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Posted: Wednesday May 2, 2012

(The following is the complete text of the Saint Vincent College Spring Honors Convocation Address delivered by Sister Margaret Carney, O.S.F., S.T.D., President, St. Bonaventure University, at Saint Vincent College on Wednesday, April, 25, 2012 in the Saint Vincent Basilica after she was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.)


Father Earl Henry, Brother - President Norman, Faculty and Students:
Thank you. With all my heart – thank you. I am so grateful for these honors and so pleased to receive them in the company of family and friends who are part of the strong circle of affection and credentials that tie us to Saint Vincent. With me are two siblings who hold Saint Vincent degrees: my brother, Ed Carney and Sr. Sheila Carney. Sr. Barbara Jean Donovan and my sister-in-law, Vickie Kalisz Carney bring to mind Fr. Paul Kalisz and Archabbot Egbert Donovan whose memories I invoke today.

Let me say that the bond I feel for Saint Vincent is due, in part, to similarities between our two colleges. Both were founded in the 19th century by missionary priests who were courageous to their fans, crazy to their foes and charismatic in the pages of American Catholic history. Both boast a visceral commitment to the liberal arts and a constant search for good professional studies to place on those strong foundations. Both take pride in an ancient religious pedigree – Benedictine / Franciscan. Yours is older than ours by almost 700 years, but who’s counting? And, in a marvelous twist of historic luck, years before you, we were host to training camps for the Steelers. The Bonnies lost them. The Bearcats kept them. I salute you, Bearcats!

The Hunger Games meets The Honors Convocation

For weeks, American movie-goers have been breaking box office records by their attendance at The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’ novel-turned-film is quickly taking over the niche once held by Titanic, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

As you know, the narrative takes place in a country called Panem. It is a time in the future. In that country a deadly rebellion has been crushed and its survivors terrified into submission by the Capitol powers. The strategy for this totalitarian success is the annual conduct of The Hunger Games. In these Darwinian, high-tech, televised spectacles, youngsters from the various districts of the land are selected in a grim lottery to battle each other to a bloody death. These grizzly contests claim the flower of Panem’s youth and keep other citizens frightened and compliant. The fast-paced violence is offset by the cartoon-like colors and visual excesses of costumes that separate the social classes.

When I first read about the film’s success I wanted to learn more about the attraction the stories hold, especially for our students. It did not take me long to get hooked myself. The heroine, Katniss Eberdeen, comes from the bottom rung of Panem’s people. She comes from District 12 – a place that resembles our own Appalachian coal fields. She confronts the powerful elite by a combination of simple, humane bravery, skill as a huntress, and unblinking clarity about the soul-less system in which she is trapped.

As I reflected on the film’s impact, I came to suspect that part of the fascination of The Hunger Games is perhaps – and I stress the perhaps – due to the extraordinary pressures our students face in the task of reaching the goal of a college degree. The same might be said of the pressure of reaching any of the high goals of life that we set for the next generation.

Of course, the brutal competition depicted in The Hunger Games is obscene and exaggerated. But might it be true that as we construct the challenges of the collegiate race to the commencement ceremony, that we, too, are creating a path that demands a fiercely competitive spirit and a desire for superiority that can, if we are not careful, become obsessive. We create continual demands to navigate the white waters of making wise choices that must strike a balance between being self-centered and selfless while holding to ethical imperatives. While we strive for community, we are inviting each other – faculty and students – into a series of contests for a succession of sought-after prizes.

The manipulation and exploitation of The Tributes – as The Hunger Games contestants are called – is repulsive. But I have found myself asking ever since the lights went back on in our theater in Olean: Is this depicting the “shadow side” of our quests of superiority in any of life’s endeavors? This quest can so easily submerge the light of our best values if we are not vigilant. Your Benedictine motto is Pray and Work. Our Franciscan motto is Peace and Good. Yet, we know how to do battle for our goals and prizes:

For high SATs in the incoming class
For championship trophies on our athletic fields and courts
For lucrative fellowships or publication in the best juried journals for our faculty
For LEED certifications for our buildings
For high rankings from US News & World Report
For high marks on any Google analytics we choose to run….

The list goes on.

Do I advocate that we abandon this necessary evil of competition to be the best we can be for our students? Not at all. I am as guilty as the next person. I simply point out that we may not be as innocent of this kind of gladiatorial compulsion as we would like to imagine ourselves in contrast to Katniss and company.

Might it be that each constituency of our college has its own “hunger games” moments in trying to keep up with the pressure? I believe that if were very, very honest with ourselves, we would be forced to admit that this might be true.

The Favor of Benedictine Odds

I have extended this mental exercise that has engaged me for weeks in order to be able to draw today – with great relief – the opposite picture.

We are here today to celebrate the outcomes of many competitions and exercises of this academic community. We are here to witness a cornucopia of wonderful awards, achievements, honors. Celebrate we must. We will. It is my privilege to put into words the awe that your efforts inspire today and the happiness we feel in your success. I also have the obligation of affirming to all within hearing that the rules of engagement for winning these awards at Saint Vincent College are the very opposite of the fictional Panem The rules of engagement here are burnished by centuries of Benedictine commitments fulfilled in every age:

To civilizing the worst instincts of the ignorant and aggressive ones
To cultivating everything that builds up a society from rocky soil to raucous students
To preserving intellectual resources while inspiring pastoral service

Most of all –

To never forgetting the primacy of the human’s need to bow in worship before our Maker precisely as an antidote to one’s need to be worshiped for what I make.

Surely at times along the pathway to this convocation, you have tasted the lash of extreme pressure within and without. You’ve flaunted the laws of nature with all-nighters and those ubiquitous energy drinks. You’ve mastered algorithms and the ablative absolute, analogies and allegories. You’ve aced an exam; excelled in a concert, completed a sculpture, made that catch or shot that turned you into a team hero. Most rewarding of all – you have seen the look in a professor’s eye or caught the timbre of the teacher’s voice that told you: you have arrived. Your work matters.

If you are a faculty member you have juggled teaching, advising, endless rounds of committee assignments, meetings, family and community obligations. You have continued to excel in your research, your pedagogical skill, and your leadership functions. You do this with a generosity that takes my breath away when I see it in my faculty colleagues. You have made it your solemn obligation to improve and lift up the art of teaching that is the blessing and burden of our life’s work. And you are doing this at a time when the respect due to this vocation is in peril in this country.

All over the USA in weeks to come, ceremonies like this will take place. Here, the ceremony takes on a luster that is unique in being rooted here. Westmoreland County… Latrobe… Route 30… Fraser Purchase Road…. This place has about it a wonderful particularity. It is grounded, centered by the monastic community now spanning three centuries of presence and entrepreneurial zeal for Catholic education.

This place is also a portal to the planet. It is blessed in the labor of the nuns from Eichstatt, Germany, who spent years cooking here. It is touched by a missionary presence in Beijing and Taiwan. It is linked to Vinhedo on the outskirts of Sao Paolo, Brazil. It remembers Sisters of Mercy from Carlow, Ireland, who were here to welcome those bearded Bavarian monks upon their arrival in these hills. In this confluence of centered energy and constant outreach, Saint Vincent is – as T.S. Eliot would remind us – here and everywhere, a “still point” of the turning world.

This still point will anchor your life if you but choose. I urge you to choose. In so choosing you enter into a stream of life that weaves past and present in an endless procession of providential gifts. While the colossus of Boniface Wimmer towers over all, each generation advances its own inimitable contribution while remembering his words:

“Forward, always forward, everywhere forward. We cannot be held back by debts, by difficulties of the times, by unfortunate years. Man’s adversity is God’s opportunity.” Boniface would tell us that, in God’s time, the odds are always in our favor.

Some years ago Ronald Tranquilla reflected upon the spirit of the college in these words:

I look out over Father Melvin’s trees, remembering students and colleagues now departed, and think the trees might symbolize something important about us: our history is less important than our heritage, a living tradition of extravagant faith and outrageous hope…It’s early April: the seniors are restless; the trees in Melvin Platz grow upward toward the light, their branches spiked with buds about to break into leaf yet another year. (Saint Vincent: A Benedictine Place. Saint Vincent Archabbey. Latrobe, Pa. 15650. p. 89)

You, the very fortunate members of this community, this school of service – service of the Lord, of the neighbor, of the nation – go forward with that same extravagant faith and outrageous hope.

Congratulations and God Speed!