Helen Alvare Benedictine College Commencement Address

Photo from Benedictine College Facebook page

Below is the commencement address delivered by Helen Alvaré  at Benedictine College (Atchison, Kansas) graduation.

My first order of business with my newly minted degree is to offer you and your family and friends and other loved ones, as well as your professors — and all the administrators who make the community that is Benedictine a reality —  my  very sincere CONGRATULATIONS.

School is awesome. Exercising your brain, developing your capacities for synthesis, analysis, critical writing…not to mention sheer grit, and a hefty tolerance for sleepless nights —  all of this is awesome.  But so is being DONE….at least for the time being … and ready to move on to the next challenge in your life.   My congratulations to you and to all of those people in your life who helped to bring you to this point.

As I reflect on what your university regards as the accomplishments which bring me here today to share your joy —  there is a part of me—and not a small part – which regards  my so-called accomplishments as nothing at all, or even as potentially dangerous.  So I can talk, I can write.  What are these on the scale of human accomplishments but a frequent invitation to pointless pride? Especially relative to the depth of human needs today.

But there is another part of me that “gets” that words can matter – but with this indispensable caveat….they matter to the extent that they are put at the service of human beings in need. THIS is what I want to speak to you about for just a few minutes this morning.

Those of us who are older than you know how long it took each of us even to begin to grasp one of life’s greatest lessons: it’s not all about me.  And to grasp the difference it made in our own life, and in the lives of others.  So if I can help move you one inch further or 5 minutes faster toward grasping what your parents and grandparents here already understand – that your gifts and capacities are for giving — that THEN you’re really living – THEN you’re free, and happy  — I will have served you well this morning.

About two weeks ago in Rome I met with a man who works with the press on behalf of Pope Francis. He is not an inexperienced guy. He has covered some of the hot spots in the world, for leading press, and for decades. Telling me about something the Pope said to one of the thousands of pilgrims cheering him on in St. Peter’s square, this sophisticated man got choked up.  It turns out that one pilgrim called out to the Pope “you are one of a kind,” and the Pope stopped and turned on his heel, replying immediately to this man “But YOU , YOU are one of a kind too!”

“Do you believe it?” this sophisticated reporter said to me.  “This Pope can bring a tear to MY eye!”

Imagine what food for thought Pope Francis gave to this pilgrim in St. Peter’s Square! About things like his place in God’s universe. His dignity. His equality with every other human being, including the famous ones.  And about the equality of every other human being he might meet…. Imagine how that man will tell that story to everyone he knows for the rest of his life.

Pope Francis is a model of how to put the right words AND the right GESTURES at the service of other people. He is the living embodiment of that gorgeous command Pope Benedict gave us in his first encyclical God is Love/Deus Caritas Est —  the command “To give every single human person the look of love they crave.”

In my now 30 years of working in or for the Catholic Church, I have been “converted” to the central importance of this – which is, I find a combination of  taking the time to look at,  to actually encounter the people who cross our paths.  To listen first. To acknowledge the difficulties they share.  Often, to tell them about your own weaknesses…how you share with them truly the status of a “pilgrim” on the way toward God, whether by this you mean struggling to come to terms with challenging circumstances in your life, or challenging teachings within our faith.

Years ago, for example, I spoke openly to several audiences about my difficulties overcoming my selfishness and careerism, in order to share my life with more children.  I spoke about how I got over a good bit of that hurdle eventually.  I wrote about this same subject more recently in a book.  Over the last several months, several women have approached me to introduce me to the children they tell me they opened their hearts to, after listening to me or reading me on the subject of my own struggle.  This is Anne, This is John, thank you… (And in case you’re wondering, no I couldn’t resist the urge to cry when I met these beautiful children….).

I’ve also learned the crucial importance of tone and even of body language when you’re really trying to do that “giving everybody the look of love they crave” thing…

It’s fair to describe my posture during my earliest television debates as a “crouching tiger.”   One Congressman used to tell his friends in front of me “Helen wasn’t afraid of man nor beast!”  Funny, and sure –  it’s good not to be afraid – and we don’t have to be!  But it’s neither Christian nor attractive for your conversation partners, nor for observers, to have the impression that you’re sharpening your fangs between remarks.   And we need to attract all the people we can! Especially to the most neuralgic teachings of our Catholic faith.

So after gaining more maturity, and spending more time in prayer, I came to see my debate partners as children of God, like myself, and to seek to attract them too!  With warm greetings and goodbyes. With calm, and with reasoned arguments. Never exaggerating, never name-calling , just explaining. I was reminded of how good this was when I was at an airport earlier this year and saw one of the leaders of the abortion rights movement I used to debate a lot. We were able to hug one another and ask about each other’s children.  I remember learning, when I used to debate her, how she had undergone her abortion when her husband (who was the father of her child) was in the process of abandoning her and their children. I tried to remember her pain when we debated, even as I contradicted her facts….

Pope Francis’ recent remarks to the Sec’y General of the United Nations confirm my intuition that whatever are your talents are mine, we have only to put them in service of others in need to find our way to real happiness, and to God:

He said: Today, in concrete terms, an awareness of the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters whose life is sacred and inviolable from conception to natural death must lead us to share with complete freedom the goods which God’s providence has placed in our hands, material goods but also intellectual and spiritual ones… Referencing the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus the tax collector he stated:

Jesus does not ask Zacchaeus to change jobs nor does he condemn his financial activity; he simply inspires him to put everything, freely yet immediately and indisputably, at the service of others

One final thought on this matter of giving-as-receiving….this matter of “giving every person the look of love they crave.”  You are likely aware that some of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church (taught globally and even in the public square it seems until about 5 minutes ago), are under enormous pressure.  In particular our teachings about respect for life, for women, for marriage, and for religious freedom.   In my view, we have reached the point where arguments for religious freedom are often experienced by listeners as a kind special pleading by a narrow interest group.  Of course, we know that they are nothing of the kind, but are rather a calling for respect for ALL human persons’ right to seek ultimate truths and to live in accordance with them, within (of course) due limits respecting public peace and safety.  Still, I think we are most persuasive regarding religious freedom when we are manifestly the kind of people — the kind of religious community — whose ideas and behaviors are what society wants more of, knows it desperately needs more of….

When we demonstrate real love, real solidarity with other human beings, compassion for the suffering, an option for the poor, and a continual search for truth…. When our marriages really do provide for our children and for the world, a glimpse of the love of God, as St. Paul calls us to do…. When we, as Pope Francis says, have dirt on shoes because we have gone to the outskirts to care for other people…when our Church, that is you and me —  is manifestly a field hospital on the front lines of the suffering of the world – THEN when we assert that we, and other religious actors, require the full measure of religious freedom… our argument on this matter is immeasurably strengthened.  We should never shirk, in other words, from talking about, from manifesting, what our religious freedom is FOR, how even this “freedom” benefits all of society….versus simply demanding our bare constitutional and statutory rights.

With that, I will say thank you for listening to me.  I hope I have been of service.  And again, Congratulations on your beautiful accomplishments – graduates, families, and all those associated with the College.

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