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1994 Commencement Speech: Joseph Cardinal Bernardin

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

I am deeply honored by your invitation to participate in these commencement exercises and profoundly grateful to the entire Marquette community for the honorary degree that you have bestowed on me.

It is with special pleasure that I address the graduating class of 1994. My friends, I speak to you today of hope and confidence. It is my deep conviction that the most important vocation that you have as you leave this university and set out on your various careers is to be missionaries of hope; bearers of the confidence that comes from God alone. It is your task, your sacred responsibility, my brothers and sisters, to carry the light of the gospel to a world that often seems void of hope.

Just over a year ago, at the Cabrini Green Housing Project in Chicago, little Dantrell Davis was shot to death while walking to school, hand in hand with his mother. His assailant, his mind and judgment clouded by drugs, was simply taking target practice. Last Holy Saturday night, a young man was killed on the steps of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago. He died while the Easter Vigil, the solemn celebration of Christ's resurrection, was taking place inside the church. The contrast between the proclamation of life inside the church and the dealing of death outside only served to highlight the terrible tragedy of urban violence.

Just a few months ago, in Hebron, a Jewish fanatic walked into a place of prayer on the site of the tomb of the patriarchs. He leveled an automatic weapon and calmly opened fire on the dozens of Muslims at prayer before him. What is as shocking as his violent act is the fact that his tomb is now viewed by some as a place of pilgrimage. While much hope for peace in the land of David and Jesus has been generated, the deep enmity between many Jews and Arabs remains a serious obstacle to peace in the Holy Land.

Kurt Cobain was the lead singer for one of the most popular musical groups in the world. He had emerged, some said, as one of the distinctive voices of your generation. He acquired wealth and fame, but he was also wracked by depression and a deep-seated anger. As you know, he committed suicide at the beginning of April. While most of us are familiar with the dark powers of depression, meaninglessness, and despair, it is truly sad when a young person succumbs to them and simply gives up.

Do I mention these sad stories in order to spoil the joy of this day? No, I do so in order to remind you, the 1994 graduates of this great Catholic university, how desperately the world needs your intelligence, your courage, your faith, your hope and your compassion.

My dear friends, the Catholic tradition takes, as its starting point, the strange and unexpected event of the Incarnation, God's embrace of the totality of the human condition. In Jesus Christ, the almighty and eternal God identifies himself with all of our pain, all of our limitation, all of our fear – even going to the point of taking on death itself. In surrounding and enveloping even that which most terrifies us, God showed unconditional love and that, in the words of St. Paul, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Because of Jesus, we can live in hope, despite the many problems and heartbreaks that confront us. And, in the spirit of the Gospel, we become bearers of the energy and power of hope. We proclaim the Lord Jesus and his gospel in the violent corners of our society; we proclaim him in the midst of racial and ethnic conflict; we proclaim him to those overwhelmed by inner darkness.

St. Ignatius of Loyola was one of those rare and wonderful persons who was on fire with the love of God expressed in Christ Jesus. In response to God's great act of compassionate love, Ignatius resolved to give himself totally, in an “ever greater” manner, to the service of God. His incandescent spirit still animates this Jesuit university and informs its ideals: All that you have learned and studied, all that you have struggled to understand, all that you have received in your years at Marquette has been designed to awaken in you an ever greater love of God and a dedication to be a missionary of hope.

It was Ignatius’ conviction that all academic disciplines mathematics, chemistry, physics, philosophy, the arts – all speak of God the creator, the Intelligence and the Beauty that is at the heart of the universe. In the deepest sense, your study here has been an act of worship and contemplation, a honing of your capacity to appreciate God in all that you see and do, a preparation for the great task of carrying the creator’s love to the arenas in which you will move.

My brothers and sisters, you have felt, and will continue to feel, the attraction of other ideals. Many will hold out to you the lure of money and the things it can buy: not only cars and homes, but also temporary friends and fair-weather admirers.

Many will speak to you of the primacy of pleasure; a life of enjoyment and sensuality, they will tell you, is a life well-lived. Still others will hold out the subtle and, perhaps, most tempting demon of power. To attain high position, to be wildly admired, to be the one of whom everyone else is envious – that, some will tell you, is the goal of human striving. In short, you will be tempted to abandon the Jesuit and Christian ideals that have been instilled in you at Marquette, to use the wisdom and skill that you have attained here in the service of your own ego.

Please do not fall into that trap. The demands of the ego are unrelenting, and its desires are insatiable. Some of our greatest writers have shown, in vivid characterizations, the frustrations and suffering that come from clinging to the ego and its needs. Shakespeare, for example, sketched the portrait of Richard III, literally and figuratively deformed by his lust for the royal crown, a man who wanted to fill himself up with power. Such a desire, focused only on the ego, eventually consumes and destroys.

What I propose to you today is not this dead-end journey – not the petty quest for money, pleasure, and power – but, rather, the rich and exciting career of faithful witness, a participation in the great drama by which God embraces the despair, hatred, and violence of the world in order to bring hope to the human family. That is a vocation worthy of your youthful energy, your intelligence, your willpower. And that, furthermore, is a vocation that will satisfy you, that will make you, not necessarily rich and famous, but truly happy and joyful.

So, I say to those who are preparing for careers in dentistry, nursing and medicine: Be vicars of that loving concern which creates the universe, be instruments of the healing power of God, especially to those in our society and our world who are without adequate care.

And I say to those who have prepared themselves for the worlds of engineering, business and commerce: Be persons of fairness and service: focus, not so much on what you might gain, but on what you might bring to a world starving for adequate food, shelter, clothing, and other basic necessities.

And I say to those who have prepared themselves for the field of education, or the practice of the law, or for participation in political life: Be persons on fire with a passion for justice and truth. Focus your time and talent especially on these who are most despised, those who live on the margins of society, those who are poor. Place your skills and your energy at the service of human life at all of its stages and in all of its varied manifestations.

And, I say to those of you who are preparing for a career in journalism, communications and the performing arts: Be servants of the truth, give eloquent voice to the longings and dreams of the human family, expose cruelty and injustice with the bright light of your research and insights. In this way, you will speak of God and help to bear his hope to the world.

I know a little more about the news business than I did last year at this time. And I want to tell you, future journalists, about the tremendous power that you have literally in your hands – and the awesome responsibility that goes with that power. I am pleased we live in an electronic information age – we have instant access to news and information. But I am concerned that the pressures of deadlines ever minute and the competition for ratings and readers can be incompatible with a deliberate search for truth and a continual commitment to justice.

In all these ways, and in many others besides, my friends of the Class of 1994, you will allow yourselves to be drawn into the energy and power of God's infinite compassion for the world. You will transcend yourselves in a great surrender to the purpose and mission of Christ, and, in that very surrender, you will find most fully who you are; you will discover your truest identity as a bearer of hope to a dark and weary world.

One of the favorite places on your campus is the Joan of Arc chapel, a replica of that beautiful little church where Joan prayed before setting out on her divinely inspired mission. Joan, whom George Bernard Shaw referred to as the most fascinating of all the strange and romantic figures of the Middle Ages, found her true identity by being drawn into God's design for the human family. Her personhood emerged in her passionate embrace of what God called her to do.

Today, all of you are like Joan, poised on the verge of your career, your life's work, your mission. You will find your true identity, your purpose, and your joy to the extent that you hand your lives over to God and commit yourselves to the service of God's people. My hope is that the Church and the world will be enriched by your contribution. And my promise is that I will continue to be with you in thought and prayer, as you find your role in God's great drama.


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