Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Southern Catholic College: First Graduating Class Commencement Address

By MOST REVEREND JOHN F. DONOGHUE, Archbishop-emeritus of Atlanta | Published June 4, 2009
Dear Friends in Christ:

I am very happy to be here today, to take part in this first Graduation at Southern Catholic College, and to share some thoughts with the Class of 2009, and with all the family and friends who have joined us on this very happy day.

It has been my privilege to have been a supporter of Southern Catholic College since its conception. The establishment and the continuing life of the College has not been without great challenge, and I suspect there will be further challenges. But what you, the graduates, represent, is our best witness to the vital importance, and the necessary future of Southern Catholic College. And what you have done, in cooperation with the faculty, and all the supporters of the College, is to say to everyone, “We will place our trust, not in the world, but in the will of God.”

The existence of this college, is not only a manifestation of a Divine gift that has been bestowed on us, but also an expression of the Church’s investment in the future – a future that will be built on trust in God. Christ Himself ordained that all our lives should take this track – the track of setting out into the unknown, of living an adventure founded on trust, and expressed through the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and charity, or love in action. On the shore of the Lake of Galilee, our Lord said to Simon Peter, the senior of His Apostles: “Duc in altum,” – “ ‘Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch.’ And Simon answering said to him: ‘Master, we have labored all the night, and have taken nothing: but at thy word I will let down the net.’ ”

These words of St. Peter, set the stage for the life of every Christian who wishes to follow the way of Christ. Our life is a setting forth into the deep – the deep of human existence, in both its physical and spiritual planes – which strives to touch God, but can only do this in a kind of sanctified blindness – the blindness that requires of us, faith, hope, and love.

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, has himself spoken eloquently of this setting forth upon the adventure of life in these words from his encyclical Spes Salvi: “…the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known – it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”

I want my message today, at this important moment in your lives, to be a message of hope. Too often, graduation addresses are filled with dark intimations of the future, and attempts to put on the shoulders of the graduates, the entire weight of what will become of mankind over the next generation. And though I agree that you are the future, at the same time, I am confident, as the Church has taught me to be, that the Holy Spirit will play the decisive part in the future of mankind – and that, in fact, we will be significant, only insofar as we assist the Holy Spirit in His unfolding of God’s plan for the universe.

I must also say, in preface, that my message to you cannot be an address of scholarly content, because I am not a scholar – and I would not come to this home of scholarly pursuit and pretend to be someone I am not.

But while not a scholar, I am a churchman, and a successor – though humbled and daunted to say it – a successor of the Apostles. So my message to you, the graduates of Southern Catholic College, must be the message of a bishop of the Catholic Church, for that is the only way I know how to speak. In following this intent, I ask the forbearance of those present who might not be of our communion – the will of the Catholic Church is that all believers in Christ be embraced into one fold, and nothing I say should be taken as anything but an invitation into the embrace of Christ, which is so fully preserved and lived in Catholicism, not for her own sake, but for the sake of the world.

We are truly, then, a church built on hope, built on “new life,” as the Holy Father says – and not hope alone, but hope hand in hand with her sisters, faith and love.

Faith is the beginning of all our dreams, for who can dream with assurance but the one who believes, the one who dreams with faith in his heart. Our faith is not owed to anything made by man, but to a miracle wrought by God – the resurrection of His only Son, Jesus Christ, from the dead. There is no more powerful source for dreams, for visions, than belief in this one supreme thought: – that Christ will return one day, to raise us from the dead, so that for eternity, we will live with Him in the peaceable Kingdom.

And how is faith in the dream, and hope for its realization expressed, except through the living power of love, for that is what true love is: – caritas – charity – our power to love, not necessarily wisely, nor cautiously, but as the Greek origin of the word suggests: – to love dearly, sacrificially, and at high cost – for no real love is without its attendant sacrifice. Christ has proven this in the most extreme way possible, and we must hope to follow Him in our own little ways. Giving love at great cost, is the highest of the virtues we can build into our lives – for as St. John tells us: “Deus caritas est – God IS love.”

My prayer today, dear graduates, is that you will bring these supreme virtues of faith, hope and charity, into three areas of our life which need your vital energy, and the enthusiasm of your youth – the Church – the world, or more properly, our nation – and finally, in your individual, personal lives.

For some, faith in the Catholic Church has become a difficult task. Doubts have been sown among the Faithful because of the weakness of a few, a severe weakness that has cast these failings into a public spotlight of criticism and accusation unlike anything she has faced before. But the Church, of all institutions, must meet the evil which is in the world, and lead not just herself, but all humanity, in overcoming the terrible things that man can do. Faith – your faith – if it is living, must never give up the fight. The Church is not worth living in and for because she is lifeless, but because she lives – she re-grows in health what she must cut out in disease – and when the Church prunes one dead branch from the Vine, then many living branches grow back to replace it.

Therefore, first and foremost, I ask you to be faithful to the Church – to rise on the joyful hope which is underpinned by the ever-present and always-winning-in-the-end, will of the Holy Spirit – and to offer some part of your lives to the good and charitable works of the Church, which are love in action. For if you do this, every other aspect of your lives – your personal desires, and your desires to make a difference in the world, will have a secure platform from which to launch. And, the Church will enjoy the benefit of your gifts, which cannot be better given, or better joined to those of our Savior, Jesus Christ

It is true that the world is not the Church. But the Church is in the world – and because of our Lord’s command to evangelize the people of the earth, we must, everyday and for all our lives, face the world, and declare the message of salvation. We do this, as citizens of the most free and most generous civilization in the annals of human history – our republic, the United States of America. And there, in our own country, is the next place where you must live out the message of hope, the strength of faith, and the healing of all the love you have to give.

Right now, having faith in the United States is also not an easy proposition, for we are a greatly divided nation. Some believe we have turned a corner, and are marching rapidly into new times, new realities, new ventures. But others believe we are on the brink of losing our identity, of becoming a political entity where personal freedom will be an illusion, its soul stolen by an increasingly overpowering control of governmental regulation and greed. I am not here to tell you to think one way or the other, or that you should choose one political reality over another. But in order to have hope in our country’s future, it is necessary that we revive in our hearts and minds, a solid faith in our country.

How will we do this, except by influencing our fellow citizens from our own perspective of faith – not by keeping our opinions to ourselves, but by sharing what we think – by, to use modern jargon, “dialoguing,” – and above all, by being involved in the business of politics, or representation – by understanding and supporting or opposing those who stand for election at our various levels of government – this is the life of our nation, and we must play our part.

As Catholics, we understand that the Founders of our country were moved by certain collective beliefs – and foremost among them was the truth that law, the lifeblood of the governed, only works when it recognizes its origin, in a knowledge already planted in the human heart by God – a preceding knowledge – something we call the natural law – expressed in our Declaration of Independence, as the “unalienable” rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” coming from the laws of “Nature and Nature’s God.” When our lawmakers lose sight of the truth that all authority begins with God, and substitute the notion that man is the sole source of the laws he makes, then ultimately, the law will fail to perform. For if man is the origin of his own laws, then he can change them at will, to suit his own purpose – license becomes the stand-in for law, and society descends into moral chaos. The precedents are there, to be read on the pages of human history.

George Washington, despite the retro-judgments laid upon him by the revisionist historians of our day, was unquestionably the bravest of Americans, and an exceptionally clear-thinking political leader, and an ardent student of world history. One of his most famous statements, and what should be a supreme guiding principle for all Americans, is this:

“Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

As Catholics, we understand very well the necessary separation there must be, between civil government, and the establishment of religion. Long before this country was founded, the Church suffered through the struggle of how to rule, how to restrain her own power over societies. After great and lengthy conflicts, the Church finally abandoned all civil political power in the 19th century. We know, because we have already been through the conflict, that there must be separation between Church and State – but not, as is commonly posited, an absolute “wall of separation”, a phrase grossly misquoted, and used well out of the context in which Thomas Jefferson wrote it. Such thinking would suggest that people of religious mentality should be barred from any influence over civil society.

More than a wall, what should stand between Church and society is something more akin to a filter – a means by which exchange of ideas, resources, and influences can be a free and easy part of the national conversation. “Reason and experience,” as Washington said, lead us to believe that without the influence of Godly people, people who believe that it is the will of God that we should treat each other well – without Godly people, and their participation in government, then this government, like all Godless governments before, will fail, and fall.

But again – my message is a message of hope, and I want to quicken this hope in you by urging you to have faith in the United States, and faith in the power of good people to assert and to win for the common good, what is moral, what is just, and what is necessary for survival. This means a life of political involvement, and to this end, I urge you. Christ said, “Give to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” He did not say to get rid of either. Sometimes, it may appear that one might overpower the other – but we must work to make the things of God, and the things of Caesar cooperate for the good of all people.

A final word on having faith and hope in our country: faith and hope are the younger sisters of love, and love, in its broadest sense, must be the basis of all laws, if law is to function, not for the impersonal ends of profit or efficiency, but for the good of people. The most lamentable fault in our country at the present time, is that we live under a false law, a law that turns love on its head, and protects both profit and efficiency at the cost of the most treasured of God’s gifts, the innocent human life of the unborn child.

We cannot have faith in and hope for our country, unless we are devoted to the cause of life, and stand in opposition to what Pope John Paul II famously called, the “culture of death.” I beg you, as the future leaders of our country, and of the world, to do whatever you can to correct this mortal fault in the soul of our country. The souls of individual men and women will not necessarily perish because our country is in a state of mortal sin – but our country well may perish because of this egregious insult to the generosity of a loving God, and to the intrinsic dignity of the human being. The flourishing of faith, hope and charity in our society, presumes an unquestioned and unwavering defense of life, especially in its most innocent and helpless state. Please – make this concern for life a daily concern of your lives, a daily prayer in your hearts, and a daily effort in all your exchanges, private and public.

And finally, my dear young men and women, some words about applying the great virtues of faith, hope, and charity, to the business of your own lives.

At first thought, saying that we should have faith and hope in ourselves and that we should love ourselves may seem like a veering off into the path of selfishness – a sell-out to the popular and misguided cult of, quote-unquote, “self-esteem.” But as Catholics, we believe all our motivation must be based on the word of Christ, and what Christ said is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

It is impossible for a Catholic, and for any true Christian, to receive the graces that flow from God, without maintaining some connection to people, to the sharing of what we receive with others. Christ equates the self with neighbor. In other words: I am my neighbor and my neighbor is me. And our Lord did not limit the equation to us, but generously included Himself within the bond of this altruism, when He said, in reference to charitable, loving acts, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren, that you do for me.”

Therefore, in the order of grace, all faith, all hope and all love come from God, if and when we love Him – and all faith, hope and love become ours to keep, only when we keep the word of God’s Son, and deliver these supreme blessings to others.

What this means for you, the first graduates of Southern Catholic College, as you move into the world and take your place as the presiding generation, is simple to sum up: it means a life of service – a life of service. God must come first – and then, someone beside yourself.

This service may be as husband or wife, mother or father, devoted first to your family – it may be as a single professional, offering service to society in general – or, and I pray for this especially, it may manifest as a life given to the work of the Church, as a priest or a member of a religious community.

But whichever course you follow, your steps will move through all the areas we have considered in these remarks – the Church, the nation, and personal life. At every step, somehow, there will be an opportunity to serve others:

  • by testifying on behalf of faith: faith in eternal life, faith in the goodness of mankind, faith in the power of Jesus Christ to come to our rescue;
  • by instilling the medicine of hope: hope for the conquest of good over evil, hope for true meaning in human suffering, hope that for their sake, our children’s world is better than ours; >/li>
  • and by having a charitable heart, by opening to all, the unstoppable torrent of love that God has placed in you, when you became His child at Baptism.

Dear Graduates: do what Christ told Simon Peter – set out into the deep for a catch, and hold in your hearts, the sublime response of our first Holy Father, who expressed his doubt, but then affirmed his own faith, hope and love, saying to Jesus: “…at thy word, Lord, I will let down the net.” Let down your net as well, and catch in it, all the lives, all the men and women and children, and all the events that God has already scheduled for you to encounter as you move through the currents of His will. The “dark door of time, the future, has been thrown open,” and your are granted the gift of a new life.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, and especially, when the challenges of evil, or despair, or just life’s everyday nagging annoyances, conspire to weaken your resolve, your resolve to cling to the Church, to love your Nation, and to do the will of God in your lives, at such moments of weakness, pray, as Jesus prayed, and remember the virtues you have been given, the powers you have received, reinforced by this noble institution, who now becomes your alma mater, your “gracious mother”: to have faith, hope and love.

And if, in moments of struggle, you need an encouraging thought, think on this day, and though all these words of mine will by then certainly be forgotten, remember this one theme, one passage, the key to understanding and wisdom, and the finest gift I can give to you, on this, your graduation day – these words of St. Paul:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now, I know in part; but then, I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and love, these three: but the greatest of these is love.