Dr. Jane Dammen McAuliffe ’66
Director of National and International Outreach at Library of Congress
Congratulations to the graduates of 2016! This is your day, you have worked hard for it and I am honored to be celebrating it with you.
When I graduated from Trinity in 1968, I have no idea who spoke at my commencement. My wedding day was exactly one week away and I’m sure that I sat through the commencement ceremony mentally planning the seating arrangement or worrying about whether my dress alterations would be done in time. So, if any of you are in that situation, you’re already forgiven for tuning me out.
With me that day, in June 1968, was my Trinity boyfriend, the fellow whom I married a week later and with whom I hope to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary just two years from now. I’m thrilled that he’s here with us today.
For those of you who are not getting married next week and who were, therefore, listening closely to President McGuire’s introduction, you’ll have heard that my 50th Trinity reunion is coming up in a few weeks, the reunion of the Class of 1966. But I just said that I graduated in 1968. Well, the clue to that discrepancy is simple: I was a college dropout. I arrived at Trinity in the fall of 1962 along with all the other members of the Class of ’66. Freshman year went very well; sophomore year, not so much. After a spring semester of skipping classes and sitting in a friend’s Cuvilly dorm room listening to Beatles records – they were brand new then—I decided to drop out. The fact that my grades for that Beatle-loving semester came in as a B, a D and two F’s meant that the dean was not too upset by my decision.
So I found a job as a typist, moved out of my parents’ house –I had been a commuting student, what we used to call a “day hop”—and rented a one-room apartment near Dupont Circle. Then I embraced “freedom”! It was great for a while but eventually I figured out that I didn’t want to be a typist for the rest of my life. With more than a little trepidation, I took the bus back over Michigan Avenue, knocked on that dean’s door and asked to be re-admitted. Trinity was kind enough to take me back. Needless to say, after that I was on my best academic behavior and I graduated two years later with a respectable GPA, despite the distraction of that boyfriend whom I mentioned earlier.
I bet that some of you have stories like that. You found yourselves in jobs that were not very interesting and began to realize that you could reach for more, that undergraduate and graduate education could be a life-long benefit and that you were hungry for ideas and intellectual stimulation. So you took the leap—and here you are!
By the time my two older children were in first and second grades, I was ready to tackle graduate school. At the University of Toronto I was introduced to the field of Arabic and Islamic studies and that has remained my life’s work. It was my Trinity education that laid the foundation for this. At Trinity I had studied Latin and Greek and that gave me the confidence to undertake classical Arabic. At Trinity I had studied philosophy and theology and that gave me a grounding in religious ways of knowing and taught me to raise questions that cross religious traditions. At Trinity I also learned to read carefully and critically, to craft clear and coherent arguments and to write with precision and persuasion.
My decision to study Islam and its scripture, the Qur’an, was stimulated by a desire to learn more about a major world religion, and an important area of human culture, of which I was completely ignorant. Even by the time that I completed my PhD in the mid-1980s, most of my family and friends thought that I had made an interesting but rather odd choice. Yet, even then, forms of interreligious dialogue were beginning to emerge and the Catholic Church was exercising a leadership role in this. Spurred by the visionary Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate (Our Age), church leaders began to sponsor theological conversations with Muslims at local, national and international levels.
The point of these conversations was not to convert Muslims to Christianity—or Christians to Islam. It was to learn about each other, to understand how the concepts of God, of creation, and of human destiny operate in each other’s traditions and each other’s lives.
Earlier this month, I spent four days in intense, daylong discussions with a group of Muslim and Christian scholars who had gathered from around the world for the Building Bridges Seminar. We convene annually, sometimes in a Muslim-majority country and sometimes in a Christian-majority country, and each year we take up a topic of pressing mutual concern. This year our focus was monotheism, the belief shared by both Muslims and Christians, that there is but one God. Yes, we both worship the same God but our ways of understanding and describing that God are sometimes similar and sometimes different.
The Building Bridges Seminar, which was started by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, has been meeting for fifteen years. Like the Vatican efforts that began in the 1960s, this Seminar stands as an enduring instance of Christian-Muslim outreach.
But not all such outreach is launched by Christians. In 2007, 138 Muslims scholars signed a document entitled “A Common Word between Us and You,” a document that draws together those passages from the Bible and the Qur’an that urge upon believers the love of God and the love of neighbor. The phrase “a common word” (kalimatun siwa’un) comes from the third chapter of the Qur’an (Q 3:64) and highlights the mutuality of our belief in God and our profession of that belief. The document became a website and hundreds more Muslim scholars have added their names to it. It has generated worldwide response in the form of books, editorials, opinion pieces and conferences at universities like Cambridge, Yale and Georgetown.
A significant Catholic response occurred with the first Catholic-Muslim Forum, convened by Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on November 4, 2008, the day that Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. I was part of that Vatican forum and vividly remember my Catholic and Muslim colleagues from across the globe crowding around a TV screen to hear the newly-elected president give his victory speech to the crowds in Grant Park. At the conclusion of our Rome meeting we issued a joint declaration that means even more today than it did then: “We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion . . . .”
Such efforts continue, initiated by both Christians and Muslims. Just a few months ago, our own Archbishop Emeritus, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, flew to Morocco to be part of a high-level interfaith discussion about the plight of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. Scholars of Islamic law drew upon their most fundamental and foundational texts to affirm the rights of religious minorities and to insist upon their proper protection and support. Since his return to Washington from Marrakesh, Cardinal McCarrick has been speaking out about the importance of this event and of the continuing work of interfaith engagement. His voice makes a difference.
When I was at Trinity, we had a wonderful president, Sister Margaret Claydon. She is a woman of vision and wisdom who became a president at the young age of 36. From Sister Margaret we learned to value the privilege of a Trinity education. Repeatedly she impressed upon us how lucky we were, what a tiny portion of the world’s population could have access to such an opportunity, and consequently, what a responsibility to serve others our privileged education imposed upon us. She also taught us to speak out and encouraged our efforts. On August 28, 1963, just before the beginning of my sophomore year, I stood with the hundreds of thousands gathered before the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s immortal speech. I did so in the secure knowledge that Sr. Margaret would support such action, that she wanted her students to stand up, to march forth and to speak out.
You, too, have lived your Trinity years with a wonderful president. Like Sister Margaret, President McGuire took leadership of this institution at a young age and it’s no exaggeration to say that she has utterly transformed it. She has made Trinity among the most innovative and visionary universities in the nation and she’s given Trinity alumnae and alumni bragging rights that I, for one, am not shy about exercising. President McGuire has also become a major leader in American education, highly regarded by her fellow college and university presidents and recently honored by the Carnegie Foundation with their $500,000 Academic Leadership Award. (I confess that when news of that award hit my email screen, I jumped right out of my chair.) Most importantly, President McGuire speaks out. Through speeches and opinion pieces, through letters to the editor and blog posts, she is a voice for the values that matter in higher education, in American Catholicism, and in addressing the most pressing issues that we face.
Well, I’ve told you about ways in which Muslims and Christians are seeking to understand each other, are striving to counter false perceptions and to build bridges of respect and mutuality. I’ve talked about two extraordinary women who have repeatedly spoken out, even when it was not easy. So, I guess you know where this is going: our country and our world are caught up in a maelstrom of anti-Muslim sentiment and rhetoric. Media talking heads feel free to spew misinformation and to condemn all for the acts of some. Presidential candidates have let loose a barrage of attacks, even suggesting that Muslims be banned from entering this country. Yes, there is war and terrorist savagery being carried out in the name of Islam and, yes, there are Muslims who do terrible things. But that does not license the whole-sale condemnation of Islam and its adherents. That does not warrant a situation in which Muslim American kids start asking their parents if it’s safe here, if they’re welcome here, if they’re “really American.” So, please speak up. Speak up in conversations; speak up at the ballot box. Speak up when friends make false or denigrating remarks. Speak up, even when you don’t feel completely confident and it’s awkward to do so.
Just a year ago I gave the commencement address at a women’s university in Saudi Arabia. As I looked out at the 350 graduates and all their assembled relatives and friends, I was struck by how familiar the scene felt. Just like today, I could see parents beaming with pride. I could see faculty glad to be sharing a splendid day with their students. But most of all in the faces of those bright, accomplished graduates, I could see Saudi Arabia’s future.
Looking out today at your bright, accomplished faces, I can see America’s future. Congratulations to the Class of 2016.