On Gratitude, Liberal Education, and Conscience

Address to the Villanova Class of 2012

By Michael F. McLean

 

Thomas Aquinas College President Michael F. McLean served as the Commencement Speaker at Villanova Preparatory School in the neighboring town of Ojai, Calif., on May 26, 2012. Below is the text of his address.


Rev. Sanders, Fr. Heidenblut, distinguished guests, administrators, faculty, staff, parents, families, friends, and especially the graduates of the Class of 2012:

Thank you for the invitation to share in this commencement and to address you today. Commencement is a time to look back and a time to look forward; a time to rejoice in what you have accomplished, and a time to chart a course for the journey ahead; a time for a speaker to offer what will hopefully be sound advice and “pearls of wisdom” to the graduating class.

Looking back, you know better than I that your education at Villanova has been informed by three great goods which take their inspiration from the life and teachings of St. Augustine himself: unitas, veritas, and caritas — community, truth, and love.

As diverse as the class of 2012 is, with its members of a dozen ethnicities hailing from six different countries, in accordance with Villanova’s mission statement, you have striven for unity in service of the common good. A common good — unlike a private good, like an apple or a banana — is a good that many can share in without diminishing the good in question. You have been given the opportunity to work together in the pursuit of knowledge, perhaps the greatest of all common goods, and in activities like student government, Christian service, athletics, dramatic productions, and talent shows which have not only enriched you but your fellow students and the broader community as well.

Also in accord with Villanova’s mission statement, you have been given the opportunity to pursue the truth, armed with the great wings of faith and reason. Inspired by St. Augustine, you have been taught that Jesus Christ is the Truth and that God is the source of all truth. You know that, in Augustine’s words, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

Finally, and again in accord with Villanova’s mission statement, you have, I hope, internalized the great commandment of Christ to love God and to love your neighbor and, I also hope, availed yourselves of every opportunity to express this love in school, in your families, and in your communities.

Gratitude

Looking back, you and your families and friends should be proud of what you have accomplished. You have been part of a great and worthy endeavor, whether or not you have been admitted to a highly ranked college or university or whether or not you have excelled on the athletic field. A certain amount of proper pride, not the pride which is the source of all evil, is natural and justifiable. More than pride, however, my first piece of advice is that you cultivate a sense of gratitude for what you have received.

As you well know, the Augustinian tradition of education was in place here long before you arrived and will be in place here long after you leave. The beautiful setting and the lovely facilities have been gifts to you, as have the generous donations from many benefactors over Villanova’s long and distinguished history. Last, but certainly not least, you have been the beneficiaries of the efforts of the religious, faculty, and staff here, as well as those of your families and loved ones, who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much on your behalf.

The 1st century Roman philosopher Seneca said that “Among all our many and great vices, none is as common as ingratitude … and the most ungrateful of all is the man who has forgotten a benefit.” We must take pains to avoid this most common of vices.

In his reflection on the words of 1 Thessalonians, “in all things give thanks,” St. Thomas Aquinas notes that our greatest thanks are due to God, for He is the first principle of all our goods; secondly, thanks are due to our parents, for they are the proximate principles of our begetting and upbringing; thirdly, to our country, from which general favors proceed; and, finally, to our benefactors, from whom we have received particular and private favors.

The degree of thankfulness in the recipient should correspond to the degree of favor in the giver — when there is greater favor on the part of the giver, greater thanks are due on the part of the recipient. In judging the magnitude of a favor two things are to be considered, namely, the affection of the heart and the gift itself.

St. Thomas quotes Seneca, whom I just mentioned, who says “We are sometimes under a greater obligation to one who has given little with a large heart, and has bestowed a small favor, yet willingly.”

Scripture bears this out: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

In your years here, you have surely received more than the widow’s mite from God, your parents, your country, and your benefactors. Looking back at these gifts you have received, I urge you to extend abundant thanks. Looking ahead at the gifts you will receive, I urge you to do so as well to those from whom you will receive much in the years ahead. Humility and gratitude are two virtues which will benefit you in every situation.

Liberal Arts

Looking ahead, too, especially those of you going on to college, my second piece of advice is that you find every opportunity to pursue courses or studies that will improve you as human beings and contribute to your happiness and well-being. Hopefully your Augustinian education has whetted your appetites for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Having been involved in Catholic liberal arts education for over 30 years as both a teacher and administrator, I can say without hesitation that carefully chosen college-level courses in theology, philosophy, logic, literature, composition, and history will benefit you immensely, bring you closer to God, and help you lead richer and more reflective lives.

Many of you are undecided about a specific major or career path — but this is not unusual or unexpected. Why would one think that an 18-year-old should have a clear and definite sense of the course his or her life will take? I assure you that employers are grateful for applicants who possess the strong analytical and communication skills that are the hallmark of the liberal arts.

Far from being a “waste of time,” liberal education (or liberal arts education) will better prepare you for citizenship and for a broad range of possible career paths. Employers can often provide the specific training their employees will need, and can do so especially well with those who have the requisite verbal and conceptual skills a liberal arts education can provide.

These skills are not only important in the job market. They are vitally important as well as we navigate our social-media and instant-communication world, where we are challenged daily to separate the precious few grains of wheat from the tons of chaff, distinguish the true from the false and the beautiful from the ugly. The world of the Internet can easily do us harm; it takes vigilance, effort, and solid intellectual and critical thinking skills to derive what benefits that world has to offer.

Conscience

Now for my third and final piece of advice. We all have role models whom we emulate consciously or unconsciously. I urge you to take as your role models not athletes, actors, or rock stars, but rather men and women of conscience.

Great saints in the Catholic Church — like St. Thomas Becket and St. Thomas More — have been men of conscience; in their case, men who gave their lives rather than violate their consciences. Great figures from American history have been men of conscience — consider Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Of course, there have been great women of conscience — consider Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Rosa Parks, and Clara Barton. Our young men and women who have served with great patriotism in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whom — those who have paid the ultimate price — we honor this Memorial Day, are people of conscience. Literary figures from your own curriculum can be models of fidelity to conscience — consider Atticus and Scout Finch, Moshe the Beadle, and Shakespeare’s Cordelia.

In an address delivered at the Tenth Bishops’ Workshop of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in 1991, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said, “In the contemporary discussion on what constitutes the essence of morality and how it can be recognized, the question of conscience has become paramount, especially in the field of Catholic moral theology. This discussion centers on the concepts of freedom and norm, [or, in other words] on the apparent conflict between self-determination and external determination by authority.… Morality of conscience and morality of authority, as two opposing models, appear to be locked in struggle with each other…”

The question of conscience has long occupied a central place in Catholic moral theology. In his Disputed Questions on Truth, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “a correct conscience binds absolutely and intrinsically … whoever believes that something is a command [of conscience] and decides to violate it wills to break the law of God and, therefore, sins.” Conscience, according to St. Thomas, is the act of judging whether some action should or should not be done or, after it has been of done, of judging whether it was right to do or not. The judgment of conscience is made by considering the action in light of the principles of the Natural Law placed in our souls by God Himself and known to us all in our heart of hearts. The truth is that conscience and authority work hand in hand.

The Catholic Church has always taught that the judgments of a rightly formed conscience must be respected. Conscience is the voice of God and the echo of God’s law within us. Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman put it well when he wrote that “conscience is a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator.”

The Catholic tradition insists that the judgments of conscience are to be respected, nurtured, and preserved. Newman warned that the image of God found in conscience could “fade away and die out [in] men who transgress their sense of duty and [as a consequence] gradually lose their sense of shame and fear.” The image of God, he continued, “if duly cherished may expand, deepen, and be completed …by means of education, social intercourse, experience, and literature.” Cardinal Newman believed that the mind must be carefully formed on the basis of “natural” conscience, not just any conscience, and to a mind so formed “the world, both of nature and of man, will give back a reflection of … the One Living God.”

Many ethical challenges, as well as opportunities for heroic and virtuous action, lie ahead of you. I encourage you, like St. Thomas Becket and the others, to continue to cultivate and carefully form your consciences. Act conscientiously in everything you do. Prepare yourselves to serve others, trusting in the words of the first Letter of St. John: “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God and [will] receive from Him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases Him. And his commandment is this: We should believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another.”

Heed the Call

Three pieces of advice being enough for one speech, I will now summarize and conclude. I have asked you to concentrate on the importance of gratitude, the value of the liberal arts, and fidelity to conscience. These three are not unrelated. Acknowledging that the good things we have come from others — family, friends, or God Himself — is an important part of the spiritual life, whether Christian or non-Christian. Improving yourself through education strengthens your natural faculties and gifts, makes you a better person, and can deepen your knowledge and love of God. Forming your conscience in accord with the moral law, and acting in accord with it, will keep alive the image of God within you and ensure that your actions contribute to the betterment of our society.

To those of you in the audience who are Catholic or Christian, I offer the words of Bl. John Paul II who said, “Heralds of the Gospel are needed, who are experts in humanity, who know the depths of the heart of man in today’s world, who share his joys and hopes, his concern and his sadness, and who at the same time are contemplatives, people in love with God. For this, new saints are needed. We must beg God to increase the spirit of sanctity in the Church and to send us saints to evangelize today’s world.” To those of you in the audience who are not Catholic or Christian, I simply say that you are called to lives of virtue.

To all of you, I say that your education at Villanova has helped to make you ready to heed the call. As you go forth today, be thankful for the education you have received and cultivate the virtue of gratitude to God, to your parents, and to your benefactors. Consider thoughtfully your future education and make wise choices of schools, teachers, and courses of study. Finally, take as your heroes and mentors men and women of conscience, exemplars of virtuous action and moral integrity.

All of this being said, I offer what I guess is a fourth piece of advice: armed as you are with a solid Augustinian education, I urge you to leave here with confidence and courage, trusting in the words of the Gospel and of John Paul II once again to “be not afraid.”

Thank you.

 

Posted: May 30, 2012

Villanova Commencement 2012

Photo: Chuck Kirman, Ventura County Star

Pete Colarelli

“Thomas Aquinas College’s best asset is its ability to make faith part of everything. It permeates the social life and the academic life.”

– Pete Colarelli (’92)

First Ward Alderman, Lockport, Ill.

“I admire this college and your faithfulness to the Church’s mission for higher education and the New Evangelization.”

– The Most Rev. José H. Gomez

Archbishop of Los Angeles

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