Editor’s note: George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, was the speaker on May 10 at the 201st commencement exercises of Mt. St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., America’s second-oldest Catholic institution of higher learning. Like that of another institution much in the news recently, the campus of Mt. St. Mary’s is dominated by a gold statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Reverend Fathers; distinguished members of the Board of Trustees; President Powell and distinguished members of the faculty; parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends of the graduates; all mothers present, on this Mother’s Day; and last, but certainly not least, my fellow members of the Class of 2009 at Mt. St. Mary’s University:
Thank you for honoring me with the invitation to address you today. Thank you, too, for honoring my work with the gift of an honorary degree. As President Powell mentioned, I received my undergraduate education in philosophy at the Liberal Arts College of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. So, if I may borrow from President Kennedy on Harvard and Yale, I now have an abundance of riches: a St. Mary’s education and a Mt. St. Mary’s degree. So I thank you.
This commencement ceremony has an even deeper sense of solemnity this year because there are two members of the Class of 2009 who are not physically present with us today: Nicole Spencer and Elizabeth DiNunzio. As we remember them, we commend them to the Risen Lord and his merciful Father, and we pray that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, will pour out his love on their families and on all here who cherished them.
It has been one of the privileges of my life to have spent more than two and a half decades chronicling the achievements, and explicating the thought, of a great man: the Servant of God Pope John Paul II. He was, certainly, a great man. Part of his greatness lay in the fact that he had a very firm grip on his own fallibility. In September 1997, the Italian Bishops Conference hosted a national Eucharistic Congress in Bologna. John Paul II was helicoptered up there on a Sunday night to give the closing address. A staffer at the bishops conference had gotten the bright idea that Bob Dylan would be a good set-up act for the pope. So, perhaps a half-hour before the Holy Father appeared, Dylan came out on stage before hundreds of thousands of Italians, floppy hat, guitar, harmonica, and so forth, and did a few songs, ending with his signature composition, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The Pope came out and, demonstrating his remarkable capacity to seize an opportunity, discarded his prepared text and immediately began talking about the Holy Spirit “blowin’ in the wind” of the modern world, and about Jesus Christ as the one road that all of us must walk down, for “Christ, who said ‘I am the way’ . . . is the road of truth, the way of life.” It was a remarkable performance. Three days later, I was at lunch in the papal apartment, and before I could even get seated after grace, John Paul II fixed me with that look across the table and said, “Who eeze Bob DEE-lahn?”
We are now a month shy of the 30th anniversary of another moment when John Paul II rose to an occasion — this time, in a way that changed the course of history. For next month marks the 30th anniversary of what I have come to call the “Nine Days of John Paul II”: June 2 through June 10, 1979, the nine days of the late Pope’s first pilgrimage to his Polish homeland, during which he ignited a revolution of conscience — a moral revolution — that played a crucial role in the collapse of Communist tyranny and in the liberation of the Slavic peoples of central and eastern Europe.
How did he do it? He did it in ways that should resonate with graduates of this university, which is itself the bearer of a distinguished history marked by the labors of saints and other great witnesses to the power of Catholic conviction.
John Paul II did it through Faith: faith in the power of the truth to cut through the Communist culture of the lie.
He did it through Discovery: By putting a life spent probing the truth about the dignity of the human person to work in liberating men and women from the shackles of hopelessness that bound them, he empowered his people to imagine a new, nobler, more human future for themselves, their children, and their country.
He did it through Leadership: the kind of priestly and episcopal leadership that for two millennia has taught the people of the Church that, as St. Paul put it to the Galatians, it is “for freedom that Christ has set [us] free” [Gal. 5:1].
And he did it through Community: for by re-planting the seeds of civil society in a Poland wracked by 40 years of totalitarian oppression, John Paul II laid the foundations for a new type of resistance community — a community of solidarity that proved stronger than tanks, truncheons, fire hoses, and the other weapons of Communist repression.
But, you may say, all of this was done by a great man — so what does that have to do with me? To which I would reply, all of this was done by a man who, when he was your age, never imagined that he would be pope, never imagined that he would become perhaps the pivotal figure of the second half of the 20th century, never imagined that the world would recognize his greatness and the Church his heroic virtue.
He was, in a word, much like you.
And that suggests to me that each of you, my fellow members of the Class of 2009, can also do great things with your lives.
Some of you will do great things as the world measures greatness. Some of you will do great things as the Church measures greatness, joining the ranks of the great figures who have walked here on Mary’s mountain: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; Bishop John Dubois; Archbishop John Hughes; Bishop James Edward Walsh of the Class of 1910, a living martyr for ten years in a Chinese Communist prison. Who knows, perhaps one of you will even top Jim Phelan’s remarkable record as a basketball coach. But each of you can do great things in the one, essential way that Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, did great things. You can do the greatest thing of which human beings are capable: You can conform yourself to the will of God for your life.