Professor Michael Hayes: "You have been helped here to develop as a whole person..."

by Tom McNamara | May 18, 2013

president of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland, delivers the commencement address 
Professor Michael Hayes, president of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland, delivers the commencement address

I am very grateful to Fr O’Connor and to De Sales University for the privilege to deliver the commencement address at this graduation ceremony.  I am also deeply honoured to be the recipient an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from De Sales University.

Those of you who graduate today from De Sales University I offer you the warmest congratulations.  This is your great day, enjoy it, you have worked hard to arrive at this moment, be proud of your achievement, and well done!

I first came in contact with De Sales University about six years ago.  I was at that time Vice-President of an institution in London, England and I was attending meeting on international education in Washington which was also attended by your delightful Provost, Dr Karen Walton.  During our many conversations we both realised that our institutions had much in common, in terms of pursuit of excellence in academic provision, the overarching ethos together with the Catholic foundation, but also a strong desire to engage in international education.  That encounter with Dr Walton led to the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement between DeSales University and St Mary’s University College in London which has led to a student exchange programme which has greatly benefitted both institutions.  I remember Dr Walton saying to me on that occasion that our meeting in Washington was serendipitous and I had the great delight in telling her that the word serendipity have been coined by Horace Walpole in the 18th century in the very building where we were signing the agreement!  I have since moved on to become President of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland.  Mary Immaculate College is the largest Catholic College of Higher Education in Ireland and I was delighted last summer to sign in Limerick a similar Memorandum of Agreement with Fr O’Connor.  This fall I will welcome our first student from DeSales to Ireland.

In the context of our ever growing global awareness I am convinced that institutions of Higher Education must place international education as a key activity of their work. While we are citizens of particular countries, we are also global citizens, an awareness of which, it seems to me, calls us to an expanding collective responsibility to cherish the world that God has given us.   The benefits of international education to students are enormous, where boundaries are expanded and worldviews sometimes challenged, but where personal growth is certainly enhanced. In addition it must also be recognised what each student brings of their own uniqueness to others in an international setting. International collaboration between institutions provides exciting opportunities between different faculty members in the sharing of pedagogical insights and developing research capacity at the service of the creation of new knowledge.

Anthropologists speak of rites of passage, those rituals during which people take on new statuses, and are reborn into society as new and different persons.  Those of you who have graduated today have gone through such a ritual, with the forms of this ceremony and even the academic dress you wear corresponding to the movements and costumes of a rite of passage.

But what is the new sort of person you have become now that you are a De Sales graduate?  I know that De Sales University is confident that you have been superbly prepared not only for a successful career but also for a flourishing life. You have been helped here to develop as a whole person: intellectually, personally, and spiritually, as symbolised on your campus by the proximity of state of the art teaching spaces, wonderful sport facilities, and a beautiful chapel.  For in this place education is not the utilitarian pursuit of skills, rather it is based on the transformation of lives directed towards the building of the common good of society in the United States and beyond.

And what of the fact that you have been part of a community characterised by a desire for trust and respect built on its Catholic ethos.  Here you will have been encouraged to develop strong values of regard for the other, of the need to make a positive contribution in the world, of respect for creation.

I have had the great privilege of visiting Catholic institutions around the world, from all over Europe, to North and South America, to Asia, Africa, and Oceania.  While institutions differ in size, in funding models and in academic provision, they all share a commonality in their Catholic identity.  They do this never from an exclusive modality but always in the context of dialogue.  They all pursue academic excellence and all engage in the even more complex work of faith formation.  The all focus on the work of enabling their graduates to make a significant contribution to building up the common good in society.

To be Catholic is to see the world as a place of meaning and of hope; a place created by God, it is to know that each individual is called to flourish in that world and to make a positive contribution to the common good, it is to be content in the knowledge that we have the real possibility of divine destiny.  To be Catholic is to be a person of hope and of vision, a person who sees meaning in life in this world and promise beyond.

As the Irish poet Seamus Heaney puts it:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave
But then once
In a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of Justice can rise up, and
Hope and History rhyme!
Believe that a further shore,
Is reachable from here.

Catholic institutions of their very nature are involved in the ongoing search for meaning, which involves the questioning of perceived wisdom in the pursuit for truth.  But they do so not in a context of a world view that is bracketed between nothing and nothing. To honour the Catholic tradition is to assert that humanity has a destiny which lies gently in God’s hands. Or in the words of the late Pope John Paul II:

What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defence and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt.’ (Sollicitudo Rei Socicalis, 47).

In front of the Foundation Building of my own institution in Ireland at there is a statue of the 13th century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas.  On the base of the statue there is this quotation:

Just as it is better to illuminate than merely to shine, so it is better to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.’ (ST, II-II, q.188, art 6).

In his classic text, Summa Theologica, prior to his discourse on virtue, the virtues for living a good life, Thomas Aquinas uses the term habitus.  This Latin word habitus is best translated as disposition rather than habit.  For Aquinas a disposition is related to potential and action, there is a space between potential and action.  I have the potential to act and sometimes I realise my potential in action and sometimes I do not.  Disposition or habitus is the space that brings potential and action together.  Now, for Aquinas, this space or gap can be influenced and we spend our lives reflecting and understanding more and more about that space of influence. I would argue that, like an individual, an institution must have a disposition, a habitus.  And Catholic institutions must reflect on its habitus for its habitus can be named and the provenance of its values can be known. The institution that addresses this with intent will see in the face of its students, faculty, and staff a reflection of God’s dignity in human form. It will pursue new knowledge and have the courage at appropriate times to challenge perceived wisdom for the sake of truth. It will cherish the environment as a gift from God, its creator. And the pursuit of human flourishing will be its mantra.  It will be a place of hope; a place where ‘hope and history rhyme’. It will do all this because it knows that God has entered the world in Christ for our salvation.  Its values are those of Christ, the Lord of all creation, the Lord of all hopefulness.

So what does it look like to be a place of education, at the service of the world and the common good in the name of the church? Writing in the mid 1980’s the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago considered the purpose of the Catholic university as providing a living witness to the complementary character of faith and reason. It is a living expression of the Church engaging the world in dialogue with the social and intellectual questions of the day.  For him ‘the life of faith and the life of the mind are complementary.  Faith goes beyond reason, but it never contradicts it.  The relationship of faith and reason exists in the personal life of every believer, but it must also take on an institutional form.’

De Sales University is consonant with the Catholic intellectual tradition, which puts the institution at the service of human flourishing in a plural environment with Christianity as a privileged partner in the dialogue with other traditions. Those of you who graduate today have been exposed and encouraged to make them your own values that emanate from the extraordinary 17th century St Francis de Sales whose spirituality is the bed rock of the Oblates of St Francis de Sales, about recognising the call of each individual to holiness  in every walk of life; the necessity of living in the ‘present moment’ as the real opportunity to know and live God’s will for you; about the goodness of creation; the centrality of love and freedom in your relationship with God and the world; the ‘sanctity’ of the ‘ordinary’ done ‘passionately well’; and the gentleness, humility, optimism and joy that come from living in truthfulness.

Your education here has not only been about academic excellence, it has also been about your formation as a person.  What a privilege for you, one to be cherished today and every day!

My warmest congratulation to you graduates of the class of 2013 for arriving at this milestone in your lives.  I share your pride today and I too delight in your presence here

Finally, in Ireland we have a saying, Beir bua agus beannacht, which roughly translates as great victory and many blessings to you.

Beir bua agus beannacht!

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Tom McNamara, Executive Director of Communications
610.282.1100 x1219

DeSales University
2255 Station Avenue
Center Valley, PA 18034