Cap and Gown Convocation
This is a joyful occasion, one in which you take rightful pride in your accomplishments. But your right to wear these caps and gowns also comes with expectations and obligations. When you march forth from this Chapel in just a few minutes, you will re-enter a world that is in grave peril. You will go forth as changed people, women who are now one step closer to the circles of public leadership you will inhabit for most of the rest of your lives, in communities and corporations and perhaps even on the larger civic stage. In those circles you will use this education to achieve the ends of justice, charity and peace for your families and communities, nation and world. You may feel those mortarboards weighing a bit heavier on your heads.
Around the world, there are millions of women who will never know a day such as this. Women who have not been allowed to go to school at all, women whose garments are not a matter of choice and achievement but a matter of oppression, repression of their individuality as human beings, degradation of their worth and dignity as people of God.
Just today, the New York Times online carried a story of women in Afghanistan flocking to classes to learn to read and write after years of forced illiteracy. This passage describes the depth of their pain:
“ “Blind” is the word many of these illiterate women use to describe themselves, and it speaks to the confusion and difficulties that they encounter as uneducated members of a society already harshly discriminatory against women. “Without knowledge, I am blind; I do not know white from black,” said Torpikay, 30. “In town, I do not know where is the hospital, or the baths or the washroom, and I will take my dishes into the wrong place, because we just follow other women and don’t know where we are going.” That last comment raised laughter from the entire class. “The women most often complain of not being able to decipher street signs, even for the bathroom, and not being able to understand medical prescriptions, says Mariya, one of the teachers who have started literacy classes for adult women in an impoverished neighborhood known as Ali Chupan, on the east side of Mazar-i-Sharif.
“Silent, shadowy figures in public, Afghan women, dressed in the all-compassing burka, often are too timid to approach strangers to ask for directions. One woman said she could not tell the difference between government money and the money widely used in the north, which looks almost the same but is worth half the value. “She was sometimes cheated because of that,” Mariya said. And the women, especially those without men in the family, say they are ill equipped to manage the daily difficulties of running the household and feeding their families.”
These women and women like them all over the world have children who are trapped in the same abject poverty that has kept their families living in substandard conditions for generations. They live in the world’s breeding grounds of violence and terror, tyranny and evil.
Your education demands action on behalf of those who do not have a gift such as this. The cause of women and children throughout the world is the cause of peace and justice; this is a mission that St. Julie Billiart who founded the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur nearly 200 years ago set for her sisters: to teach women what they need to know to be successful in life. For two centuries, the Sisters of Notre Dame have lived by this mission: “We take our stand with poor people, especially women and children, in the most abandoned places.” They have followed the instruction of Julie: “Let your hearts be as wide as the world.”
We who have received the gift of education from this SND mission here at Trinity have an obligation to give a just return on their investment in us by carrying their mission forward in our lives and work. We, too, must make our hearts as wide as the world. The work is plentiful, the demands are great.
Around the world today, more than 125 million children are not educated, not even in school, and more than one billion people are illiterate. According to the international aid organization Oxfam, “Women are particularly disadvantaged, and one in three is illiterate.”
Speaking recently in Washington, World Bank President James Wolfensohn said that “There is no single more important issue in the whole field of development than the education of women and girls. You cannot succeed in [economic] development unless you deal with that issue, and you have to do it as a matter of morality…” (James D. Wolfensohn, President, World Bank, remarks to the Economic Club of Washington, December 6, 2001)
Three years ago, Mr. Wolfensohn received a letter from Elie Jouen, a member of the steering committee for the Global Campaign for Education, demanding that the World Bank and its member organizations step up their level of engagement with the campaign to ensure universal free public education for all children in the world. The campaign, begun in 1989, was falling well short of its goals when Jouen wrote in 1999, “Looking to the future, failure to close the gulf in educational opportunity that separates rich and poor countries and people will lead to growing inequality and marginalization, with attendant threats for social stability. None of us can afford such an outcome.”
Those words, like so many others, now seem prophetic. The gash in global consciousness that we now call September 11 exposed the chasm of civilization today, where, on the one side, the comparatively small numbers of well educated and well-off citizens of the earth stare, aghast, at the wanton destruction of 3,000 lives in one horrible act; and on the other side of the chasm, the vast majority of impoverished, illiterate and oppressed peoples of the earth might count such a number lost to violence, hunger and poverty as just another day. Such has been the reaction in many parts of the world where America’s sorrow has even been, tragically and wrongly, ridiculed as yet another example of our self-indulgence and lack of awareness of the horrific conditions that plague most of humanity each day, each hour, each minute. The protests that will take place in Washington next week during the meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are part of the increasing global conflict over the just sharing of wealth, issues that the Catholic Church and successive popes have addressed in the social justice encyclicals for more than a century.
September 11 was not just one day. History will reveal that September 11 exposed the long-simmering war across that chasm between wealth and despair, the end of which we cannot see as we sit here right now. Formally, we have been at war for a year, and now, we prepare to enlarge the war on a new front. No student, no faculty member, no staff member, no alumna, no member of the Trinity family can afford to be ignorant of the historic events taking shape in this city and at the United Nations during the last ten days in particular. I call upon our students and faculty to elevate and enlarge the scope of your attention, concern and public discussion and debate on campus regarding the gathering storm of the war that will soon commence against Iraq. Have you read the proposed resolution authorizing the President to use ‘all means he determines to be appropriate, including force,’ to unseat Saddam Hussein? Have you studied the new National Security Strategy document?
Few issues will be more important in your lifetime than the manner in which the United States acts in this crisis today. You must pay close attention to the issues, you must formulate your position as citizens of the world, you must make your voices heard in the policymaking forums of this city and all of the cities and nations you represent.
After study and debate, you may form an opinion that agrees or disagrees with the President’s request for action; that’s your right as a free thinking person, that’s your obligation as an educated Trinity Woman. You must be respected for the thoughtful positions you take, whether in favor or opposed; what you cannot do is ignore, avoid or reject the imperative to have an informed opinion, to take a stand.
My personal opinion is my private matter, not for discussion here. But as an educator and the leader of a college that arises in the Catholic faith tradition, I am deeply concerned to ensure that this college, its faculty and students, studies, debates and addresses the issues with a strong platform of knowledge, especially historical, philosophical and moral perspective.
Let me offer one reflection on the moral concern and dilemma of the present situation. Last week, when President Bush stood in the well of the United Nations and forcefully demanded that the nations of the world join the United States in confronting Saddam Hussein, I could not help but think of another moment when another world leader stood in that same spot before the United Nations, and cried out with great passion, “Jamais plus la guerre, jamais plus la guerre!” “No more war! War, never again!”
The speaker was a quiet, retiring man, more known for his essential conservatism than for his pacifist outcry. But Pope Paul VI, on his first and only trip to the United States in 1965, made it clear that humankind must find a way to achieve peace, that war should not be seen as a solution to the world’s problems.
The Catholic Church has a long history of advocacy for peace as part of the Gospel teachings on social justice. Before Pope Paul VI’s dramatic appearance at the U.N., another pope, the beloved Pope John XXIII, wrote a profound encyclical on the integral relationship between economic justice and peace. In Pacem in Terris, “Peace on Earth,” Pope John wrote in 1963, “Our concern here has been with problems which are causing people extreme anxiety at the present time; problems which are intimately bound up with the progress of human society. Unquestionably, the teaching we have given has been inspired by a longing which we feel most keenly, and which we know is shared by all people of good will; that peace may be assured on earth….Yet peace is but an empty word if it does not rest upon that order…that is founded on truth, built up in justice, nurtured and animated by charity, and brought into effect under the auspices of freedom.” (Pacem in Terris, 166-167)
Nearly thirty years later, another pope, John Paul II, had this to say about the current crisis: “It is precisely peace born of justice and forgiveness that is under assault today by international terrorism.” The Pope went on to say in his message on the World Day of Peace 2002, “Terrorism is built on contempt for human life…a true crime against humanity. There exists therefore a right to defend oneself against terrorism.” But lest this statement be construed as approval to launch a war, the Pope also said that the right to defend against terrorism “must be exercised with respect for moral and legal limits in the choice of ends and means…International cooperation in the fight against terrorist activities must also include a courageous and resolute political, diplomatic and economic commitment to relieving situations of oppression and marginalization which facilitate the designs of terrorists. The recruitment of terrorists in fact is easier in situations where rights are trampled upon and injustices tolerated over a long period of time.” (Message on the World Day of Peace 2002, Pope John Paul II).
The Pope concluded his message with this exhortation: No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness. Yesterday, speaking to reporters, President Bush said, “”If you want to keep the peace, you’ve got to have the authorization to use force.” (Washington Post, September 19) Who’s right? It’s not my place to tell you, it is my obligation to be sure that you are having this debate. Read the encyclicals. Read the national security policy and proposed resolution. Listen to the news, follow the global debate. And then, do what Trinity Women have done for more than a century before you: make up your own minds, speak up with your own voices clearly, unafraid, with conviction. Look to the world that needs your witness, your wisdom, your compassion so very much. “Let your hearts be as wide as the world!” Speak to that world by lifting your voices and making your actions examples of justice and forgiveness. Prepare to take up the mantle of leadership that the Sisters of Notre Dame prepared for you so long ago when they founded this college in the nation’s capital to educate women of faith and knowledge, women of courage and honor, women who would live their lives as witnesses each day to justice, to peace, to charity and to hope.
Let me conclude this reflection with the beautiful Peace Prayer of St. Francis. May this also be your prayer in the days ahead:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light:
And where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we received;
In pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Prayer of St. Francis