We are in the midst of graduation season, when tens of thousands of college students step forward into the next important stages of their lives. I was honored to address one such group a few weeks ago, the graduating class of St. Francis University in Pennsylvania.
This is a condensed version of my address and my message for the Class of 2011 everywhere:
You cannot know the future, but you can fashion it.
And as you work at fashioning the future world you will need tools. Some of those tools you acquired as part of your college education – the knowledge, skills, and expertise that form the foundations of understanding, creative thinking, and innovation. In the most visible and rudimentary sense you just bought a diploma: a piece of parchment or maybe just very, very good paper that is worth more than gold. It attests to the fact that each of you has attained a level of scholarship and excellence that gives you the honor and the right to claim a Bachelor’s Degree. Of this you should be rightly proud, and assured that it will open doors and opportunities in your future. It will be the key to attaining the next goal that you have set for yourselves.
But dig deeper and you will find another compartment in that tool box, which is full of tools rooted in Catholic social teaching. These are the tools you can use when you make decisions about your career, your relationships, and the society in which you live; they will ensure that your efforts build a more human world for all.
The principles of Catholic social teaching are rooted in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who tell us that our society has a special obligation to the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst. They also are embedded in the tradition of the New Testament’s Good Samaritan who shows us that everyone is our neighbor, but especially those who are in need; and in the Divine Command, in which we are instructed to feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; care for the sick; clothe the naked, and house the homeless. How well we have done these is ultimately what we will be judged on.
These tools of formation can guide you as you fashion the future, so that it’s not created it in a totally self-serving way, but in a way that values the lives of others and recognizes that we are inextricably entwined in the love of God that unites us as brothers and sisters of each other.
It is not enough to be the brightest and the best, for they have been known on occasion to be the greatest tyrants of history as well. But rather to aspire to develop our talents to the best we possibly can with consciences formed in responsibility and relationality is an aspiration worthy of the followers of Christ. The Franciscan tradition has been and continues to be a venerable tradition in our Church and in our world. The life of St. Francis reminds us that greatness does not always or most importantly come with power and wealth but how our life impacts those around us.
Archbishop John Ireland was a leader in my home archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis at the turn of the twentieth century. On the occasion of the centennial of the first diocese in the United States in 1889, he addressed all of the country’s bishops. This is what he said:
I bid you turn to the future. It has special significance for us. The past our fathers wrought; the future will be wrought by us. The next century…will be what we make it. It will be our own, the work of our labors. O for a prophet’s eye to glance down the unborn years, and from now to read the story…as generations a hundred years hence may read it. But no prophet’s eye is needed. As we will it, so shall the story be.
Let me end by congratulating the class of 2011 on the great achievement of graduation as you join the ranks of the degreed. Although you enter the world at a time of great economic challenge, it is also a time of opportunity. The 21st century is yours to create. Use your talents not to simply go back to the status quo, but to refashion our nation and our world in a way that all people truly matter. So treasure all that your tool box holds and never lose sight of the fact that what you are actually building is the kingdom of God.
As you have been blessed, so go now and be a blessing for others. For as you fashion it, so shall the future be.