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1990 Commencement Speech: Daniel Pilarczyk Archbishop of Cincinnati

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

I wish to begin my remarks by offering congratulations to
the Marquette University class of 1990 for the achievements we celebrate here today. My congratulations extend to your parents, families, and friends who have been part of your educational journey, as well as to the faculty and administration of this university. I am grateful to be an honorary member of the class of 1990, and doubly privileged to have been asked to address you. As I studied the material about Marquette, which Father Raynor sent to me after I had accepted his invitation to be with you today, I was struck by a booklet, which says right at the top of page one, “A University Built Upon Belief.” It goes on to
say, “Marquette affirms the spiritual dimension of human existence and places religious awareness at the heart of the academic enterprise.”

These are comforting words but to many in our world, they reflect a position, which is socially irrelevant. To put religious awareness at the heart of an academic enterprise, or of any other significant enterprise, flies in the face of some of the fundamental principles on which our modern world is founded. Specifically, it flies in the face of what has been called the secularization thesis. This proposition holds, more or less explicitly, that modernity has spelled out a declining role for religious faith. The heart of the secularization thesis is that a post-industrial world, dominated by the empirical sciences and profound intellectual pluralism provides, at best, a marginal role for religion reduced to a private affair, devoid of public significance. The secularization thesis is a product of Western intellectual life and is different from the Marxist contention that religion should be consciously suppressed as a personal and social reality. But both, though in different ways, predicate a negligible role for religious ideas and institutions in the shaping of modern life.

Yet if we look at the last ten years of our world's history, we will see that it is the secularization thesis and the Marxist ideology which have proved themselves outdated and the ideals espoused by places like Marquette which have prevailed. Religious faith and the spiritual dimension of human existence, far from being a marginal element, have been at the very center of the major social and political events of the lifetime of this year's graduates.


From Soweto to San Salvador, from Prague to the Philippines, from Teheran to Tirana, from Jerusalem to Washington religious convictions and religious questions have been, explicitly or implicitly, at the heart of the public life of nations and peoples. In the central human struggles and political conflicts of the past decade - in Central America, South Africa, the Middle East, and the communist world of Eastern Europe - it is impossible to understand the forces at work apart from an understanding of the religious dimension of human existence, that same dimension to which the work of this university is dedicated.

Some of these events are contextualized in the religious faith of Islam and Judaism, but in several of these situations is possible to focus on the specific difference which has been made by the faith of Catholics.


In El Salvador the decade of 1979-1989 opened with the assassination of Archbishop Romero and closed with the murder of six Jesuits. Neither of these horrendous events can be under- stood apart from the broader picture of the Church in Latin America since Vatican II. That role has involved a conscious choice to engage the Church in an “option for the poor” which has produced a company of martyrs from Brazil through Chile to Central America. The martyrs of the Church in Latin America have been the result of a Church, which tries to walk with and live with the experience of the poor. In 1990 the grinding poverty of Latin America remains, but change has begun in many countries. It is a fragile process, threatened by the burden of foreign debt and the absence of economic development, but if the past is any indicator, the religious element which was so much a part of beginning the process will not be absent from its evolution.

The visible role of the Church in Latin America was matched in the 1980's by the experience of the Philippines. Here again, the public significance of personal faith captured the attention of the world. The secular and political significance of ousting an authoritarian regime and establishing a democratic government without firing a shot was evident to everybody. Equally evident was the fact that neither the motivation of ordinary citizens nor the courage of the new president of the Philippines, Mrs. Aquino, could be understood apart from the profound faith, which gave meaning to their struggle for dignity and freedom.

This survey could include South Africa and Anglican Archbishop Tutu and the South Korea of Cardinal Kim. But perhaps the personal and public role which faith plays in our late twentieth century can be best illustrated by looking at the case of the Church and Eastern Europe.

This class of 1990 is the first post-cold war graduating class. At the heart of the intellectual and political transition from the Cold War stands the experience of Eastern Europe which, in turn, cannot be understood apart from the reality of religious faith, and, specifically, Catholic faith.

From 1945 through the 80’s faith was a source of meaning and strength in Eastern Europe, sustaining individuals and whole nations in the face of repression and discrimination. For forty-five years the people of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania and the other nations held captive in the Soviet system kept alive their capacity to believe, to hope, and to struggle in the face of enormous political, ideological, and military pressure. In these four and a half decades one can find a history of personal heroism, but one can also verify the public significance of faith. Faith not only helped people to survive political repression. It was also the integrating vision, which sustained their sense of national and cultural unity.

The most dramatic public struggle was perhaps in Poland, where church and state clashed with diametrically opposed visions of the meaning of life and of the methods for shaping a humane society. In this struggle, one of the most prominent participants was Karol Wojtyla.


From the time of his election to the papacy as Pope John Paul II, faith took shape in Poland as a public voice and vision which opened the way to freedom in the whole center of Europe. The Pope 's first great pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 was followed, just over a year later, by the birth of Solidarity. Without the Pope's visit it is doubtful that there would have been a Solidarity. The example of Solidarity had effects far beyond the borders of Poland. It pioneered a new kind of politics in Eastern Europe, a politics of social slef-organization aimed at negotiating the transition from communism to an entirely different kind of society.

The contribution of the Pope to the events in Poland and elsewhere is tied directly to the vision of faith, which he preaches. The Pope has consistently joined a conception of faith to an understanding of personal and social freedom, founded in the need to guarantee the human dignity, which lies at the root of all human existence. The Pope's message was - and is - distinctly religious in its roots and its tone, but it was - and is - a message, which contained a logic of freedom and justice for redesigning society. The implications of the vision the Pope has proclaimed include concepts, which he has used to critique patterns of social and economic order not only in Eastern Europe but in Latin America, Asia and North America as well.

Many factors have been at work in changing the face of Eastern Europe during these latest months - not least the personality and policies of Michail Gorbachev. But these historic transformations are simply not intelligible apart from religious faith and apart from the Slavic Pope who joined faith and freedom in a decade long crusade in defense of the human person.

The task of shaping a peaceful global community, which honors human dignity and respects human rights is not yet concluded. In many ways it is only beginning, forty-five years late. Our own country is and will remain a major participant in that task. The political, economic, and military implications of the task challenge the vision and energy of all of us. But if recent history has anything to teach us, it is that the task cannot be carried out without attention to the spiritual dimension of human existence and the religious awareness that has been at the center of your experience here at Marquette.

As an honorary member of the class of 1990, I look forward to a future, which invites the best resources of our vision of faith to build a world worthy of the human person. As American citizens we can support and sustain policies, which will profoundly affect what kind of a world we will share with others. As people of faith we have the same resources of grace and vision which the Christians of Eastern Europe and elsewhere have so successfully and honorably used in their march to freedom. Their journey is now for us a sign of hope and a challenge to carry us on our way.


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