(The following is the complete text of the Commencement Address delivered by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 11, 2013.)
Before I begin, I want to express my appreciation to Brother Norman W. Hipps, O.S.B., the President of Saint Vincent College, for his gracious invitation to join you in the celebration of this commencement exercise. I also want to recognize, thank and express my great admiration for the Chancellor of Saint Vincent College, Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, O.S.B., and the Chairman of the College Board of Directors, Christopher Donahue.
It is always good to be back in Western Pennsylvania. My association with this campus goes back to my high school days and my first visit here to learn a little bit more about this campus and the seminary.
None of us makes our way through college alone. With us on our journey are our professors, the administration, our friends, our family and, above all, our parents. All those who go with us deserve and have our thanks. Certainly it is a time to thank God.
Less than two months ago all of us witnessed the riveting moment when white smoke came billowing out of the chimney in the Sistine Chapel. It was indicated that some 5,500 journalists were accredited to the Holy See for the Conclave as they awaited the smoke. By way of comparison, I am told that about 1,100 journalists are accredited to the Super Bowl. As soon as the smoke billowed out of the chimney and the great bells of Saint Peter’s began to ring, the Square began to fill with more and more people.
Between the appearance of the smoke in the chimney and the appearance of the Pope on the balcony about 45 minutes passed. During that time people in the Square were chanting, “Viva il Papa! – Long Live the Pope!” Before they even knew who it was, they were cheering at the announcement: “Habemus Papam! We have a Pope!” They were applauding the fact that we have a Pope before they knew who he might be.
The reason for the joy is clear. Whoever steps out on that balcony will continue to sustain the continuity that links all of us through the Chair of Peter back to the Apostles to Saint Peter and therefore to Christ. Whoever steps out on to the loggia is our link, our guarantee of ongoing connectedness to Christ. I would like to share a few thoughts with you today on the importance of being part of the great faith tradition that offers you the wisdom and light to guide you along your chosen path.
One of the benefits of an education at Saint Vincent College is your understanding that you are ready not just for a career in your chosen field, but also to respond to God’s call to each of us to experience the fullness of life that includes a relationship with God. You bring with you the fruit of an education that recognizes, as this college proudly claims in its motto, “Knowledge vindicates truth and justice.”
You have had the opportunity for a formation of mind, heart and spirit. In your openness to the broad range of data, facts, science and technology, you have also encountered the wisdom of God. We have come to appreciate more deeply the ancient wisdom that none of us live by bread alone.
I once received a beautiful arrangement of flowers and plants. The very large floral display included all kinds of green leafy and budding plants rooted in an attractive container. Mixed throughout the plants were gorgeous flowers. It was obviously an expensive arrangement that took much time and creativity.
Within a few short days, however, even though I took great care of it, some of the flowers began to wither. I found this perplexing. Other flowers continued to appear healthy while selected ones died. The soil was moist. The sunlight was sufficient and the plant, by and large, was obviously healthy. How could this be?
It was only after I removed one of the withered flowers that I made the startling discovery that not all of the flowers were attached to the plants and rooted in the soil. By an ingenious method, the florist had placed the stems of some of the very beautiful flowers in these little plastic tubes so that each had their own supply of water. The tubes, not the flowers, were sunk into the soil. The water in the vials was used up. As the flowers were not part of the plant and not rooted in its soil, they had no source of nourishment and faded.
In Chapter 15 of the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of the need for the branch to remain connected to the vine so that it may bear fruit. A beautiful flower in an isolated container with its limited access to water is much like the branch that Jesus speaks about – the branch that gets cut off – detached from – isolated from the vine. Such a branch cannot bear much fruit – certainly not for long.
Whatever image we use, the lesson is the same. It is vital to have roots, a solid foundation! No one branch, no one person, no part of our society can become isolated or cut off from its roots – its history, from its defining experiences of life, from the needs and aspirations of all the peoples around us, from the lessons of literature and faith, from the very spiritual soil that sustains individual human life – and still expect to live and flourish. As a people, we have a need to be part of a living unity with roots and a lived experience, with a history and, therefore, a future. Branches live and bear fruit only insofar as they are attached to the vine.
Science and technology have brought mankind enormous progress, but science and technology by themselves will not save us. Grounded in the material, they ultimately do not provide the hope that we need. Science without ethics, art without spirituality, technology without human moral values, materiality without transcendence remain branches in search of a vine. All of the branches must be connected to the vine of truth and this includes revealed truth, God’s Word. Part of our rootedness, part of the plant, part of the whole arrangement, if you will, includes the spiritual dimension of human life with the moral values that follow on the realization that we do not live by bread alone.
A profound part of the human experience is the hunger for truth, the thirst for love. We cannot live without love, we cannot thrive without truth. Love and truth are not mere philosophical propositions, they are not mere poetic notions, but are living realities — realities that allow us to see and know the good, and thereby to do the good.
One of the enervating forces of our culture, one of the views that drain life of focus and vision, is the assertion that everything is up for grabs. There is a growing mentality of relativism, which holds that everything is equally true and that there are no norms and lasting guides to help us through life. Your generation faces great challenges to the whole idea that we are all in God’s plan, interrelated in a way that calls us to make this world a better place – to actually change the world.
Jesus announced that he had come to make all things new. We are invited to make this happen. You are called to nothing less. Never give up the hope that you can reach this goal. To make this happen, I ask you to consider three identifying elements of life: our relationship with God, our obligation to each other and our part in realizing a better world – manifesting God’s kingdom.
One of the social developments of our age and of your generation is the phenomenon of texting. Not too long ago, I asked a young man deeply engaged with his smartphone, how often does he send or receive a text message? He replied, looking up momentarily from the phone that fit so comfortably in the palm of his hand, that he does about 300 texts a day. And then he looked at me with surprise that I would ask such a question. He volunteered, “How else would I stay connected?” And then, as if to make his point, he added, “It’s important to stay connected.”
I could not agree more. It is important to have friends, family, associates and to stay connected to them. Naturally our parents, our families, the culture of our country and our faith convictions are very important elements of our personal identity. But it is also important that we stay connected to the deeper reality of our existence – our relationship with the Lord, who is Truth and Love in person. He is the vine, and it is crucial that we stay connected to him, that we abide in him.
You have been well prepared. You do not set out on the journey of your life alone. The celebration of your commencement today is the recognition that you have shared in the mission of this college and have come to an understanding of the place of values – moral, ethical and religious – in your life and in the society of which you are a formative part, and which make possible a common good that is more than just temporary political expediency. Your education here at Saint Vincent unfolded in the context of an institution that recognizes and cherishes the existence of truth, the value of truth, the determinant role of truth in our lives – personally, collectively and societally.
Life at a college is an invitation to learn, absorb and appropriate so much of the information and data available to us. But there is also more. We need to know as well what to do with all of our scientific and technological information. We need to make judgments about how we use what we know. There is a great distinction between knowledge, information, the accumulation of data and wisdom.
The assumption of the "secular" model of society as the only acceptable way of addressing life colors much of the media/entertainment world and sets the tone for the discussion of most issues of true significance. Precisely because of this, I submit that we need to look again at the place of faith and gospel values in our efforts to build the common good. Faith convictions, moral values and defining religious experiences of life sustain the vitality of the whole society.
Looking around, I see many signs, particularly in the faces of the young men and women who in such increasing numbers are looking to spiritual values, that the needs of the human spirit cry out to be met. There is a growing consciousness that the secular model and its response to the needs of our day are not sufficient for a rich and fully integrated human life. In spite of all the noise around us, the quiet, soft and gentle voice of the Spirit has not been stilled. It continues to speak to human hearts. Every segment of our society, with few exceptions, seems to recognize, whether in an articulated manner or not, that not by bread alone do we live!
Increasingly, there is a realization in our country that secular humanism alone is not able to provide the moral guidance we as a society so desperately need. Technology and science can provide us an ability to do things. They have, in fact, extended far beyond the dreams of even a generation ago our capacity to accomplish things. But what technology and science cannot answer is "ought we to do everything we can do?" The question this generation of graduates faces is a simple but highly sophisticated one: Is what we can do, always what we ought to do?
The Saint Vincent community has sought to instill in you the core Benedictine values of love, prayer, reflection, self-discipline, stewardship, respect for others and the humble awareness that we do have obligations to each other. Accordingly, you are invited into a great human adventure – the changing of the world into a better place that is truly reflective of what the Scriptures call the kingdom of God – a realm of justice, peace, truth, compassion and love.
Each one of you has your own gifts, talents and abilities. But your formation here allows you to bring something more that is so much needed in our society and our culture. Because of your education, you bring a vision of life and purpose rooted in the Gospel and enlightened by your faith. Not only are you prepared to address the truly great questions – How shall I live? What are the values that should direct my life? What is the purpose and meaning of my existence? – but you are also qualified to help others recognize the importance of those questions.
The second identifying element of life follows on the recognition that we have a relationship with God – our obligation to each other. No one lives as an island. We all have others in our lives and around our life. Today I ask you to remember always that we live in a world where so many have so little. Yet we are all one family – one human community. Be prepared to recognize and accept the fact that you can change the world – that you have the power to advance that transformation that has been underway for 2,000 years.
Dear brothers and sisters, in the rootedness of that fine tradition, may you be the first friend of the poor, the homeless, the stranger, the sick and all who suffer. Act as beacons of hope, casting the light of love upon the world especially in these difficult times.
Finally, we come to third element of our reflection today – your share in making this a better world. Each of us does count. We are all important. But it is not just a better world here and now we are asked to bring into being. We are asked to recognize that we have the ability to realize here and now everything that Jesus tells us is his kingdom coming to be.
Jesus calls us to be part of a world of justice, truth, kindness, compassion, wisdom, peace and love. He invites us to share in his work of bringing into our world the experience of his kingdom – the presence of his love. You have received the invitation to change the world.
You and all who are graduating this year face grave challenges and great opportunities. Learning, science and technology will provide you and your generation with more know-how than technology has been able to provide the human race up to this date. How you use what you know will determine the human quality of life for the next century. You now join all of us in the awesome struggle to decide from all that we know how to do – what we ought to do!
May you always hear in your heart the simple challenge of Jesus whenever you ask, “What am I going to do? – What are we going to do?” We are going to change the world!” We are going to make all things new!
God bless you.