College of Fellows
DSPT 80th Annual Commencement Address
Very Reverend Chancellor, Fr. Mark Padrez, OP, Maureen Maloney, Vice President for Student Affairs at the GTU, Members of the DSPT Board of Trustees, President and friend Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, members of the esteemed faculty and staff of our school, Dominican fathers, religious, family and friends of the graduates our new fellows, and most especially the 2012 graduates of the DSPT: thank you for inviting me to join in this celebration of your achievements and for this opportunity to share some thoughts and present some challenges for our consideration. I offer you the perspective of a Catholic who spends most of his professional time engaged with Catholics and others in public life and with lay Catholics and clergy on the front lines of the issues surrounding the quest for a good society, at the intersection of God's kingdom and those of this world.
Your community, your nation, your society, your Church needs you now more than ever to apply your excellent education and find the opportunities to teach and form the laity and clergy personally and professionally. We fully expect the DSPT to continue its exceptional academic and ministerial formation, but the Church also needs this school to seek new avenues for, and cooperate actively in, bringing our Dominican charism for exceptional academic and ministerial formation to the professional Catholic laity and clergy in our part of the vineyard.
On Thursday we celebrated the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. The Ascension is a story of commencement, mission and Kingdom. N.T. Wright, one of the most revered scripture scholars of this time, makes this point in his book, "When God Became King": When the positively harmonized sound of the four gospels is heard correctly, the Ascension becomes pivotal for us, the disciples of this day, to grasp the significance of the mission to proclaim that the God of Israel, through Jesus Christ, has become King of this world. To quote, "it is only when we take fully into account the gospel writers' belief that Jesus was involved in the ultimate battle against the ultimate forces of evil that we can begin to see how their (the gospel writers) combination of kingdom and cross - and looking wider, of incarnation, kingdom, cross and resurrection makes sense. But that doesn't mean that the conflict between God and Caesar is only relative or secondary. We can be quite sure that the gospel writers had this element clearly in mind....whenever Jews of the period told their story, one key element was ...how their God would deliver them from wicked and powerful pagan empires..." (202). In our 2012 world of "culture wars" we can easily find ourselves, as the Jews of that era did, yearning for vindication, to bring this story of conquest and triumph to fruition, in our lifetime. God is King and he will help us triumph over the evil empire just like before. That would be a foolish wish.
Bishop Wright goes on to explicate, "The kings of the earth exercise power one way, by lording it over their subjects, but Jesus' followers are going to do it the other way, the way of the (suffering) servant." (226) "It is time...to reread the gospels as what we can only call political theology- not because they are not...about God and spirituality and new birth and holiness and all the rest, but precisely because they are" (230). [At a defining moment in the Gospel of John, Pilate asks, “what is truth." From N.T. Wright we hear, “the point about truth, and about Jesus and his followers bearing witness to it, is that truth is what happens when humans use works to reflect God's wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed. Empire can't cope with this. They make their own "truth," creating "facts on the ground" in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice (240).”]
So in an oversimplified summary of this message to us on the Feast of the Ascension, we are, as Acts and Mark's gospel announce this weekend, to be “witnesses to the ends of the earth." The reality of the Ascension is that Christ IS the Lord of heaven and earth. "God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We are to stop “looking at the sky” and get on with bringing the will of the King to the earth, as the suffering servant and the victim on the cross. This day we, the Body of Christ, are called to commence with the mission, to offer the right understanding of the human person and the good society. And you, we, must commence to discover new ways to form the laity of this age in the correct understanding of the Kingdoms of Caesar and God, and the fact that God's Kingdom has triumphed and why. My hope is that is why you chose this education, this training.
As each generation of graduates acknowledges, we live in interesting, challenging, and wondrous times. For you and your chosen profession, this time of political and cultural intrigue highlights the need for your talents as philosophers and theologians, teachers and preachers. Let me offer three brief glimpses of the intersection of the disciples with the Kingdom of Caesar as indicative of our challenge to “re-plan our journey,” (Caritas in Veritate ) to proclaim boldly the Kingdom of God.
Ironically on January 20th, the day when we, the people of life, commemorate the sad anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, President Barrack Obama announced the "rules for the "contraceptive mandate" to implement a portion of the landmark, Affordable Health Care Act. The ensuing political "intrigue," hopefully very familiar to this educated crowd, initiated a moment in which the need on the part of our citizens, our elected officials, and particularly our Catholic disciples for good philosophy, quality theological reflection, informed historical perspective became so acutely apparent. (Eventually there will be a need for some correctly applied political strategy and astute constitutional discernment, but that is another commentary.) However, much of what we have seen is some astute (by the President) and amateur (by the Church leadership) political strategizing, the usual partisan wrangling, chattering in the "culture war," and on many sides, the yearning for that sense of victorious vindication alluded to earlier. Now, many of our Church leaders view this as "the defining moment of our time, our "call to action" for religious liberty. And I think we all can and should say, "Amen" to that. To allow the state in regulation or law to define who we are as Christ's Church and how we may express ourselves in public changes the very nature of religious liberty as we have lived and celebrated it in America. As I have commented publicly, the administration, with no actual competence to do so, just informed the Catholic family that the family is a little weird culturally and that the family businesses cannot be considered part of the family. Respecting our substantial institutional contribution to the good of this society over the last 200 plus years, this can only be taken as an affront and must be addressed. So, as leaders and as laity, we will respond to the bishops' call for a "Fortnight for Freedom." We will pray. We will speak up. We will legislatively and legally challenge the inappropriate definition of religious employer and the erosion of our cherished respect for conscience. Eventually we may actually formulate and execute a legislative strategy for success. This will require our bishop leaders to assemble expert Catholic laity and follow their direction. This is all good, and, with God's help we will prevail. But this vignette exposes once again the significant need amongst Catholics to frame the questions in more than political terms. Foundational to our engagement is the need for our laity and clergy to grasp a larger gospel perspective on mission and a commitment to respond as faith inspired and articulate disciples.
As we well know, in the “Great Century of Faith,” the 13th, Dominic emerged as a man of his time and for his time. He saw the need for a rational and inspired defense of the faith in response to the heresy of his day (Albigensian). He also inspired by the Spirit, saw the need and executed a response to evangelize the new bourgeois social class developing in the cities of Europe. To reach the people the monastery was not sufficient. It could still train the teachers, but it was as itinerant preachers that he and the other saints engaged the laity of his day. This is our heritage and remembering it should help ground our call from God to do the same in our time. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, we are called to read the signs of our time and to explore and execute new opportunities to prepare the laity and the clergy philosophically, theologically and spiritually so that they can mount that rational and inspired defense of faith against the heresies of our day, unfettered individualism, secular humanism, expedient materialism, etc. We are called to evangelize and train Catholics in and for public and professional life as Dominic and the giants of that age did. To go to the people in simplicity and evangelical poverty, preaching by example and word. We will maintain our commitment to train the teachers, but we must be open to new places and new forms. This is truly our call as leaders in the “New Evangelization,” to equip our lay professionals (even politicians) with a top notch education in the faith.
In a second vignette we see the in the media the recent exchange between selected faculty members of Georgetown University and a particularly articulate Catholic member of Congress, Representative Paul Ryan. Looking past the prudential judgment reflected in the political agendas displayed, and even perhaps the academic arrogance of these professors, the incident should heighten our interest as educators and preachers in recognizing the need for Catholics in public life to be able to offer and debate vital concepts like “subsidiarity” and “solidarity” for the common sake of the good society. How can we at DSPT more effectively prepare Catholics to engage with love and respect? Can we at DSPT be a venue for this type of faith and reason conversation? In my profession interacting with elected officials, professional staff, administrators, and well educated professional Catholics, I am constantly amazed that these Catholics in public life cannot engage intelligently and as people of faith with each other and with colleagues of other and no faith. Many are serious about their Catholic faith yet see it as disconnected from their lives and/or feel inadequate to articulate the truth they know in their hearts. We must discuss this question. How can we offer them the education and formation to do so?
In the third vignette observing some of the many related opportunities to see Catholics in action, we witnessed Vice President Biden, a practicing Catholic, proclaim, as many other Catholics in public life do, a stance in favor of redefining marriage based on human rights and equality. Sadly there was no reference or articulated attempt to even reconcile this position with what our faith informs regarding the nature and rights of the person, particularly children, a right understanding of marriage, and an appeal to the common good. What he and others offer continues to be just the usual political slogans and emotional appeals. As the DSPT we must be more creative in responding to the challenge to assist Catholics to own and apply our moral truths in public life using arguments of natural law.
In a fascinating paper from many years ago, Fr. Robert Dodaro, OSA, describes St. Augustine, a fifth-century bishop living in late Roman imperial society, as the "Father of Christian Political Activism." In example after example, the Bishop of Hippo is presented as fully engaged, with his brother bishops in "coordinated efforts to introduce structural or systemic changes into society's political institutions to render them more effective at promoting social justice." This of course presages the statement of Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est , that “The Church…is called to contribute to the purification of reason and to the reawakening of those moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run” (29).
Can we challenge ourselves to find approachable and contemporary language to “purify reason,” to present the truth of the Kingdom, the human person and the common good? I think we must engage lay professional disciples in the task. That is certainly part of our challenge as Fellows of this school.
As Pope Benedict reminds us in Deus Caritas Est , “The direct duty to work for the just ordering of society…is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good. The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competencies and fulfilling their own responsibility. Even if the specific expressions of ecclesial charity can never be confused with the activity of the State, it still remains true that charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore their political activity, lives as ‘social charity'”(29).
Perhaps to accept the challenge to train and form our lay Catholic to accomplish this vision of the laity is our “Dominic” moment for this time.
These brief vignettes of our time, and so many more I could offer, are intended to highlight more than ever the need for disciples in God's Kingdom to have more philosophical, theological and spiritual depth. You graduates will be on the frontlines. We, faculty, fellows and trustees must dedicate anew to forming those who will teach others, those who will engage through their professions.
One of our new Fellows, Bill Cox, was a co- creator of, and another fellow, Professor André Delbecq is an instructor in, a novel program for Catholic Health Care called the Ministry Leadership Center. It provides one template for the “New Evangelization.” A three-year “formation program” that has involved over 600 Catholic healthcare professionals, a third or more of whom are not Catholic. Through an adult learning style these executives are invited to grasp a sense of vocation, connect to an historic living of Christian faith, understand the Catholic moral tradition of faith and reason, appropriate a positive and functional spirituality and engage in their profession renewed and inspired to bring about the Kingdom. This is but one creative attempt. What about the attorneys, the accountants, the teachers, the public officials, the many professions? Can we experiment with new ways to touch this professional “class” of Catholics, particularly young adults where they work and live? This is our 13th-century “Dominic” moment. We must maintain the integrity of our educational content. We will continue to provide that quality graduate education for the teachers. But we should not continue the illusion that the means and the venue for delivering that content to the laity can remain the same. We are not being called to do what we have always done, to “stand looking up.” The Kingdom of our God is here and now. As the reading from Ephesians on Ascension reminds us, we are “to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” We are called to this exciting mission, to this commencement, to preach everywhere. We at the DSPT and you the graduates we celebrate today can appreciate that we do so, as Mark's gospel affirms then and now, “while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” Congratulations!