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The Commencement Address I Did Not Give

June 9, 2019 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

Mr. President, dignitaries, graduates, alumni, relatives, and friends. Let me say at the outset that I have no idea why your president asked me to be your commencement speaker. I am the most politically incorrect person he knows. He may be taking a chance he will later regret. At any rate, I would like to say something memorable. This is surely a most daunting challenge.
And I say this, knowing full well that I might be motivated by pride rather than by benevolence. I have listened to many commencement speakers over the years and I must say that I can hardly remember anything that any of them said.
A single incident, however, stands out. One particular commencement speaker had succeeded in boring her audience into near stupefaction. She may have lost her place or stopped to catch her breath, but for whatever reason, she paused, at which point thunderous applause rang out. Like an angry third-grade teacher scolding her inattentive students, she said, “I’m not finished.” I do remember that, but, unhappily, for the wrong reason.
Here I am reminded of something that the comedian George Burns once said about a good sermon: namely, that it should have a good beginning and a good ending “then having the two as close together as possible.” Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it may exclude anything memorable.
I speak to you today not unaware of the possibility of inflicting boredom on you and avoiding something that is truly memorable. This will be my only opportunity to communicate something to you that will serve you in the future. I welcome the challenge and hope you will bear me out.
The late Fr. James Schall, who was serious about education, observed that there are three kinds of students, namely, those who are chiefly concerned about grades, those who think they know it all, and those who actually want to learn. If this threefold factor applies to you graduates at this moment, the multitude I see before me dwindles to but a handful of listeners. Yet I go on, hoping to offer something that is both memorable and positive. As they say on TV, “Stay tuned.”
It is a platitude and, I suppose, even a boring one, to say that the world is changing. You all know that. But it is changing in a way that is mindboggling. What was only yesterday, axiomatic, like separate bathrooms for separate sexes or marriage restricted to partners of different sexes, has been coopted by political correctness and is no longer the rule. In fact, political correctness has become the rule. Abortion, pornography, physician-assisted suicide, along with legalized marijuana and the LGBTQ consortium, are now part of the landscape.
Any criticism of them can be fatal to the critic. What is the stable element that will allow you to maintain your equilibrium in the midst of a whirlwind of change?
Today, it is fashionable for people to seek to become autonomous, although that aim is clearly unattainable. After all, we are finite beings whose tenure on this planet is quite brief. Moreover, we are prone to any number of errors, frivolities, and inanities.
At the same time, the ludicrous belief abounds that a person has the right to go through life without ever being offended, an attitude that is most congenial to the law profession. We are delusional and litigious. Change is tempestuous and the world offers little more than impossible bromides. The times are difficult and the challenges will be many. What awaits you is not a rose garden, but a stormy sea.
And as G.K. Chesterton told us, “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.” It is “terrible” because it is a script that none of us would have written for ourselves.
Among the truly memorable events in human history is the Sermon on the Mount. Why is it memorable? It is because of its realism. We need comfort and hope in difficult times. The difficulties themselves are unavoidable. Christ responded to these needs. We long for their reapplication in our lives.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has stated, “The renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time people banded together to do this.” Unfortunately, as Gen. Omar Bradley once said, “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
It is not through mere intelligence that we will succeed, but through the virtues of the heart. Love will be more effective for you than learning, mercy will serve you better than money, and wisdom will be more profitable to you than wealth. It remains a paradox that we human beings often reject what we need most in order to accept what we enjoy least.
“Most people,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder to steer with.”
I cannot say anything to you that is more memorable than the Sermon on the Mount. But I can reiterate two things that it contains. The first is that it stands the world on its head. It is the perfect antithesis to political correctness. It is, in fact, supra-political righteousness. In order to challenge the world, you need strong virtues, such as courage, fidelity, integrity, honesty, and loyalty. The challenge will be exceedingly difficult and will require all of your strength and more. Secondly, it requires a friendship with God who is the stable factor for a world in disarray.
Commencement is the beginning. Conclusion is the end. Between the two is the drama of life. You live but once, and my ardent hope is that you are ready for the battle and will prevail.
God bless and may you be blessed unto blessedness.
(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest books, How to Navigate Through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life, are posted on amazon.com.)

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