Friday, May 23, 2008

Cardinal, Doctor, Rockstar

As celebrations ramp up in advance of his golden jubilee of priesthood next weekend, Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick stole the show at Sunday's 163rd Commencement of Notre Dame in South Bend.

Lest anyone be curious why The Ted took up the shades before meditating on the figure of Fr Basil Moreau -- the recently-beatified founder of the Congregation Holy Cross -- video and fulltext of his speech to the almost 2,000 graduates are both up.

For most people in our country, I would guess that Notre Dame is a combination of a number of great and wonderful things. It is an outstanding house of studies, a true educational powerhouse, a center of scientific and sociological research, a welcome harbor for reflection and spiritual values, a place where learning and athletic excellence tend to go hand in hand, an ever-developing think tank for the nation and for the world. Notre Dame, indeed, is all those things, but as a Catholic university it is more. My own Archbishop, Donald Wuerl, who has been a great grace to the Church in our country as a major Catholic educator and leader, spoke to a national educational association a few months ago in these words: “A Catholic university has the unique capacity to deal with and emphasize the spiritual dimension of human life. Revelation, religious conviction and faith enable the student and professor to carry our understanding of human existence beyond the natural and physically viable into the spiritual dimension needed for full and complete human life.”

Our own Professor Scott Appleby – you note that I say “our own” because I already feel that I am close to graduating – mentions that diversity is one of the great strengths of Catholic higher education. He speaks of different types of Catholic institutions, one of which might “urge retreat into a Catholic enclave walled with great books, others which would stress the centrality of a vibrant campus ministry and liturgical life. Still others, which would prioritize social outreach and justice and peace activism or awareness as the guarantor of Catholic identity.” But as we look at Notre Dame, it can claim all three of those models to mirror and so to represent what is best in Catholic higher education.

In a sense, Notre Dame faces an enormous challenge. It is not an ordinary university. It is not an ordinary Catholic university. Oftentimes, the fact of your singular prominence and your scholastic excellence in fields of study both classic and prophetic implies a greater responsibility. The world of academe has always understood that to those to whom more has been given, more may be required. In the world of Catholic universities, a leader must strive to be first not only in scholarship and in vision, but first in example and in the courageous witness to the truths which it holds and teaches.

That is true, I believe, not only of those who profess our faith or who are guided by our rule of life, but in a real sense true of all who sign on as crew or passengers on this exciting voyage on the high seas of university education.

Pope Benedict, just a month ago on his historic journey to our country, summed it up with eloquence and clarity: “First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the Living God Who, in Jesus Christ, reveals His transforming love and truth . . . in this way, those who meet Him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good and true.” Notre Dame fits that description, and perhaps nowhere more than in the great spiritual and pastoral life it offers to its students.

And so, today is for me – your new and rather ancient classmate – a very great honor to sign on with you as you come to the glorious conclusion of this adventure, sailing these waves of higher education through calm seas and sometimes turbulent ones. I pray that this sail has been a happy one for you. It has, of course, not been without the challenges that taught you how to grow in your ability to stand fast as you learned to navigate the weaving decks of changing times and shifting currents, to gain a balance of your strengths and opportunities, and to seek the signs that are necessary to understand as you join the multitudes of other travelers along the paths that hopefully lead to the fulfillment of your dreams.
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The cardinal might've given its main speech and received an honorary doctorate of Laws, but the day's top honoree was Martin Sheen, who accepted American Catholicism's most celebrated award, the university's Laetare Medal (fulltext/video):
For the past few months, I have had a nagging fear that the reality of this moment, in this historic place, would be such that anything I might try to add to it would be anticlimactic. And so I resolve that come what may, I would accept this cup as offered, not altered. But to my great relief, and to your eternal credit, from the moment I arrived here on campus, I have been taken up in the warm embrace of the Notre Dame family, and I am deeply grateful. For more than half a century, this institution has been my ideal. And for seven years, one of the most satisfying aspects of being on The West Wing, was portraying an American president who was a graduate of Notre Dame. I thought Josiah Bartlett was as close as I was ever likely to come to a personal relationship with the Fighting Irish, until now. So thanks to your dangerously generous gift. I’m afraid we’re stuck with each other, and I couldn’t be happier.

I was working in Canada, where they’re not as familiar with this honor, and it was announced, and I overheard a discussion between two gentlemen on the crew. One said, “What’s this thing Sheen’s getting from Notre Dame?” The other responded, “Oh, I guess it’s some thing they give you in the States if you live long enough and stay Catholic.” Indeed, the truth is mighty. Although, I did not hesitate to accept this honor, I was not unaware of the glory of its promise, or the demands of its purpose. Nor was I unmindful of the historic and heroic ranks of previous recipients and their extraordinary contributions; on the contrary. Yet more than anything else, what quickened my response to accept it was the fact that, without exception, each and every single recipient evoked a common humanity and common goal inspired by an iconic young rabbi, who assured us all more than 2,000 years ago that to know the truth would set us free. So therefore this annual gathering is a celebration of freedom in the truest sense of the word, and I am grateful for the invitation to attend this year’s party.

I have been an actor all my life. In fact, I have no conscious memory of ever not being an actor. I couldn’t identify it as such when I was a child, until I started going to the movies around the age 5 or 6, and then it gradually became to dawn on me that, “Oh, I was one of those people up on the screen.” And it was an extremely comforting revelation because I knew even then, that I would never be happy unless I pursued that wondrous mystery that possessed me and it gave me a possession of myself. So in a sense, my chosen profession was a foregone conclusion, and taking it all and all, I have not the slightest regret.

But while acting is what I do for a living, activism is what I do to stay alive. And I’m often asked how I came to unite the two, and the answer is simple, I haven’t a clue. But it was less a conscious effort than it was a natural progression. I learned early on that you serve yourself best when you serve others first. Of course, if you grow up in a large, poor, immigrant family, chances are you’re either Irish-Catholic or Hispanic. I was lucky enough to be both, so I had a huge advantage when it came to social justice activism.

Indeed the truth is mighty and it shall prevail.

“Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of repression and injustice.”

Those words were spoken at the University of Capetown in South Africa in 1966 by Robert Francis Kennedy. They are enshrined on his memorial at Arlington National Cemetery as well, and they have been a powerful source of inspiration for my generation ever since.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all responsible for each other and the world, which is exactly the way it is, because consciously or unconsciously, we have made it so. And while none of us made any of the rules that govern the universe or the human heart, we are all beneficiaries of a divine promise, that the world is still a safe place despite our fears and we in it, are not asked to do great things; we are asked to do all things with great love.

Surely, a lofty ideal as rare in a culture of so many compromised values and so much cynicism, a culture that all too often knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Yet, there remains a very real and mysterious yearning, deep within each and every human heart that compels us to journey outside of ourselves by descending deeper within. Yet this inadvertent root must be built to the specifications of the individual heart, and the cost is high. If it were not so, we would be left to question its value. For some of us in this journey it may be a natural progression, for some it may be a sudden shift, for some it may be the result of a near-death experience, or a dead-end realization. For some, it may be less a journey than a pilgrimage.

It does not matter how we define it or when it begins, but it is absolutely essential that it continue, because it is only here we can come to know ourselves, in deeply revealing ways that confirm our worth and define our purpose. It is here where we are forced to acknowledge our powerlessness, and where we begin to realize how truly powerful we are. It is here where the ego befriends the truth, and we are free to visualize the very first small, conscious acts of heroism, that bring rejection from the crowd and satisfaction from the heart. And it is here into this world, this demented end, where there is absolutely no room for Him at all, that Christ comes uninvited to lift us up, and set us on the path that will unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh.
Having spent six seasons playing the first Domer to reach the Oval Office, Sheen was also given a replica of the Notre Dame jacket Jed Bartlet wore on the final episode of The West Wing.

PHOTO: University of Notre Dame(1); AP/Joe Raymond(2)