, Lewis wrote, the night skies were “tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.” Caught up in the wonder, Brooks describes the heavens as “a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God.”
What is true? Dear graduates, today you depart from this ceremony with a diploma in your hand, a head full of facts and wisdom, a future as a priest, religious, mother or father, businessman, teacher, healer or soldier. You came to this college seeking truth. So I ask you again, what is true?
Are the heavens nothing more than a vast world of facts and knowledge to be explored and accumulated, then subjected to human power and intelligence? Or are they part of a divine mystery that leads to ever more mysteries, each one as wonderful as the last?
Both Newman and Pope Benedict are telling us that to neglect either the raw experience of nature or the splendid mysteries of God’s hand in this world is to be less than human. If Catholic education aims to develop the person and not just the intellect, it must begin with faith.
Your readiness to appreciate both the rigorous standards of objective reason and the mysteries of God’s love and design is crucial, not only for your own future, but as evidence of the success of Holy Apostles College and Seminary as a Catholic institution of higher learning. This college educated you without ever turning away from the Faith. Likewise these educators are relying on you to help transform this nation and build the Kingdom of God with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Dear graduates, in choosing Holy Apostles College and Seminary, an authentically Catholic institution rooted in faith, you chose well. The journey that you complete today only leads to many more adventures, and you now have the tools that will guide you faithfully along the right path.
The fact that you have the benefit of this experience also beckons you to the important task of renewing fidelity and Catholic life in America. The sad fact is that few Catholics today, even those who attend historically Catholic colleges and universities, get the preparation for Catholic leadership that you have now received. The Church needs you!
The Church needs your witness to the unity of faith and reason, to the great value of an education such that you have just received.
I would like to leave you with just one last quote from Newman, this from his famous “Second Spring” sermon urging on his fellow Christian evangelists in England. It is part of my prayer for you, that with the intercession of Cardinal Newman and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, you will do great things for the Church. Newman writes:
“We know not what is before us, ere we win our own; we are engaged in a great, joyful work, but in proportion to God’s grace is the fury of his enemies. …To set up the Church again in England is too great an act to be done in a corner. …[But] one thing alone I know—that according to our need, so will be our strength. …We shall not be left orphans; we shall have within us the strength of the Paraclete, promised to the Church and to every member of it.” (Newman, Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, Sermon 10, p.178-180)
May God bless you all, and may He bless Holy Apostles College and Seminary.
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