Notre Dame Commencement Address 2022
Heart to Heart
As a boy, watching Ara Parseghian’s championship football teams and mimicking Adrian Dantley’s moves on the basketball court, I dreamt of appearing in a Notre Dame arena. So many kids dream of Notre Dame. Dear graduates, you have lived this dream.
My youthful ambition was far-fetched: to make the NBA.
These dreams were dashed early, when I was cut from my high school team. God had different plans. No NBA, no sports stardom at Notre Dame. Yet childhood fantasies never die. Today, I am here with you dear graduates. Thanks to you, I made it to the House that Rockne Built and … with your permission … I am not going to waste an opportunity to try and complete a pass…to you (throws out a football)
My personal awareness of Notre Dame was hardly just athletic. There have been many connections. I grew up as Father Hesburgh’s paesano. His home parish was Most Holy Rosary on Bellevue Avenue near my house in Syracuse. In my graduate school days in Cambridge, Father Brian Daley, SJ of your Theology Faculty —one of the most respected theologians in world—was my professor and confessor. A priest and writer who had a singular impact on my life and who began his teaching career here, Henri Nouwen, introduced me to life with persons with cognitive and developmental challenges, something that came to define the Ukrainian Catholic University.
Representing UCU in this arena I express my profound gratitude for the warmth of your hospitality—Fr. John, graduates, parents, faculty and staff of the University of Our Lady.
The vocation of the University —an institution invented by the Catholic Church— is to foster the flourishing of the whole person. It is not merely a place to download information into a cyberbrain. Universities should strive to embrace and enlighten the whole person, mind and body, soul and spirit. They are called to be not only institutions of learning but homes of wisdom, communities in which each is helped to discern one’s destiny, God’s plan for us. Notre Dame’s vocation is to be a home of whole and holy wisdom. I hope that studying here under the golden statue of Our Lady you felt embraced and blessed by God to the depth of your hearts. Healed of your wounds and filled with hope. It is an ongoing process, but I trust it has begun and will continue.
During your years of study, you were confronted with basic life questions: what to do, how to live, what to cultivate in yourselves and how to shape your character. You learned to recognize and affirm human dignity even under adverse circumstances. Hopefully, you learned how to forgive and ask for forgiveness, how to give thanks.
To be an authentic person, to live a good life is not a theoretical exercise. It takes practice. It’s not easy, it takes heart. It is about the heart that I would now like to speak to you, heart to heart.
By the grace of God at the center of our being, in what is often called our heart, we have been given the capacity to love, to make ourselves vulnerable to others, and to experience the mystery and gift of relationships. Everything important, true, and eternal is in relationship to the other, and the Other (makes a small circle with one hand and a big circle with two). We Christians confess God in three Persons in relationship. God is a communion of persons. We are persons created in God’s image and likeness. We are personal. A person needs to relate. We thrive in relationships. Alone, we are lonely, sad, and ultimately impotent. Self-centered we become isolated and idiotic. That harsh word comes from the Greek ἴδιος (ídios, “one’s own, private”) + -ώτης. An idiot is actually one who is self-absorbed, self-limiting, confined to oneself.
In a mundane sense the heart is but an organ, one anatomical feature among many. Yet its pulse conveys so much about our life, in fact our very life. It is symbolic, it is sacramental. We share it with God, God shares it with us. We use the word heart to speak of the locus of our ecstasy and anguish, anxiety and harmony, sadness and consolation. It is there that we connect with one another. That communion becomes a participation in the life of God. In God’s heart we find our true peace and our true joy.
Can I ask you at this moment to pause and feel your neighbor’s pulse? That’s right! Ask for a hand and feel the heartbeat of the person next to you. Just do it! Even if you’re not a pre-med graduate, I trust you can find the beat, the rhythm, the pulse of the person the Lord has placed in your life right here and right now, at this joyous celebration.
Be still and listen. Touch—with permission—and feel. Yes, even those of my age. The throb is still there.
Wow! The life of the other. A life to respect and enhance, celebrate and protect. Imagine: there are 8 billion pulsing hearts on this planet. Full of hope and promise, love and life.
It was the moments flowing from the heart that touched the core of your being during your years at Notre Dame. These we celebrate: your hearty work and achievements, the openhearted love of parents accompanying–and yes, paying–for your education, the heartthrobs and heart breaks, the hearty laughter, your largehearted volunteering, along with the seemingly heartless demands of professors. (High expectations are a sign of respect.) Your best moments at this university have been heart to heart. This is the call of Notre Dame. The human vocation and capacity to share in God’s heart by loving, giving, and suffering with and for others… this is what Our Lady’s University has offered to you, and through you to the world.
I can’t but mention another place representing Mary so vividly today: Mariupol or “the city of Mary.” For two months — in the headlines. Besieged by the Russian invaders, destroyed, and plundered. Driven into the catacombs of a steel plant, its defenders are symbols of unyielding courage, steely will, and yes, deep love. The members of the so-called Mariupol garrison stayed to protect the city of Mary, to protect the innocent, to fight for our —for humanity’s — dignity and freedom. Many are like you. Your age, with similar hopes and dreams. In these very hours these heroes stand on death row. Yet right there, they are pronouncing marriage vows to each other, as did Valeria and Andriy Karpylenko, on May 5, ten days ago, three days before he was killed. You can imagine how their hearts raced. But they do not surrender. They exchanged marriage bands made of tin foil. As a killer army closes in, God helps the defenders overcome fear. They speak clearly, with composure to the world. Their wives take their case to the powerful of the world, to Pope Francis, as did Kateryna Prokopenko and Yulya Fedosiuk this past Wednesday. Their hearts pound with a passion for the virtues: justice, beauty, and truth. Since fearlessness is the onset of eternity, this is their commencement.
Why are we so mesmerized by Kyiv and Chernihiv, Irpin and Kharkiv, Volnovaha and Kherson? Why have we learned difficult names of faraway places? Why did a courageous and colorful expletive make the tiny stone and grass covered Snake Island world renown? Why have Americans and people of good will internationally contributed so generously to help? Why has your university committed itself in a special way to the Ukrainian Catholic University at this time of war? Why am I here?
Why? Because you and I see the heart of a people and a country, the humanity and strength of its leaders who reflect the posture and character of the whole nation. Zelensky has become a household word, an icon of an intrepid nation, which actually made him who he is. A nation of down to earth heroes, plucky patriots, hardcore lovers. Those that look into eternity overcoming their fears. Countless Ukrainians demonstrate the greatest love for “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn, 15:13). Despite the devastation and war crimes, marauding and torture, mendacious lies and craven cruelty, we see their life. They have heart and we want to share our hearts with them.
Ukrainians have made the Bible come alive for the world — David withstands Goliath, the way of the cross has stations in Bucha and Borodianka, Mariupol and Sumy, Jesus suffers with his people. We had a Lent and Holy Week like no other. We pray that the Cross will again lead to the Resurrection, to the victory of life over death.
From the viscera and netherworld of Azovstal, those warriors, including students, recent graduates, and university professors, teach us the most important lesson — how to live fully, remain human, children of God, even in impossible circumstances. How to give of ourselves, how to sacrifice. At a time of great relativism, they teach us an eternal lesson. Some things are simply right and just, and some are manifestly wrong, downright evil. There are things worth living for, there are those worth dying for.
Notre Dame has offered a singular response to the Russian invasion and devastation of Ukraine. My presence reflects your heartfelt solidarity. It is a sign of your capacity to love generously, to embrace, serve, and save the suffering, to bless the cursed and lift up the downtrodden and trampled. A friendship launched by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and Jim McAdams 18 years ago is being continued by the present director of the Nanovic Institute Clemens Sedmak and his wonderful team. On Friday, Father Jenkins announced a comprehensive program supporting UCU’s students and scholars with opportunities for study and research internships to help UCU prepare for its post-war mission in Ukraine.
May the Lord reward you hundredfold!
The calling of the community of Our Lady’s university is indeed a high one. In fact, the founders understood it to be divine. To uphold the duty and honor of a Notre Dame diploma means to feel the pulse of the people on all continents, of immigrants at our southern border and refugees throughout the world, of those in our towns and cities who do not have equal opportunities, to feel the pulse of the unborn, the disabled, the sick and the aged. To feel their pulse and follow its call.
You have heard your neighbor’s heartbeat. Now check your own. You know where it is. Let this be your everyday practice. I have in mind the ancient γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Really know yourself for who you are and who you are meant to be. Because you do have a destiny.
You have been prepared for life by this university. To live it well; to rejoice whole heartedly; to give life’s challenges your full self; to relate and speak heart to heart; to live without fear with a vision of eternity.
Congratulations Class of 2022! Your parents, grandparents, family and friends, your teachers and mentors at Notre Dame hearten you to become confident, mature, creative persons who have the gifts to fight for the good. They have loved you into being who you are. Now, be stouthearted, go and love the world in return, person by person, heart to heart!