As President of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology it is my privilege and happy duty to welcome our graduates, their friends and families to our 81st Commencement.
When St. Thomas Aquinas considers the sin of presumption he proposes that it consists in immoderate hope: either an immoderate confidence in one’s own capabilities, or an immoderate reliance on the power of God whereby God will overlook, for example, his own justice. I thought it appropriate to begin my remarks by offering St. Thomas’ description of the sin of presumption, because I am about to commit it. I mean to presume to introduce our graduates to you, their friends and families.
Who are they? Why would they have chosen to study with us here at DSPT? I am certain that this is a question they may, more than once, have put to themselves, even recently. Certain academic requirements, such as completing a thesis, seem to occasion this kind of question, even with some frequency. Why, indeed, did they elect to come here, to study here?
There appears to be little of practical advantage to their decision; I have warned our incoming students that a graduate degree in philosophy or theology likely should not be considered the fast track to a lucrative career. Nor is it a source of prestige in a culture that is entirely given over to what is perceived as “useful”. There really can be one answer only: they came to us because of a vocation that they have received – a personal call that is both invitation and summons – to seek what is true or, to say the same thing, what is real.
This vocation of theirs is not for the faint of heart. It imparts both a confidence and a profound disquiet: a confidence that there is truth and that it can be known; a disquiet born of the fact that the truth that can be known - can be known, this side of heaven, only very partially. It was of these, your friends, that St. Hilary of Poitier spoke when he advised, “Enter these truths by believing, press forward, persevere. And though I may know that you will not arrive at an end, yet I will congratulate you on your progress. For, though he who pursues the infinite with reverence will never finally reach the end, yet he will always progress by pressing onward.”
These, your sons and daughters and friends, have been invited and summoned to pursue the infinite with reference. They know in their hearts that there is truth, and in pursuing it they have, indeed, made progress; they have seen a great deal and they are promised and destined to see a great deal more. They also experience in their hearts the disquiet born of the fact that, pursuing the infinite with reverence as they have been called to do, they will never finally reach the end. At the same time, they have, on occasion, glimpsed with St. Thomas Aquinas that “to be able to see some of the loftiest realities, however thin and weak the sight might be, is … a cause of the greatest joy.”
I urge all of you who share this call of theirs to emulate them: to believe, to press forward, to persevere; to have the courage to embrace both the confidence and the disquiet that attend this vocation to study. I admonish those of you who may not fully understand their vocation nonetheless to encourage them to remain faithful to their call. While they may never be numbered among the wealthy or courted as celebrities; while they may never achieve expertise in what is regarded as “useful” knowledge or skills, their expertise will be of a different kind. In the happy phrase of Pope Paul VI, they will come to be “experts in humanity.” They will know the promptings of the human heart, what upholds and what betrays, what satisfies and what disappoints, what we can know and what is hidden from us. And, in the end, having sated our desires for wealth and for celebrity, we will discover that it is their knowledge, their expertise that we will have relied upon the most.
For the present, on this day, please join with me in congratulating them on the progress they have made!