Many of you will enter the world of work after this graduation; others of you will continue your studies. No matter what you will be doing tomorrow, or next week, or next September, there is a lesson for you in the life of John Paul II: Don’t think of your life simply as a “career.” Think of your life as a vocation.
God has something unique in mind for each of you. There is something singular that each of you brings to the making of history. Think of your lives in those terms, and you’ll never fall prey to that most deadening of temptations: the temptation of boredom.
That is the kind of life — a life of high adventure in the greatest of adventures, the making of your soul — for which Mt. St. Mary’s has prepared you. For that is the entire purpose of Catholic higher education, rightly understood: Catholic higher education exists to form vocationally serious men and women in whom faith and reason support a transforming conviction — the conviction that every human life is, by definition, extraordinary. That is the conviction on which this university was founded. That is the conviction on which this university can and must build its future.
In living out that conviction by preparing men and women whose intellectual competence is deepened by their character, the Catholic colleges and universities of the United States perform an immense public service. For, in the final analysis, our freedom depends on the content of our character as a people. That is how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked that his children be judged. That is how we should all wish to be judged. For character counts, both for the happiness of each of our lives and for the future of America.
Only a people of character will be able to understand that, as Lord Acton taught, freedom is not a matter of doing what we like, but of having the right to do what we Ought.
Only a people of character will be able to build a civic community out of the materials of diversity.
Only a people of character will know how to deploy the explosion of knowledge in the life sciences so that the biotechnologies of the future serve the ends of genuine healing, rather than leading us into a brave new world of stunted humanity.
Only a people of character will be able to defend freedom in the world by defending the human rights of all, especially the first human right of religious freedom.
By preparing those kinds of citizens, Catholic colleges and universities today are defending the claim inscribed on the birth certificate of American independence: that our freedom rests on self-evident moral truths about human beings, our origins, and our destiny.
These tasks are ever more urgent today, for we live in a culture that is deeply confused about what freedom means and deeply conflicted about how freedom is to be lived. In the most famous oration in American history, delivered ten miles from here at the cemetery in Gettysburg, President Lincoln, whose bicentenary we mark this year, called on the Americans of his day to give “this nation, under God . . . a new birth of freedom.” That must be your task, too.
The freedoms we cherish in the United States have been put in jeopardy by many threats over the 233 years of our independence. Freedom was put in jeopardy by the institution of slavery, America’s original sin. Freedom was jeopardized by ethnic and religious prejudice. Freedom in this century was threatened by a great depression, by fascism, Nazism, and Communism. Freedom in your own lifetimes has been threatened by the rise of jihadism, which claims that the murder of innocents is pleasing to God. Defending freedom in the past drew deeply on our nation’s virtue capital. Defending freedom today also requires that we be a people of virtue.
And what does virtue require of us?
Virtue requires us to acknowledge, and to defend, the first principle of justice, according to which innocent human life has an inalienable dignity and value that must be recognized by law. Never flag, never fail, never weary in defense of the right to life. Never give up on the great civil-rights issues of our time — the life issues.
Virtue requires us to recognize that the temptation of Prometheus remains with us, and that there are things that we can do, from a scientific point of view, that we must not do, from a moral and humanistic point of view.
Virtue requires us to defend and promote the cause of freedom, rather than retreating into a bunker of hemispheric isolation and an iPod world of self-absorption.
Virtue requires us to live as John Paul II challenged the young people of the world to live: by never, ever settling for anything less than the spiritual and moral greatness of which, with God’s grace, you are capable. Never, ever settle for less than that.
The virtues that are the foundation of this American experiment in ordered liberty are known from both faith and reason. In spending these past years on Mary’s mountain, you have been immersed in both — in both faith and reason. As you walk off the mountain today, take both faith and reason with you. Nurture them in your mind, heart, and soul. Living your lives vocationally — living your lives as the gift to others that your own life is to you — you can give America a new birth of freedom.
And the confessors, the martyrs, and all the other saints who once walked here, on Mary’s mountain in the Catoctins, will be cheering you on, all the way.
Godspeed on your journey.