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2020 December Virtual Commencement Address

Jeri Eckhart Queenan with degree
by Public Relations | December 21, 2020
Saturday, December 19, 2020
Saint Vincent College
Latrobe, Pennsylvania

President Taylor, Archabbot Bartel, and Chairman Donahue, deans, faculty and staff: thank you for this honor. Saint Vincent College graduates - congratulations! We applaud your accomplishments and resilience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused countless deaths, sparked a global recession and forced major changes to how we learn, work and live. Grief and loss abound. AND astonishing innovations are taking place, like the COVID-19 vaccine developed in record time. Out of tragedy comes opportunity.

Our nation also reckons with racial justice. The pandemic exposed pre-existing inequities for all to see - in housing, health and work. Philanthropists are shifting their grantmaking to strengthen organizations that address disparities and discrimination.

On All Saints Day, 1755, a massive earthquake struck the city of Lisbon. The city was completely destroyed as buildings collapsed, a tsunami swept away survivors and fires burned While the king struggled, the prime minister had prepared for such a time as this. He led Lisbon’s rebuilding with innovations such as prefab housing and underground water systems. Out of this devastation, entirely new fields of practice emerged, including modern seismology and urban planning.

Saint Vincent has prepared you for such a time as this with the best of science and technology, business and communication, literature and culture, philosophy and theology. Perhaps, most importantly, you carry the moral and ethical framework that society so desperately needs as the foundation of recovery.

You are launching your adult lives in the decade that may be the most productive and influential of the next century. Accelerated by the pandemic, demand for technologies like telehealth, online learning, videoconferencing and streaming is exploding. The future will bring entirely new ways of living and working.

To lead in these times, you must find your purpose, build communities of connection and strengthen your spirituality.

Finding your purpose requires discerning your special gifts and recognizing the work that is uniquely yours to do.

I am not talking about building a resume but rather discovering what Thomas Merton named the “True Self” - the person we are called to be.

One night when I was 17, I sat with my parents at the dinner table. As we did most nights, my dad and I watched the news and then debated politics and policy. That night Dad looked me straight in the eye and said, “Those who have the ability to solve society’s greatest problems have an obligation to do so.”

He named something about me that I could not see. Scripture tells us that we are given different gifts, graces with which to serve others. Yet, these gifts can be hard to discern in ourselves. Parents, professors, and friends can help us if we listen.

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said it best: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Education lifts us so that we can meet the world’s great need. My dad was a first-gen college-goer like many of you. Poor, yet encouraged by extraordinary teachers, he aced an exam that earned admission to the Naval Academy, changing the course of his life. Graduate school was an inflection point for me. If not for HBS at 24, I would not have been in the White House at 30.

Relationships of belonging and communities of connection are necessary for life whether we are single or married, religious or lay.

For me, my marriage and four children are the deep heart’s core. I was 27, had just started my first job after business school when a colleague introduced me to the man who became my husband, Charlie Queenan. That first night we talked about the matters of the heart – core values, events that shaped us. Charlie is my life partner, my best friend, my soulmate. We have supported each other’s mission-driven work, raised four children, created an extended community of family and treasured friends. “Two souls united, grace at our side” is our motto.

Why do I tell such a personal story? Our resumes are not the full truth of who we are or how we accomplish our work. The relationships we form enable and multiply our impact.

Take good care of the friendships you have formed here; keep them fresh. These friends and colleagues will be godparents to your children, investors in your businesses, your rock when times are tough.

We all yearn for transcendence. While religious participation continues to decline in the U.S., 90 percent of adults consider themselves spiritual. Many young adults in the workplace seek meaning, shared values and an experience of Presence in their lives. Increasingly secular leaders must speak to these deeper needs in their workforce, especially in this time of trauma. At Bridgespan, where the average age is 29, I see that the young people with strong spiritual formation and practice are rising as leaders.

The Benedictines show us that contemplation transforms and leads to action. They model spiritual values of humility, respect, kindness and generosity. I have been changed by the monks here and around the world.

As pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Charlie and I walked 200 miles across northern Spain to arrive at the Benedictine Monastery of Samos. Invited to stay within the abbey, we entered into the silence and experienced the Divine in everything and everyone.

The Catholic Church is in crisis. Horrific sexual abuse that has ruined lives and leadership failures are outward signs. Hierarchy, patriarchy, clericalism and arrogance are root causes. While the secular world has learned a great deal about leading and managing large institutions in the last century, best practices have not been widely adopted by the Church. I believe that a Church that stymies women and others cannot thrive.

I am engaged in efforts to transform the Church. Why? The Catholic Church provides spiritual sustenance to 1.2 billion people and the Catholic Church is the largest provider of social services in the world after governments – it provides 40 percent of the health care in Africa, 20 percent of education in Australia and it is the largest provider of basic safety net services in the US.

The pandemic has left churches and their coffers empty and depleted. The faithful are losing patience. Theologian Walter Brueggerman reminds us that the prophet criticizes systems of oppression that must fall and energizes the new economy of justice that must rise. There are prophets among us, and it is a time to listen. It is time for change.

I am encouraged by the innovation I see. For example, women in leadership roles - in the Vatican, major archdioceses and the largest and most significant Catholic nonprofits. Where lay people with significant experience are taking on leadership and management roles in the Church we see growth.

As futurist Bill Sharpe tells us, this is the future path of transformation, the pattern of hope.

In closing, I call upon you to search for your special talents and build a life of meaning and purpose. Do the work that is yours to do. Pour your life out for others.

Congratulations, and God be with you.


PHOTO 1: Jeri Eckhart-Queenan