President McLean, Dr. Kelly, and members of the faculty; Mr. Wensley and members of the Board of Governors; Fr. Buckley and Frs. Raftery and Willingham; honored graduates and your families and friends; and benefactors and friends of Thomas Aquinas College:
In addressing you on the joyous occasion of Commencement, I, first of all, express the deepest affection and esteem for the late Dr. Thomas Dillon, the third president of Thomas Aquinas College. Over the many years of my happy association with the College, I was blessed to know Dr. Dillon and to become his friend. It pleases me very much to return to the College once again, after my last visit in 2001, in order to express to all of you my heartfelt sympathy at his death and the assurance of my prayers for his eternal rest.
When I first visited Thomas Aquinas College in September, 2001, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the College, Dr. Dillon, like a proud father, gave me a thorough visit to the campus. He spoke, at length, of his hopes for the Chapel, which rightly he understood to be the heart of the College. In my last visit with him, in September, 2008, in Rome, when he came to have the cornerstone of the Chapel blessed by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, he was so pleased to describe for me in detail the beauty of the design and construction of the Chapel, which, at that point, was nearly complete. I thank God that he was able to be present for the solemn dedication of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity before Our Lord called him to his final and lasting home.
In September of 2008, on the occasion of the blessing of the cornerstone of the Chapel by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, Dr. Dillon invited me to be present for the Solemn Dedication of the Chapel and for today's Commencement. While, with great regret, I could not accept the first invitation, I was pleased to accept the second. I was, in fact, awaiting a visit from Dr. Dillon in April of last year, when, with great sadness, I learned of his death in Ireland.
All of us have so much for which to be grateful to Dr. Dillon, but, most of all, we must be grateful for the faith, hope and charity with which he dedicated himself to providing for Thomas Aquinas College a chapel which points, in such a faithful and powerful way, to the immeasurable beauty of God and of His dwelling with us in the Church. May Dr. Thomas Dillon rest in peace in the new and heavenly Jerusalem to which the Chapel of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity unfailingly draws our minds and hearts.
Friendship with St. Thomas Aquinas
With a deep sense of unworthiness and, at the same time, with sincerest gratitude, I accept the St. Thomas Aquinas Medallion. Because of the profound esteem which I have for the mission of Thomas Aquinas College, carried out in complete fidelity to the teaching and discipline of the Church in what pertains to Catholic higher education, I am especially honored.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, has been for me, from my childhood, a most treasured spiritual friend and model. Now, so many years since I first came to know St. Thomas Aquinas, I recognize how poorly I have honored our friendship and how much more I need to imitate his example. Receiving the College's medallion which bears his name, I thank God for giving me St. Thomas Aquinas as a spiritual companion, and I rededicate myself to imitate his virtues, most especially his humble and tireless pursuit of the truth revealed to us by God, the truth of His own being and of His plan for our world and, in particular, for man whom He has created in His own image and likeness, that is, for communion with Him, both in this life and, fully and perfectly, in the life which is to come. To the Board of Governors of Thomas Aquinas College, I express my heartfelt gratitude for the great honor which you have bestowed upon me.
Aristotle and St. Thomas More
My beloved graduates of Thomas Aquinas College, you have chosen for your emblem and inspiration a text from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which refers to "the best things in us," the element which has to do with our immortality, the element which reason taught to Aristotle and teaches to us, and which we also know, from Divine Revelation, as the immortal soul through which the Holy Spirit dwells within us. The wisdom of the Philosopher counsels us not to listen to voices which speak only of "human things," but to listen to the voice whose power and worth "surpass everything," the voice of God who draws us to the goodness of His immeasurable and unceasing love, by which we were created and by which we have been redeemed for eternal life. St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on the same text of Aristotle, reminds us that the perfection of truth and goodness, which is in God, is really in man "but imperfectly and by participation, as it were."
It is the conscience, the voice of God, speaking to our souls, which is, in the words of the Venerable John Henry Newman, "the aboriginal Vicar of Christ." As such, the conscience is ever attuned to Christ Himself who instructs and forms it through His Vicar, the Roman Pontiff, and the bishops in communion with him. The Venerable Cardinal Newman observed that conscience "is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives." In accord with the wisdom of Aristotle, our thoughts and actions should not be conformed to the voices of men who speak about human and passing things, no matter how persuasive or powerful they may be, but to the voice of God speaking to us, through our conscience, about the realities which pertain to our relationship with Him and are enduring.
You have chosen as the patron saint of your class St. Thomas More, who steadfastly, in the face of imprisonment and execution, listened to the voice of God, rather than the voices of men who would have had him act according to a human way of thinking, alienated from the wisdom of God. At his trial on July 1, 1535, St. Thomas More held firmly to the living Tradition of the Church, which forbade him, in conscience, to acknowledge King Henry VIII with the title of Supreme Head of the Church. When, during his trial, the chancellor rebuked him, citing the acceptance of the title by so many bishops and nobles of the land, Thomas More replied: "My lord, for one bishop of your opinion I have a hundred saints of mine; and for one parliament of yours, and God knows of what kind, I have all the General Councils for 1,000 years …." When the Duke of Norfolk accused him of malice in his response, Thomas More responded: "What I say is necessary for discharge of my conscience and satisfaction of my soul, and to this I call God to witness, the sole Searcher of human hearts." Rightly, Thomas More declared on the scaffold before his execution: "I die the king's good servant, and God's first." The saint served his king well by obeying God Who revealed His truth to him through Thomas More's conscience, instructed and formed by the example of the saints of the Church and by her Magisterium.
To honor you, beloved graduates, I offer a reflection which comes from the heart of one called to be a pastor of souls. Out of love for your immortal souls, I offer a reflection which, I trust, will help you to continue to cultivate, throughout your lifetime, the divine wisdom and truth which you have been pursuing through your studies over the past years, for the steadfast cultivation of divine wisdom and truth is the way of happiness during the pilgrimage of our life on earth and prepares us for the final destiny of our life pilgrimage, the fullness of happiness, in the passage from this life to the life which is to come. Your emblem and your patron indicate that you place first in your lives the truth and love into which God leads you through your conscience. My reflection is offered to assist you in seeking always first the truth and love by which you will serve others and our world well by serving God first.
Humility as the Foundational Virtue
In considering the state of contemporary culture, especially in our nation, which we are called to transform into a culture after the mind and heart of Christ, I have asked myself as a pastor of souls what counsel could I best give to you, in accord with the wisdom of the Philosopher and the example of St. Thomas More. The counsel which I offer is the practice of humility, the cultivation of that disposition of mind and heart by which we acknowledge God as the source of all that we are and have, and turn to Him, in order that we may be and act in obedience to His law written on our hearts, in obedience to His voice, our conscience instructed and formed in us by Him in the Church.
Referring to St. Augustine's description of humility as the foundational virtue of a truly spiritual life, St. Thomas Aquinas commented:
And thus humility has the first place: inasmuch, that is, as it expels pride which God resists and shows man subject and always open to receive the outpouring of divine grace, to the degree that it eliminates the swelling of pride, as it is said in the Letter to James, that God resists the proud, he however gives grace to the humble.
St. Thomas concludes: "And according to this, humility is said to be the foundation of the spiritual building."
Humility is the foundational virtue which Our Lord Himself proposed to us in teaching us the way to happiness in this life and to perfect happiness in the life to come. In the Sermon on the Mount, the first way to happiness, which Our Lord proposes to us, is "poverty of spirit." He who is poor in spirit, whether he be materially poor or rich, acknowledges, in the depth of his being that he is poor in himself, that is, that he depends completely upon God and, therefore, turns to God in prayer, in order to know what is right and good, and to have the courage to do it. The "greatest in the kingdom of heaven" is, in the words of Our Lord Himself, the person who "humbles himself" like a "child," in the sense of not thinking that who he is and what he does is of his own making but, rather, that it is a gift from God to be treasured in its integrity. Humility and prayer are inseparably related.
Here it is instructive to recall the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, through which Our Lord teaches us the true nature of prayer. The Pharisee, while he thought to pray, was, in fact, talking to himself, full of pride in the good works which he was doing. The Publican, on the other hand, recognizing himself to be a sinner before God, truly prayed: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Our Lord concludes the parable by teaching us that our justice comes not from ourselves but from God Who produces in us every good deed: "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Fr. Servais Pinckaers describes the poverty of spirit, to which Our Lord refers in the Sermon on the Mount, in these words:
However varying the forms poverty may take, they all interconnect and lead us into that fundamental emptiness which lies at the depth of our being: the consciousness of our condition as creatures. We did not make ourselves. All that we have and are comes from another, and will be taken from us some day, whether we wish it or not. We cannot stop the flow of time even for one instant; we can hold on to nothing as our own. This is the primordial poverty, the central void. All other forms of poverty are but its extensions.
In the face of the reality of our poverty before God, we either accept our poverty and turn to God as the only source of our richness, as did the Publican, or we create an illusory world in which we pretend that we are capable of all and, in fact, do not need God, as did the Pharisee.
Before the situation of our culture, in which man lives, in the words of the Venerable Pope John Paul II, "as if God did not exist," there is a great temptation to think that we, with the knowledge which we have acquired, can transform it. If we give way to the temptation, then we, rather than Christ, become the protagonist in the battle over sin and its most deadly fruit, eternal death. Christ, by His Holy Cross, is alone our salvation. We will not save the world; Christ alone saves our world. We share in His saving work to the extent that we are subject to Him, taking up with Him the Cross. Regarding poverty of spirit, Fr. Pinckaers concludes:
It is in the deepest part of our being that the first beatitude touches us and challenges us with a wholly personal question. Can we truly accept to be poor, to acknowledge our basic poverty in all honesty? Do we dare to believe that this very poverty can open up to us, contrary to all our expectations, a road to happiness and the Kingdom of heaven?
Has not humility been the primary virtue in which you have been schooled through a Catholic university education? Have you not been schooled at Thomas Aquinas College, in accord with its distinctive character as a Catholic institution, to engage in the "free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God"? Have you not been disciplined here to carry out the noble mission of higher studies by following Christ, the fullness of the Revelation of God, Who, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, guides us "into all the truth"? Have you not learned here, first and foremost, that Christ alone has won for us the freedom to conduct study and research which are "impartial," that is, "neither subordinated to nor conditioned by particular interests of any kind"?
Have you not discovered through your studies that Christ alone purifies our minds and hearts of the sin which blinds us to the truth about God, ourselves and the world? Have you not found that it is Christ alone who gives us the strength and the courage to seek, with an undivided mind and heart, "all the truth"?
If the wisdom which you have acquired through your studies at Thomas Aquinas College is to remain untainted by the sin of pride and to develop to meet the most formidable challenges which surely lie before you, beloved graduates, as they lie before us all, then you must continue to practice the virtue of humility by which you have attained any measure of wisdom. Christ is alive in His Church for the salvation of the world, for the transformation of our culture, and it is our vocation to let Christ alone act through us, by mortifying our self-importance and self-interest. We, who are called to be the "ambassadors of Christ" to the world, to bring Christ into every aspect of human thought and activity, must follow the example of St. John the Baptist who, when he could easily have been taken by the moral authority which was his, declared of himself in relationship to Christ: "He must increase, but I must decrease."
If we are to continue to grow in the science of divine love, then we must follow the Little Way of the Gospel, taught to us by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Science of Divine Love. Her Little Way begins with humility, with a childlike recognition of our complete dependence upon God for every breath we draw and for every good we desire to achieve. Humility inspires in us true confidence, confidence which rests not upon ourselves but upon God and the action of His grace within us. Humility before God and confidence in His never failing love lead then to the abandonment of ourselves to Divine Providence. When we practice humility, we turn to Christ daily anew, seeking to follow Him, and trusting that He will bring to fruition our feeble efforts to be His co-workers in the world.
In her "Act of Oblation to Merciful Love," St. Thérèse expressed, in a striking way, the humility, the confidence and the abandonment to Divine Providence, which animated her life and manifested in her life the true science of divine love. She wrote:
I thank You, O God! For all the graces You have granted me, especially the grace of making me pass through the crucible of suffering. It is with joy I shall contemplate You on the Last Day carrying the scepter of Your Cross. Since You deigned to give me a share in this very precious Cross, I hope in heaven to resemble You and to see shining in my glorified body the sacred stigmata of Your Passion.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux teaches us the Gospel way of the communion of our heart with the glorious pierced Heart of Jesus. True humility disposes us to give our hearts totally to Christ, to place our hearts completely into His Sacred Heart, in which they are purified of sin and inflamed with His pure and selfless love. St. Thérèse concluded her "Act of Oblation to Merciful Love" with this aspiration:
I want, O my Beloved, at each beat of my heart to renew this offering to You an infinite number of times, until the shadows having disappeared I may be able to tell You of my Love in an Eternal Face to Face!
The years of study which you, beloved graduates, celebrate today could produce no finer fruit than the humble and total daily offering of your heart to the Heart of Jesus, gloriously seated at the right hand of the Father and alive for us in the Church, until you are able finally to offer Him your heart in the "Eternal Face to Face," to which we are all called.
The Need for Daily Prayer
It is through prayer that we first and best practice humility, confidence, and abandonment to Divine Providence. It is through prayer that we turn over our lives completely to Our Lord upon Whom we are totally dependent, as a small child before a parent. In a particular way, the Examination of Conscience and the Act of Contrition, offered each night before we retire, express the humility which reflects the truth of our being before God and in His creation.
St. Thomas often declared "that he learnt more at the foot of the crucifix than from books." Regarding the knowledge and love of Christ, which inspired and sustained St. Thomas, his faithful secretary, Fr. Reginald of Priverno, declared:
His marvelous science was far less due to his genius than to the efficacy of his prayers. He prayed with tears to obtain from God the understanding of His mysteries, and abundant enlightenment was vouchsafed to his mind.
As he was dying, after he had received Viaticum, St. Thomas Aquinas offered this prayer in the presence of the assembled monks of the monastery at Fossanova:
I receive you, price of my soul's redemption, I receive you, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied, watched, labored; I have preached you, I have taught you; never have I said anything against you, and if I have done so it is through ignorance and I do not grow stubborn in my error; if I have taught ill on this sacrament or the others, I submit it to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church, in obedience to which I leave now this life.
The most important lesson which your education at Thomas Aquinas College has taught you is to begin and to conclude all of your studies and activities with Christ, that is, with prayer, humbly submitting the judgment of your thoughts and actions to His church, and obediently accepting the teaching and discipline of the Church.
Before the challenge of living in Christ in our totally secularized culture, there is a great temptation to give way to doubt and fear regarding the Little Way of Christ, and to think that we must devise some program, "some magic formula," to transform the world. But Christ alone, seated at the right hand of the Father and alive for us in the Church, can transform us and the world. Pope John Paul II reminded us that our humble and confident following of Christ alone brings about the conversion of our lives and the transformation of our culture. In his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte , he wrote:
It is not therefore a matter of inventing a "new program." The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Dear graduates, with humility, trust, and abandonment to Divine Providence, center your life on Christ by daily prayer and Sunday Mass. When possible, make daily Mass the pattern of your life. Begin each day with prayer. By your prayer and devotion, let Christ accompany you throughout every day. Conclude each day with the examination of conscience and the act of contrition. Regularly confess your sins and receive God's forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance.
Keeping Company with the Mother of God
n a particular way, call upon the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as you face the great challenge of living in Christ, with humility and trust. Make her words in response to the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation your own: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word." It is the Blessed Virgin Mary who teaches us to imitate her in humility and trust. As Mary did for the wine stewards at the Wedding Feast of Cana, so she now directs us to her Divine Son and gives us the maternal counsel: "Do whatever He tells you." Mary is the model in following her own counsel, from the moment of the Incarnation to the moment of Christ's cruel death, as she stood at the foot of the Cross.
Keep company with the Mother of God, especially under her title so dear to our continent, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of America and Star of the New Evangelization, and she will unfailingly draw you to her Divine Son Who alone is our salvation. She will lead you in the way of poverty of spirit, of humble trust and of abandonment to Divine Providence. Praying the Rosary, meditating upon the mysteries of the vocation and mission of Christ, while praying the Hail Mary, unite your hearts to her Immaculate Heart and, with her, place your hearts ever more completely into the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in which are found all of the treasures of God's immeasurable mercy and love.
The chapel of Thomas Aquinas College has been most fittingly dedicated to Our Lord Jesus Christ and to His Mother, under her title Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. The Virgin Mary who, by a special favor from God, from the moment of her conception, shared, in anticipation, in the life of Divine Grace won for us by Christ, her Son, draws us to live in Christ, to live in the Most Holy Trinity, through our life in the Church. Mary teaches us the love of God the Father, made flesh through the Incarnation of God the Son, so that God the Father and God the Son might pour forth into our souls, as they did for Mary, the sevenfold gift of God the Holy Spirit.
Embracing One's Vocation
In conclusion, I place my reflection upon humility within the context of the call which God gives to each of us to pour out his life, with Christ, in selfless love of God and neighbor. The response to God's call, our divine vocation, is, at its foundation, an act of humble trust, of abandonment to Divine Providence. As we are privileged to take part in today's commencement, we are deeply conscious that all Catholic education is ultimately at the service of our knowledge of God's plan for each of us and our following of God's call with an undivided heart; all Catholic education should lead us in the way of poverty of spirit by which we know God's call in our lives and respond with an undivided heart.
From the moment of our baptism, God desires that we give our lives completely, with Christ, in love of Him, either in the married life, the dedicated single life, the consecrated life, or the priesthood. It is only when we know our vocation in life and embrace it humbly and trust that we find joy and peace, and are able to place the good gifts which God has given to us at the service of others.
In our culture which is indifferent to religious faith and totally secularized, it is difficult to hear the voice of God Who calls us. It is especially difficult to hear God's call to serve Him and His holy people in the consecrated life and the priesthood. The habit of daily prayer, learned at the School of Mary, will dispose you, dear graduates, to spend time each day in silence before God, asking Him how He would have you serve Him and His holy people. In prayer, especially at the Holy Mass and before the Blessed Sacrament, you will know your vocation in life and receive the grace to embrace it with an undivided heart.
Speaking of the finality of Catholic education in the knowledge and embrace of our vocation in life, I acknowledge, in a particular way, the excellence of Thomas Aquinas College. A remarkable number of graduates of the College have responded to vocations to the priesthood and to the consecrated life in all of its richness of forms. Likewise, I have known and have worked closely with a number of graduates who have responded to the call to the married life, acknowledging the important contribution of the College to the living of their vocation. The remarkable culture of vocational discernment fostered at Thomas Aquinas College is a most wonderful gift to the individual students and to the whole Church. May God bless the College with an abundant outpouring of the Holy Spirit so that her students may always embrace God's will for them.
Beloved graduates of Thomas Aquinas College, my heartfelt congratulations! May Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity teach you humility and lead you to total trust in her Divine Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, so that you may abandon yourselves to Divine Providence, loving God and your neighbor with all your heart, with all your being. So may you follow the counsel of Aristotle to attend to "the best things in us" and to listen to the voice whose power and worth "surpass everything." So may you imitate St. Thomas More, serving your neighbor and our world well by serving God first.