Archbishop Kurtz: Go forth—sheepskin in your hand and those special people in your heart.

by Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D. | May 23, 2016

Archbishop Kurtz Delivers DeSales 2016 Commencement Address

President Father Bernard O’Connor, Board of Trustees, honored guests and dear graduates and your families, what a joy it is to return to Center Valley and DeSales University on this golden anniversary.

I come from Louisville, Kentucky, and we just witnessed the 142th running of the Kentucky Derby.  When I go to the Derby at Churchill Downs, I wear my Roman collar.  Three years ago a man with whom I shared an elevator looked at my collar and asked: “Father, are priests allowed to bet?” I quickly replied: “Well, I believe we can bet, but we are not allowed to win!” His rapid and clever rejoinder was: “You know, I believe that I may just have a vocation!”

You graduates clearly have a vocation – a calling.  But so does your University.  Let me speak of the vocation of DeSales University first. 

How quickly a half a century passes!  I recall when I was ordained a deacon in 1971, I came to serve at St. Joseph Church in Limeport and recall visiting families that summer along Station Avenue. 

People were still talking about the new college down the road.  They spoke of Bishop McShea, who shortly after the establishment of the Diocese of Allentown in 1961 eagerly planned for a Catholic college in the See city.  I recall conversations when he spoke of his approach to the Oblates of St. Francis.  I can almost hear his voice as he said:  “You have fine high schools but no college; I need a college.  Let’s get together.”  He offered to help supply the land, and the blessed partnership was formed. 

The fields began to be filled with buildings for higher learning, and the effort was distinguished by the commitment of leaders such as Fr. Stuart Dooling, Fr. Daniel Gambet and Fr. Sandy Pocetto who immediate began to roll up their sleeves.   With them was Msgr., later Bishop David Thompson, always the first advocate of DeSales.   Fr. Bernie O’Connor arrived soon, ready for work, along with so many fine teachers and administrators.

Graduates have left the campus and made an impact.  This past Monday I took a call from a Rome correspondent with a request for an interview about a book on Pope Francis that she is writing. That request was from Deborah Castellano Lubov, Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT: The World Seen from Rome. Yes, she is a graduate of DeSales!

I recall the flood – was it 1971 or 72? – when the water rushed into the valley and filled the auditorium.  The photo from the local newspaper is vivid in my mind:  a piano floating above the floor.

In the midst of five decades of challenges, what a glorious place you graduates have called home and will always call your “dear, loving and nurturing mother” – your “alma mater.”  Yours is a university distinguished for her liberal arts, her performing arts, her promotion of the healing professions – but, more than anything, for her Catholic identity as a university.

In 1990, St. John Paul II issued the apostolic constitution on Catholic identity in universities – “Ex corde ecclesiae.” Its title expresses that the learning and faith that makes a university Catholic springs from the heart of the Church.

Over 400 years ago, the saintly bishop Francis de Sales – your namesake – spoke to the hearts of so many about faith and love.  He was a man of action who was ahead of his time.  Remember his words: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so, you learn to love by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves.”

Dear graduates, the diploma you receive will have your attention.  How hard you worked and how much you have sacrificed for that sheepskin!  Hang onto that diploma, but make sure you take some university tools with you as you go forth.

David Brooks in his 2015 “Road to Character” distinguishes between two types of virtues:  resume virtues and eulogy ones.  The former virtues, likely on the mind of most graduates, involve the art of “putting your best foot forward” – listing the winning qualities that will land a great job.  We are told that today’s graduates believe in themselves and find it natural to sell their best selves to an employer.  Good for you!

However, the New York Times columnist Brooks spends little time on those virtues as he invites the reader to build character.  Instead he speaks of those virtues or qualities that last into eternity and the very same that people recall long after the person has died (hence “eulogy virtues”). 

You can guess the list: faithful love, sacrificial service, diligence and patience, humility and selflessness.  So how do I recommend to graduates that they develop these virtues, which were cultivated in them during their university experience? I offer four tips:

1. Take with you the name of the teacher who influenced you for the better.  A Catholic university at her best with her finest teachers has that gift of inspiring a clear way of thinking (inquiry and dialogue) with a humble witness to a life of faith. I recently read that while there is no such thing as “Catholic biology,” a Catholic university gives permission for the wonders that science discovers to be the occasion for genuine praise of the creator. If you were blessed with a teacher who imparted the thirst for knowledge that leads to a deeper faith, give thanks.   Get his or her address and write to say thank you within ten days.

2. Take with you the names of good friends you have made through your college years.  As I never tire of telling Confirmation classes, a good friend is a jewel who always brings out the best in you. They are easy to discover because in their presence you are a better person.  We naturally imitate good friends, so make the commitment to cherish these individuals and put your gratitude in writing within the next 5 days.

3. Take in a deep breath of gratitude for your family and especially your parents. Pope Francis calls the Church, a family of families and 35 year ago, St. John Paul II said that “the future of society passes through the family.”  Your future is in great measure due to your dear and committed family members. Don’t let this day end without saying thank you.  By the way, the greatest incentive to prayer is not an act of desperation 10 minutes before a final that was sloppily prepared for!  No, it is that deep sense of gratitude that wells in your heart as you give thanks for mom and dad, grandparents and dear ones.  Let a brief silence well in your hearts right now and offer a prayer of gratitude:  “Jesus, make me grateful for my family as you were for Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family.”  

4. The final item on the list:  Do not be afraid to aspire to greatness.  After hearing a fine sermon in Washington, D.C. one Sunday morning, President Lincoln was asked what he thought of the message.  He described the message as having excellent content with great eloquence. When asked if it was a great sermon, he answered; “No.  The preacher forgot the most important ingredient. He forgot to ask us to do something great!” 

Your greatness will be found in some heroic act of serving another.   If you can discover this gift, you will uncover in your life the most valuable reward - that intangible but always recognized life of joy. Joy is a gift not given to those who search the earth looking for it – for them it is always around the next corner. No, it is the gift that shows up in your heart when, after serving others well, you realize that living for another seems to bring joy like a strong wave brings a peaceful wake.  It comes from one who does something great for another. 

Let me share a true story of this life of joy.  Dr. Jérôme Lejeune, a geneticist, family doctor and great husband and father, was only 67 when he died on Easter of 1994 and surprisingly, given his achievements, was relatively little known.  His greatest public action was the 1959 discovery of the genetic cause of what was then called “mongolism” and now is called Down syndrome.  Before his discovery, it was thought that people born with this syndrome had a disease, were a punishment to the parents, and should be kept in the shadows of society.

He did not set out to live the life of a hero.  What eventually made Dr. Lejeune’s life heroic was that combination of courage and family values.  He would spend his mornings meeting and interacting with so many children with Down syndrome and their families and then used the afternoons for his research.  He came to see the humanity of each person he met.  (He called his patients “the disinherited.”) 

Rather than simply use his scientific brain to fuel accomplishments and achievements, Dr. Lejeune asked the question of heroes:  because I can do something, ought I to do it? 

That question made him aware that his scientific discovery could be misused.  In 1969 while being honored in San Francisco, he publicly decried the possibility that some may want to take the life of a child with Down syndrome before that child was born.  His research convinced him that the genetic package of a human was set from conception or, as he paraphrased the prologue of the Gospel according to St. John, “In the beginning there is a message, and this message is in life, and this message is life. And if the message is a human message, then the life is a human life.”

Dr. Lejeune persevered despite great opposition from the professional community for his defense of human life; he lost government contracts in France, and some say the chance of a Nobel Prize. He did so because, as he would repeat, “One phrase, one only, dictates our conduct, the expression of Jesus himself: ‘Whatever you do to one of the least of my brothers, you do it to me.’” (Mt. 25:40)

What Dr. Lejeune did for children born with Down syndrome, you will do in service for another, and in this you will find greatness. Don’t be anxious.  Don’t fret.  Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.”  His hand guides, and he has already provided.  Just think of that teacher, those good friends, that wonderful proud family.  His hand is in it all. 

Graduates, go forth – sheepskin in your hand and those special people in your heart.  Four hundred years ago, St. Francis DeSales said it well:  "Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and be that perfectly."  Be all that God has created you to be.   To quote St. Catherine of Siena, patroness of the Cathedral of Allentown: “Be all that God has created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” Discover how to serve others and concentrate on what is truly lasting.  Go forth and God speed!  Amen.

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