Remarks as given by His Eminence Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan at Wake Forest Baccalaureate
May 20, 2018
You all have given me a very high honor in asking me to deliver this Baccalaureate address at this very prestigious university. Thank you, Dr. Hatch. Thank you, administration, faculty, board and alumni. Thank you especially to the Class of 2018 – soon to be fellow alumni as I look forward to receiving an honorary doctorate. Especially appreciated by one who has just paid off tuition from my earned degree of 33 years ago, all right?
What a crowd. My Lord, look. Did you see that up there, Class of 2018? This is like Yankee Stadium. Look at this. And we’ve got a winning team here. Dr. Hatch tells me that about 25 percent of the student population here at Wake Forest identifies as Catholic. So I’m especially proud to be here. And that obviously means there will be a second collection at the (afternoon) ceremony, right?
Did you happen to notice in my opening remarks there that I said the word “thank” four times? If not here, where? Look, when you think about it, the very word Baccalaureate has in its etymology the Latin word which means triumph. Rightly so, as your graduation certainly is, dear Class of 2018, a combination of triumph and praise. As you probably know, in the vocabulary of Jews and Christians, praise and thanks are synonymous. That we would gather here in this venerable chapel on a campus of a celebrated institution of higher learning founded by those with very deep Christian roots and at a beautiful service including readings from the Holy Bible, hymns, prayers and benediction, that all makes this sentiment of gratitude particularly fitting.
The legendary Italian Poet Dante claims that the human heart is in conflict between two forces: gratitude and self-absorption. Gratitude and self-absorption. The heart’s side of light, Dante says, which is gratitude, prompts service and joy and love and giving and sacrifice. The cardiac side of darkness – that’s self-absorption – gives rise to such things as hoarding and narcissism and selfishness. This Baccalaureate and this Commencement weekend, everybody, is thanks on steroids.
One of the more towering intellects of western civilization, St. Augustine, wonders if a lack of gratitude might be the cause of most of our malice and woe. One incapable of praise, St. Augustine writes, is sentenced to a life as a monad. A monad: one so wrapped up in self that one goes through life lashing out, loveless, using others, not savoring and respecting them. Well, a classical goal, everybody, of what we call a liberal arts education, for which Wake Forest is renowned, is that we are liberated from such a life sentence of self-absorption.
One of the best graduation talks I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard a lot of them – came from a Catholic nun, a seasoned high school teacher who remarked to her graduates, the senior class, “Look. Here in your science classes, you’ve learned that the historical Age of Enlightenment or modernity began when we discovered that the Earth is not the center of the universe.” And she looked out at them and she said, “A genuine education teaches us that neither am I. Neither am I the center of the universe.”
Gratitude, everybody, is precisely that virtue that draws us out of ourselves towards what? Well, towards God. Maybe yours is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. Perhaps your God is the God revealed to Muhammad – as we’re here in Ramadan – or through the ancient Eastern religions. Could be your divinity is somewhat fluid or impersonal, a concept still a bit evasive or still being discovered.
All I know, folks, is that on a morning like this, it hardly takes a saint, a mystic or a theologian to sense that we graduates have been the recipients of lavish gifts – mostly unmerited – and that we have not gotten here by ourselves. To quote Shakespeare, “Within this wall of flesh, there is a soul counts thee her creditor.” So how natural to say, “Thanks be to God.”
Gratitude, everybody, to alma mater. Wake Forest is the result of women and men of faith who believed that reason was the Creator’s most prized natural gift to his creatures and who were convinced that rigorous learning was, as the Bible tell us, the path to happiness in this life and salvation in the next. Generations of leaders, faculty, students and benefactors have sustained this legacy. No wonder we proclaim, “Thanks, Wake Forest.”
Gratitude to one another. Look, the day after tomorrow, Class of 2018, we may never cast eyes on many of our classmates again. But they will be an indelible mark on our interior self. We leave here not only with courses completed and a degree clutched but with friends made, grateful that our coming to know them is an irreplaceable part of our college education.
And finally, everybody, gratitude to our folks. I don’t know about you, Dr. Hatch, but I relish Commencement ceremonies like this. For one, I’m not the only one on campus in a medieval costume, OK? But Dr. Hatch, if you’re like me, you relish Commencement weekends like this one because we get box seats from which we can view the exuberant graduates smiling away. Yet we can also watch their parents with eyes moist and throats lumped. For some of you, dear folks, a college education was but an unrealized dream for yourselves but a promise that you whispered to yourself for your kids. And for all of you, the sacrifices and support you gave your children to make this weekend come about is proof that your hearts are dominated by Dante’s side of light and love, not darkness and self-absorption. Folks and families, thank you and congratulations to you.
Let me close. One of America’s most perceptive observers today, David Brooks, worries that the virus of what he calls entitlement might be at epidemic levels: “I got things coming to me. I have a right to this. Get out of my way or get run over. Ask not what you can do for others but only what they can do for you.” Entitlement. We see it, he says, in such things around the world as a me-first nationalism, corporate greed, sheltered shores, spoiled children. And the only antibiotic he proposes is – guess what? – gratitude. The road described in sacred scripture as from me to thee, from mine to thine, from get to give, from please to thanks. A road that has led you, Class of 2018, thus far. But not just on your own. With God, with this university, with your friends and your family. “Thou hast given me so much,” the Anglican George Herbert writes in poetry. “Give me one thing more: a grateful heart.”