Remarks by President John J. DeGioia
Rivier College 2012 Commencement Address
May 12, 2012
Thank you. It is an honor for me to be here with the Rivier College community. This is such an exciting time to be here—to celebrate this moment in all of your lives—this commencement—this beginning—as you bring to a close your years in this college community and as you take your first steps today on your new journeys. There is nothing quite like this day. I have been celebrating these days on our Georgetown campus for nearly four decades, and every one is special.
This is also such an exciting time to be here in your community. I come here today as a member of the oldest Catholic university in our nation, just as you transition towards the important milestone of becoming the newest Catholic university in our country.
There is wonderful resonance between our two institutions.
Georgetown was founded in 1789 by John Carroll, a member of one of the founding families of our country—his cousin Charles signed the Declaration of Independence; and after founding Georgetown, John Carroll served as the first Bishop for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. From our earliest days, we were a community animated by the Jesuit tradition of learning—we sought to be a university that would bring together, faith and reason, in pursuit of truth and the betterment of humankind.
The motto of Georgetown, inscribed into our University seal, is “Utraque Unum,” a phrase drawn from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians; it means “both into one.”
By 1796, our enrollment had reached nearly one hundred, representing a diverse group of students. Just over 50% were from the United States, with 22% joining Georgetown from France, and the rest coming from a variety of countries in Europe.
At the same moment in time, across the Atlantic Ocean, in a small town in Southern France, Marie Rivier embarked on a new phase of her ministry.
On November 21, 1796, Mother Marie and four of her companions dedicated themselves to God, becoming the first Sisters of the Presentation of Mary. They vowed to teach, to work with orphans, and to visit people in need in their homes, just as they had been doing, tirelessly and often secretly, throughout the French Revolution.
It may just be possible that some of our own Georgetown students encountered Marie Rivier during their childhoods in France.
There are also deep connections between the values that Mother Marie shared with the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, and those that have animated our Georgetown community from the time of our founding.
Like Mother Marie, we always urge our students to have “hearts on fire”, responding to the needs of the world with passion, with courage, and with urgency. In words resonant with Mother Marie, the founder of the Jesuit Order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, urged his companions: “Go forth and set the world on fire.”
We also share a deep commitment to engagement, both in our community, and around the world. As Mother Marie pronounced that, “her daughters one day would cross the seas,” so, too, did Georgetown’s early leaders hope that their young men would be capable of applying their knowledge broadly in service of both their faith, and the betterment of our world, as represented by the cross and the globe engraved on our university seal, right next to those words, “Utraque Unum.”
Perhaps most importantly, Mother Marie imagined a way of being in the world—a way of life, what in our tradition, St. Ignatius called, a way of proceeding, that placed reason and faith in dialogue, with a belief that through this dynamic tension, we could discover truth. This ideal has translated directly to Rivier’s own way of life, where, as your mission states, your challenge is to “search for truth through the dialogue between faith and reason.” This is the deepest conviction for our community at Georgetown.
I join you today with a profound sense that Rivier, and the place that has been my home, Georgetown, share a set of beliefs that unites our two communities across the centuries.
It is also an honor to be here for Sister Paula Marie’s first commencement. Our careers overlapped when we tangled as Big East basketball rivals during the years she served at Seton Hall, and we are proud to claim her as an alumna of one of our distinguished graduate programs at Georgetown. And I also would say what a privilege it is to be here with another alum, and a member of your Board of Trustees, the Honorable Joseph Laplante, whom I have known since his undergraduate days at Georgetown.
In anticipating this visit, I spent some time trying to understand what makes this college so special. In reflecting on your core mission, “transforming hearts and minds to serve the world,” I’d like to share three thoughts that might provide a little perspective on the meaning of this day.
First, as you prepare to move forward, you will carry with you something of extraordinary worth—a tradition. I have already described some aspects of your tradition. A tradition provides continuity of commitment to a set of values and practices. They are captured in the curriculum, in dedication to service, in residential living.
But while providing continuity over time, traditions are never static. They are organic, always evolving as your community responds to the challenges of this moment in time… and what an exciting moment in time this is for your community. Fr. Timothy Healy, the man who served as Georgetown’s president from 1976-89, and who served during my undergraduate years and Judge Laplante’s undergraduate years; the man who gave me my vocation in higher education, always told the entering class at Georgetown: “Your major will give you a measuring rod, from which forever after, you will know what developed knowledge feels like, and you will always be able to tell the difference between knowledge and ignorance.”What Father Healy said about the major, holds equally true for a tradition.
When I think about your tradition, and especially the words at the core of your mission—“transforming hearts and minds”— I am moved to consider a similar ideal from the tradition in which I have been formed. The Jesuits have a word to express this integration of heart and mind— the word is, sentir. It is a Spanish word that tries to capture the sense of “felt knowledge”…the kind of knowledge you feel “in your bones.”
Achieving this unique depth of knowledge requires an intellectual and emotional journey that is intensely personal. It must be motivated by a desire not only to understand how to be our very best and most authentic selves, but also by shaping our lives to be in service of the needs of the world.
Sentir emerges as the culmination of these aspirations, where the pursuit of the true meets the pursuit of the good.
Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, described the significance of this union within the context of one’s faith, writing, “This totality, which cannot be determined from without, is at once the simplest and the hardest, [since] it consists in the fulfillment of the single human whole.”
The tradition that has supported your formation here – which has allowed you to pursue this wholeness of knowledge and purpose – is something you will bring with you. It can be a source of consolation and sustenance as you move forward now into the world.
It can provide you with the resources of courage and confidence as you seek out the paths that will enable you to identify and develop the truest aspects of yourselves, allowing each of you to become the person you are called to be, and to make the impact that you are meant to make in our world.
Wherever you go, you bring this with you.
Second, it is important that we recognize just what you have achieved today. You are all truly extraordinary. Consider this: in America, a third of all of your peers never have finished high school. Another third never will receive what many of you will shortly, and which others of you are today surpassing. In our country today, 39% will have an associates degree or higher. Less than a third will have a bachelors degree.
We need you. Our nation needs you. Our world needs you. We need your talent. We need your passion. We need your dreams. Do not undervalue—ever—what you have achieved and what this ceremony enables us all to celebrate.
Third, we watch a lot of Sponge Bob Squarepants in our house. My wife Theresa and our ten-year old son, JT, are here today. If you watch Nickleodeon, I imagine some of you might because Sponge Bob Squarepants began around the time when you were my son’s age. I read an article this week that indicated that as much as 40% of programming time on Nick is dedicated to Sponge Bob. In one of our favorite episodes, Sponge Bob is encouraging Patrick and friends to dream, to dream big, to use…their
I M A G I N A T I O N. Imagination.
When I think about the gifts that you will now bring into the world. When I think about the needs we face, the challenges that confront us, that will require everything that you have…what strikes me as most important is the need to engage your imagination, to nurture your imagination, to do the work of caring for yourself and giving yourself the time and the room for your imagination. In our plugged in, networked, hyperlinked world, we can sometimes confuse busyness for attention. Our imaginations need our attention.
I’d like to close with a story. Many years back—I was probably in my late 20’s, I was looking for a way to deepen my faith and I found a wonderful older Jesuit who agreed to be my spiritual director. There is a practice within the Jesuit tradition, captured in what are called the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and he was willing to be my guide through this experience. We worked together for more than a decade until his death. When we were getting started he said to me, you need to take better care of yourself—get some exercise, get enough sleep—and take some time for your imagination.
Well, I got the exercise part and the sleep part…but I was having trouble with this imagination thing. Prayer for St. Ignatius was an exercise of imagination.
And when you think about our faith, think about what we are asked to believe—that our Father sent his only Son to be our Savior—and he came with a radical new message—Love—a command—Love one another—bringing to us an entirely new logic, a new way of looking at the world. How do we get our minds around this idea? Only through our imagination.
And my imagination needed work. So my spiritual director suggested that I start reading some imaginative fiction. As an undergraduate, I was an English major. I didn’t think this would be difficult. But each week we would meet, he would ask me about my prayer, and my sleep, my exercise…and then how was the reading going. And I just couldn’t break through.
He suggested I start by reading a half hour a day—read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As I learned, this is a fantastic story. But I just couldn’t break free. I was too busy on too many more important things and I couldn’t justify to myself even a half hour a day. After a few weeks of failure, he said, well, drop to 15 minutes. More failure…He said: ”Drop it to 5 minutes.”Finally, I remember saying to him, I am so busy and it is just so boring.
And I have never forgotten what he said. He said: “It is on the other side of boring, that all the really interesting stuff happens.”
And so I began an effort to be bored: by Tolkien and other endeavors. And what I found in myself – by allowing myself to experience the simple state of boredom – I found a place that enabled me to awaken my imagination.
In our imagination, we find different ways of looking at the world. We see different aspects of one another. We see things, feel things, experience things, that we just didn’t see in the intensity of our very busy lives.
And it is in our imagination that we discover what it is we are capable of, we discover our deepest convictions, we discover what matters most to us, we discover that which gives us meaning.
We need you. You are prepared with one of the great gifts—an undergraduate or graduate education from a wonderful academic community. You bring with you another incomparable gift—a tradition that will serve as your touchstone for the rest of your lives. And you have each other—forever connected by the experiences that you have shared here, together, in this very special community.
Go set the world on fire.