Ken Hackett's Commencement Address at the University of St. Thomas
Thank you so much for inviting me here. It is always a privilege to be part of such a special day, so many dreams fulfilled.
I know it has not always been easy. I know there was some late night studying and panicked paper writing. I know that many of your parents sat across the dinner table with furrowed brows trying to figure out where that next tuition payment was coming from.
Some of you excelled so much you became national champions in basketball!
A big congratulations to Coach Fritz and the Tommies team. And don't let me leave out the women. What a softball program you have under Coach Tschida. It's the envy of the nation.
But what really inspires me today is this place — St. Thomas University.
Only 35 years ago, there were about 2,500 students here, almost all men. Now, well, it looks to me like you admitted women! And you're the biggest private school in Minnesota with over 10,000 students on four campuses.
I find particularly inspiring that one of those campuses is in Rome, Italy. I know that most of you are from around here, Minnesota or a nearby state. One of the crucial things St. Thomas has done for you is open the door to the world.
And most of you walk through it - almost two-thirds of you studying abroad, maybe three-quarters involved in some sort of international activity.
That warms my heart. Because that's what we do at Catholic Relief Services. We try to connect Catholics and other people of goodwill in the United States with their human family around the world. We want to be of service, to give people in this country a way to reach out to those who were not born into the prosperity we often take for granted.
Now I'm aware that, as at every Catholic college and university, many of you are not Catholics. But you would not have come to St. Thomas unless you wanted an education that included the important issues of ethics and values. And please believe me when I tell you that these are the aspects of your education that are going to be so important as you find your way into the future.
Some years back, we at Catholic Relief Services came to a realization that our identity as a Catholic organization had become muted. We had spent decades since our founding in the forties becoming one of the top humanitarian relief and development organizations in the world. We were proud of it. We did our job well.
But by the eighties those of us on the inside realized that something was missing. It was as if we were an Ivy League college that educated the intellect but paid little attention to everything else. Or, in contrast to your Division III basketball champions who really are students and athletes, we were sort of like a top Division I basketball program, very good at one thing - playing basketball — but neglecting some other very important things, like maybe our studies.
Then in the early 90s a series of very traumatic events shocked us. The outbreak of violence in Bosnia, the crisis in Somalia and the Rwandan genocide. We were engaged in each of these events both simultaneously and successively. We experienced an institutional awakening, an epiphany of sorts.
When we went in search of our identity, we discovered Catholic Social Teaching. Luckily, at St. Thomas, you didn't have to search for that. It's right here, explored, developed and promoted by your excellent Center for Catholic Studies and its John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought whose director, Michael Naughton, recently spoke to us at CRS. Such programs examine what Catholic thought has to say — to businesspeople, to politicians, to lawyers, to educators to all of us as we confront every aspect of our modern life.
In Catholic Social Teaching we found a new foundation for CRS. We learned that it is not enough to feed the hungry or shelter the homeless or for that matter to ensure that farmers are properly trained in an agricultural technique or get water from a well project or whatever specific task we take on.
Certainly peoples' basic physical needs must be met, but we realized we also had to work to help them live with dignity in a just and peaceful society. We had to promote the good of every person and of the whole person. That means all aspects of their life — economic, social, political, cultural, ecological and spiritual. We try to design our programs so they address all of these aspects. We had to work to find the correct relations in societies between people and their governments, between different groups of people.
Pope John XXII, in an encyclical called Mater et Magistra, spoke of how tough it is to turn such CST principles into practical applications. He said:
The transition from theory to practice is of its very nature difficult; and it is especially so when one tries to reduce to concrete terms a social doctrine such as that of the Church.
So it was hard work at CRS when we tried to apply these principles to what we did on the ground. You never completely succeed, but we still try, whether it is bringing dignity to a group of women by helping them save money for the first time in their lives, or taking on what many thought was the hopeless task of trying to insure that a referendum on secession for South Sudan came off peacefully.
By the way, that referendum did come off peacefully. The south did vote to secede and in July I will be there in Juba to witness the birth of the world's newest nation.
I would suggest you should work to apply these principles to your personal life, for the rest of your life. They tell you that it's not enough to make a lot of money and provide material things for your family. Your family will need more than money, they will need you.
These principles tell you that it's not enough to send your kids to school, you need to join the PTA. That you should pay attention, vote in elections, but not just for the candidate that will help you, but the one that will help the society you live in. That you should think about the culture that surrounds you - the movies you see, the music you listen to. What messages are being delivered? Should you support them, challenge them, try to change them or just accept them?
You know it's a great university that provides you with role models, with mentors, like your basketball Coach Steve Fritz, this year's Division III coach of the year. He's been part of Tommie basketball for 44 years as a player, assistant coach and for 31 years as head coach. What does he have, 568 wins? All at one school! That's perseverance, that's dedication, that's loyalty, great values to see personified on one man.
Few of you are going to have the opportunity that Coach Fritz did. Statistics tell us that you will not only have many jobs in your lifetime, you will have several careers, some of which haven't even been invented yet. The specifics of what you learned in the classroom may become obsolete. But the values that you learned here will not. They will direct you on the way to live your life on whatever path it takes - a life that is connected with others, with your family, your church, your neighborhood, your city, your state, your country and, I would fervently hope, your world.
At CRS, we use the term solidarity to express how we feel about people around the world, particularly the poor. It's an expression of the reality that we are part of one human family. And family members have responsibilities to one another. Let's all make sure we carry those out.
A crucial element of human development is the spiritual. Wherever you find your spirituality - in Catholicism or elsewhere — nurture it. Do not let it lie fallow. It will sustain you when nothing else in your life will.
I know St. Thomas has exposed you to different spiritual traditions. I believe the Dalai Lama was recently on your campus. At CRS, we know the Dalai Lama. We have worked with him to help Tibetan refugees in India for decades. We appreciate his spirituality, his commitment to help his people.
As I said, I am inspired today by this great university and one reason is that so many of you have shown that you already understand what it means to apply these principles in your lives. Let me mention just two. Both were active in your program called VISION - Volunteers in Service Internationally or Nationally.
Chris Antonelli is part of VISION's leadership team. He said he sort of floated through freshman year and didn't really get on track until in his sophomore year when he went on a VISION trip to the border country, Juarez, Mexico and El Paso Texas. Here's what he said about how that affected him:
"Experiencing firsthand the realities of immigration policies, economic exploitation, racism and crippling poverty had a profound effect that has shaped who I am and will stay with me forever. The trip literally gave me the framework for how I live my life."
From his work with VISION, Chris said, "I learned how dedication to a life of service won't make you rich but will foster beautiful relationships and bring a lifetime of fulfillment."
Then there's Molly Wiersma who went on five trips with VISION. She picked coffee beans in Guatemala on one of those.
Such service, she said, "took everything I learned and valued in the classroom and ignited it in my heart, propelling me into action."
I know there are many more of you out there with similar stories, but for all of you, your mission is the same - take what you have learned and valued here at St. Thomas and, as Molly said, be propelled into action.
Do that and you will prosper. In every way, body, mind and soul.
Congratulations to one and all. It's May 21st-the world hasn't come to an end so go out and change the world for the better!