There is something powerful about the practical spiritual witness of a political leader, a powerful man. His speech is a story about a Catholic kid from Ohio, about patience and humility, about the Blessed Mother and a coach. It’s not coming from someone looking to impress political-science professors quoted in the New York Times about how many encyclicals he’s read, but perhaps, by someone hoping a real-life experience of Divine consult and blessings may penetrate an already hardened or otherwise clueless graduate or two. Commencement speeches should be about sharing a little wisdom. Here you have the most basic and essential. Delivered with not just talk of humility, but a demonstration of it — in speaking of the source of real power, in speaking of one of his own political falls.
Incidentally, during his own speech today, Boehner quotes “timeless wisdom” from a former commencement speaker, the late Tony Snow. (His speech was memorable.)
Here’s Boehner’s speech in full, as prepared (he is talking now); it has echoes of the sackcloth-and-ashes Ash Wednesday-themed speech he opened this Congress with:
President Garvey, thanks for the warm welcome.
I don’t know about you, but I began my day by counting my blessings…my wife, my two daughters, my 11 brothers and sisters, this great country of ours, and the privilege you have given me to address CUA’s Class of Two-Thousand-and-Eleven.
This university has stood over the years, and stands today, as the center of Catholic intellectual life in America. Now, I am a loyal alumnus of Xavier, another great Catholic university.
But being here today, with your new president, with Cardinal Wuerl, and all the distinguished faculty and trustees … let me say how impressed I am with the continued growth and success of this institution, and that I am truly humbled to take part in this ceremony.
Just two Sundays ago, I attended Mass here at the Basilica. Looking up, pondering the power and the glory of the Blessed Mother, I felt the tug of a memory…one from before Xavier…
I played football in high school. The Moeller High School football team was the Moeller Crusaders. And our coach, Gerry Faust, made sure we earned every bit of that name.
For him, there was no distinction between the spiritual life in the Church and the physical grind of the football field. He made no bones about it. He would tell us in no uncertain terms that life is a precious gift from God, and therefore making the most of one’s life is a direct form of devotion to the Virgin Mary.
He’d have the whole team kneel down and pray the Hail Mary before every meeting, every practice, and every game. Then we’d go out and smash heads with the other team for four quarters…all in the name of the Blessed Mother.
That gives you an idea of the kind of guy Coach Faust was, and still is. And it was the basis for a lesson he taught us, one I’ve been repeating ever since: “There’s nothing in life you can’t achieve if you’re willing to work hard enough and make the sacrifices necessary to succeed.”
Graduates, I truly believe that if you maintain that mindset, you can accomplish just about anything. After all, we live in America; a land of hope, opportunity and freedom, where you can be whatever you want to be. That would be an advantage each of you would have no matter which school you decided to attend.
But Catholic has prepared you in a way no other institution can. The focus of your development here has been getting you to grapple more with WHO you want to be than WHAT you want to be. You’ve been challenged to think rationally, and to use your heart and your conscience to guide your words and your actions. Let me tell you, there are no apps for these skills…
Of course, to whom much is given, much is expected. That’s why each of you must be willing to work hard and make the sacrifices necessary to succeed.
What does “hard work” and “sacrifice” entail?
First and foremost, humility. If you remember one word I’ve said today, it should be ‘humility.’
Growing up with 11 brothers and sisters, playing for Coach Faust, serving in the United States Congress, I’ve learned that no one who succeeds in life does it alone. You must be willing to lean on others, listen to others, and yes, love others.
Tony Snow, a great public servant and former White House press secretary who lost his life to cancer, stood at this lectern and told the class of 2007 that “to love is to acknowledge that life is not about you.”
“I want you to remember that,” he said, “It’s not about you. It’s a hard lesson, a lot of people go through life and never learn it. It’s to submit willingly, heart and soul, to things that matter.” Tony’s wisdom is timeless.
Recently, I was asked if there’s a special prayer I say before going into meetings with the president. Well, I always ask God for the courage and wisdom to do his will and not mine. Serving others – that’s not just how I lead in the Congress, it’s how I lead my life.
You’re also going to need some patience along the way too. Trust me on this.
I know that’s not a word you’d typically associate with an occasion wrapped in pomp, but patience is how we come closer to knowing God’s will. “In your patience possess you your souls,” according to Luke.
After Xavier, I ended up operating a small business, which got me more involved in my community. From there, I stumbled into politics. Certainly wasn’t something I imagined I would be doing when I was sitting where you are now. But again, it’s ‘WHO’ we want to be that helps determine ‘WHAT’ we want to be.
I came to Congress in 1991, and before long, found myself in the leadership ranks of my party. Being called a ‘rising star’ … that was heady stuff. But then, in the fall of 1998, I lost the support of my colleagues and my leadership post.
Now I would love to stand here and tell you I just shrugged it off and moved on, but that wouldn’t be true. The truth is that I was devastated. I wasn’t going to let anyone see me sweat, but I was down. Down … but never out.
Because “nobody,” Hemingway once wrote… “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up, except bullfighters.”
So I told my staff, we’re not going to talk our way back. We’re going to earn our way back. I was going to let my work speak for itself. I was going to be patient.
Of course, your humility and your patience are supported by your faith. In your journey through life, faith will be your constant partner – if you let it.
I’ve been back in the leadership ranks of my party now for more than five years. I knew what I was getting into. Like any other commitment you’ll make in life, it demands some soul-searching.
The morning of the leadership elections in 2006, I went to 7 am mass, and the question kept tugging at me: Am I sure I want to do this? Am I ready?
I struggled with this in my mind, asking the Blessed Mother for her guidance. Finding no answers.
Then, after having breakfast, my cell phone rang. It was a number I vaguely recognized. I picked it up. It was Coach Faust. Calling to wish me luck and tell me he knew I could do it.
Now I’ve never gotten a phone call from the Blessed Mother, and I don’t expect I ever will. But I gotta tell you, that was pretty darned close.
You know, a journalist once asked Mother Teresa how she persevered in the face of all the despair she had seen. Mother replied, “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”
Over the years, I’ve carried in my heart a similar code my parents taught me: you do the right thing for the right reasons, and good things will happen.
So there you have it: humility, patience, and faith – the raw material of hard work and sacrifice. They will take you as far as you want to go.
Graduates, these are just some of my life’s lessons. You’ll learn some of your own, and when you do, don’t wait to share them. The days go slow, but the years go fast. Your parents know what I’m talking about.
One more thing, just a favor I’d like to ask: by all means, take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
Looking back on his life, the great Irish writer Frank McCourt said if he could travel back and visit his twenty-something self, he’d take him out for a steak, a potato, and a pint. “I’d give myself a good talking to,” he wrote. “Straighten up, throw back those shoulders, and stop mumbling.”
To that, I’d only add: just relax, and be on time.
I began here by reflecting on my blessings, on all the things for which I’m thankful. But you may have noticed something about my list. The good things in life aren’t things. They are people. They are values. They are our birthrights.
For when it’s all said and done, we are but mere mortals doing God’s work here on Earth. Put a better way – no, put the best way: remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
All right, off you go. Good luck, God bless, and congratulations to all.
UPDATE: He had a few impromptu additions in his delivery — including a necessary: “So there you have it: humility, patience, and faith – and always a few tears from me.”