2008 Commencement Address by William McGurn

Published: Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thank you for that warm welcome.  Abbot Barnabas … Prioress Anne … President and Mrs. Minnis … Dean Shankman … members of the faculty … members of the Benedictine community … distinguished guests and honorees … parents …  and most important – the Class of 2008:  Ravens always fly on high!


I appreciate the invitation to be with you on your special day.  Last month, I was with President Minnis at the White House for the arrival ceremony for Pope Benedict XVI.  It was inspiring to watch the President of the United States welcome the Bishop of Rome with such affection – and to lose myself in the enthusiasm of the crowd.  There were so many cheering Catholics on the South Lawn that morning, President Bush must have thought for a moment he was back in South Bend just after the Irish had scored against Southern Cal.


I took the opportunity that day to spend some time with President Minnis.  He asked me whether it was difficult for a speechwriter from New Jersey to relate to a President from Texas.  I responded that the two states are not as different as you might think.   Both have towns named Princeton.  Both have accents that other Americans apparently find highly amusing.  And both are looked at by people in Manhattan as the Western frontier.     


I also took the opportunity to ask President Minnis his definition of a good speech.  He said it was simple.  You want a good beginning, and a good ending.  And most important, he said, you want to put the two very close together.


This is a proud day for the Class of 2008.  You arrived at Benedictine wearing beanies, and you leave wearing a robe and mortarboard.  You have made the 100 day march to Mueller’s … raced your beds across town … and cheered as the Lady Ravens competed in the national tournament.  You braved the pasta-with-two-sauces at the Cafeteria – and lived to tell the tale.  And on this special day, I bring you a message of great hope:  There is life after Brother Larry’s “Principles of Biology.” 


So to the Class of 2008, I say, “Congratulations!”


I also congratulate the many others here who have made this day possible. 


To the moms and dads:  You are the folks who paid the tuition … sent the CARE packages … and bit your tongues when your son or daughter switched majors from Accounting to Theater.  Your love helped carry your children to this moment.  And before their friends and teachers, I ask your proud children to join me in thanking you for your patience, sacrifice, and devotion. 


To the faculty:  You have also worked hard to help your students reach this day.  For some of you, that meant a lot of overtime.  You are here because you believe in a liberal education … because you believe in the mission of this college … and because you believe in your students.  We know that watching your students collect their degrees is one of the greatest rewards a teacher can know.  But we also know that there is tremendous grace in a simple thank you – so I now ask the Class of 2008 to show their appreciation for all you have given them. 


To the monks and sisters.  You believe in miracles.  And every May, your faith in miracles is confirmed when you see some of the people leaving here with a college degree.  You walk the path of Scholastica and Benedict, and you follow a Holy Rule that celebrates the dignity of work and the glory of the everyday.  Your vocations give life to this college and a living example to her students – and in return, I ask all here to give you a small sign of appreciation for the great honor you give this place of learning. 


And to the Class of 2008:  In a few moments, your time here will come to an end.  You will collect your degrees, you will say goodbye to good friends, and walk off a campus that has been your home.  Yet we are not here today to mark an ending.  We are here to celebrate a beginning – a commencement. 


As a professional speechwriter, I am painfully aware of the forms common for this occasion.  The clichés fall into a familiar pattern:  Dare to be different … do your own thing … and don’t be afraid to be a “rebel.”   


There is something false and cheap about all this.  It is well not to be afraid of being different, and it can be a form of courage.  But if we aim to be different only for different’s sake, the likelihood is that we end up as the ultimate cliché – rebels without a cause. 


That is not why men and women choose Benedictine.  Your alumni include highly talented CEOs, military officers, members of the clergy, leaders of great foundations, and even a Nobel Prize winner.  These people owe much of their success to the start they were given here.  And whatever their field of endeavor, I believe all would agree with me about three propositions that are easily forgotten and only painfully re-learned.   


First, who you marry is far more important than what career you choose.  Over the course of a life that has taken me across three continents, I have met many accomplished men and women.  And I have always been astonished by the number who give more thought to choosing the job they may hold for a couple of years than to choosing the spouse to whom they will pledge – before God and their friends – to remain with until death they do part.


Second, no professional achievement – no matter how extraordinary – can match the thrill of seeing the absolute love and confidence reflected in the trusting eyes of a child who calls you Mom or Dad.        


Finally, you will not find lasting happiness by pursuing it.  Happiness is the byproduct of a contented life.  And the surest path to a contented life is to put the needs of others before your own.


There was a day when such words would have been unspoken because their wisdom was unquestioned. 


Ours is a funnier world.  We live in a world where our schools ban cupcakes and distribute condoms.  Where we expect rock stars to attend G-8 Summits and advise us about global poverty – while politicians party away at nightclubs.  And where the same people who say the idea of a living Magisterium is beyond credulity will in the next breath tell you they read the New York Times because it is … “Authoritative.” 


Much of today’s silliness falls on sex.  Chesterton once said that the job of the church is to teach the unpopular virtue.  Let me rephrase that.  I confess that I have never been able to track down the source where Chesterton gave that remark.  So let me say that I am sure Chesterton would have said that the job of the church is to teach the unpopular virtue.  And judging from the unpopularity of this message, we all appear to be doing a bang-up job.


So today I would like to talk to you frankly about sex.  In my experience – and probably yours – whenever someone says this, it’s a sure sign he means that he wants to talk about intimacy in purely clinical terms.  As it happens, of all the ways to talk about it, this strikes me as the most impractical.  Sex is powerful because it is more than the merely physical.  It makes rational men and women irrational.  It ties us to people when we would rather be free. And in the right circumstances, it gives us a glimmer of the divine.


Do not take my word for it.  Ask any young man who has tried to weasel out of a relationship that changed in some indefinable way after a line was crossed.  Ask any young woman who has watched a man get walk out her room and wonder if she will get even a phone call.  And ask any of those who sit alone Saturday nights, wondering what happened to things they know about only from books and old movies:    moonlit evenings …candlelit dinners for two …and the thrill of a first kiss.


What happened, of course, is that restraint went out the window.  Romance feeds on possibility, and withers when the outcome is a forgone conclusion.  Romance also requires the drama that comes from the sense that what is at stake is something permanent – that the object of your affection may the One meant for you and you only.  For so many people, unfortunately, physical intimacy has become the first step in a test whether a relationship should begin at all – rather than the culminating act of love and commitment.  And so those of us who speak fluent Audrey Hepburn find it difficult to communicate in a Sarah Jessica Parker world.


You know this.  You also know that sex and desire are as real here as they are in what preachers used to so charmingly call the fleshpots of the world.  But at Benedictine, you have been given something that so many of your peers have not.  You have been given a witness to a greater love – a witness that speaks from every brick on this campus.  You have been given the certainty that forgiveness is always there just for the asking.  And you have been given the gift of Christ himself – and therefore the truth about the dignity of the human person.  And now it falls to you to use these gifts to help bring to this world the hope that never disappoints.


Let me end with a little story.  It happened during Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the United States.  On the day before he returned to Rome, Benedict traveled to St. Joseph’s Seminary just outside Manhattan, where he was introduced to 50 handicapped children.  These children had been waiting patiently in the chapel for hours, some of them in wheelchairs.  Two of these children – 11-year-old Lauren Kurtz, and 7-year-old Caitlin Manno – were selected to walk up to the Holy Father to present him with a painting on behalf of all those in the room. 


Now, Lauren suffers from Down’s, and Caitlin from cerebral palsy.  Yet as these two handicapped girls approached the Holy Father in their Sunday dresses, something wondrous happened:  In their shining faces, the television cameras gave the world a glimmer of how Our Lord must see them:  innocent, trusting, radiant.  Lauren gave the Holy Father a big hug – and then observed that Caitlin had somehow been left behind at the bottom edge of the altar.  So Lauren Marie Kurtz stepped back to help her up.  And thus did these two girls approach the Vicar of Christ, with Lauren’s arm steadying her little friend.  For all who had eyes to see, this was the completely natural act of a pure heart whose only concern was for another.


My young friends, this is what our Lord meant when he told us that we must be as the children.  And this is my challenge to you as you take your place in our world:  Where you see innocence, protect it.  Where you see longing and loneliness, be the outstretched arm that breaks through the pain.  And in everything you do – as husband, as wife … as mother or father … as a friend or co-worker – let the world see a reflection of the grace and goodness of the humble man from Nursia whose name this college so proudly bears.


If you do these things, you may not end up rich or famous.  But you will bring joy to world in desperate in need of joy … you will love and you will be loved … and amid the noise and muddle and disappointment of whatever life throws your way, you will know what it means to hear the angels sing.    


Thank you for having me.  May God bless you, and may He bless this wonderful college.