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President's Office | Remarks: Georgetown University Commencement, 2002

Freedom, Justice, Hope: The Witness of the University

President DeGioia, Dean McAuliffe, members of the faculty and Board of Directors of Georgetown University, distinguished guests, and you, the Class of 2002 of Georgetown College: I am humbled by this honor and grateful for the recognition that you have given to me and to Trinity College today! I accept with delight on behalf of Trinity, whose heritage many Georgetown families also share through the mothers, wives, daughters, aunts and sisters who have walked our Marble Corridor across the generations. 35 years ago Georgetown honored another Trinity president, Sister Margaret Claydon, SND, the greatest of all of our presidents — she even survived being my president in my student days. To follow in her footsteps is thrilling!

I have been privileged to serve my undergraduate alma mater during these last 13 years, and my prior life at Georgetown Law Center certainly prepared me well. As President DeGioia knows, there is a special grace that comes with the invitation to a lay person to assume leadership in a place sustained for centuries by the commitment of religious people. Like the Jesuits at Georgetown, the Sisters of Notre Dame at Trinity had the wisdom to choose a plot of ground close to the seat of government for their college, a unique place, a women’s college founded at a time when that was quite daring. The SND’s selflessly nurtured Trinity for generations through their contributed services. When the time came to welcome a lay leader, they did so with a great generosity of spirit and constant encouragement.

Trinity and Georgetown have followed very different paths in the last three decades, and yet, the challenges of this historic moment are quite the same for both institutions.

This was the year the world went mad.

From that bright September day when the twin towers melted into a toxic cloud, we have sensed that we are hanging precariously close to an abyss whose depth we cannot fathom. American soldiers are once more crawling across a hostile landscape far away, and American bombs are once more leveling impoverished Asian villages. Young people with delusions of martyrdom are blowing themselves up on the streets of Israel, and in distant Russian cities. Starvation courses through southern Africa but we are distracted by the specter of our very own mailboxes grown dangerous. Powerful men in dark suits wearing ties or Roman collars appear in Congress and courthouses to explain inexplicable behavior. Religion is the wrong thread in too many headlines. In one edition of the New York Times the siege at the Church of the Nativity flanked a photo of Boston’s Cardinal heading into a deposition, almost obscuring a smaller article about a church bombing in Colombia that killed 117 people, including 40 children, part of the long-running drug war there. Their town was called “Bellavista.” Indeed. And I haven’t even mentioned Rwanda, Congo, China, Bosnia, or Northern Ireland.

On September 11, the day the terror came home to all of us in this nation, the words of Yeats kept running through my mind:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

Gradually, in the weeks and months since that terrible day, a new question took shape as I tried to make sense of our shared enterprise in higher education after the cataclysm:

What is the witness of the university in a world gone mad?

Even more, to be president of a place called Trinity, to be invited to speak on the hallowed ground of Georgetown, I must ask as well: what is the witness of a university that dares call itself Catholic in a time of moral confusion and even failure? I only have a few minutes, and these are lifelong questions. But I must at least suggest the outline of an answer for your contemplation, and, more important, action in the months and years to come.

Simply put, the university is the rational center that must hold when all else has gone mad. The witness we give to our world is our reverence for the durability of knowledge, the ultimate sanctity of truth as the transcendent force making sense of human existence. Our witness is the voice of reason over the madness of the street; the patient whisper of charity piercing the rage of vengeance; the resounding roar of outrage confronting appalling injustice; the steely tone of ethical resolve filling the silent chambers of deceit; the grace-filled melody of hope against the mournful bass of humanity’s awesome sorrow; the truth spoken clearly to illuminate the wilful darkness of tyranny. “Truth flourishes where the student’s lamp has shone.., ” Yeats in a more hopeful mood.

Among the many forms of witness that a university must give to the world through the lives and works of its graduates, I ask you to consider just three today:

First, the witness of freedom.

Second, the witness of integrity and justice through action for the common good.

Third, the witness of hope.

Let me take them one at a time.

First, the witness of freedom.

Universities are stewards of the freedom that gives true democracy its ballast. It is not mere coincidence that the greatest university system in history arose in the most advanced democratic society civilization has ever known. It is not mere coincidence that John Carroll founded this eminent university not far from the future seat of government in the same year that the United States Constitution was ratified. With this pride of place in location and history, Georgetown has profoundly influenced the development of this nation through the work of its graduates and influence of its faculty research and teaching. It is not coincidence, but, rather, a compelling mission that draws people who thirst for freedom from around the world to Georgetown. Consider the remarkable gathering of members of the Afghan community with Afghan Chairman Hamid Karzai in McDonough gym earlier this year, one of the more recent of many examples of Georgetown’s leadership on the world stage on behalf of democracy and human rights. Across town, on a somewhat smaller scale, but particularly important for women, Trinity College, too, accepts the responsibility of its history and place in Washington to educate a broad diversity of students and to cultivate exceptional citizen leaders. I note with pride that Trinity Alumna Nancy Pelosi, Trinity Class of 1962, the highest ranking woman in the Congress of the United States, will receive an honorary degree today as well from the School of Foreign Service.

John Adams once wrote to Abigail that, “I must study politics and war that my children may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy….” Implicit in his pithy statement is the idea that the education of each generation must make the world a little freer for the next. By accepting these degrees today, we daughters and sons of Georgetown also accept the profound obligation of stewardship manifest in the ways in which our life’s work enlarges freedom for all people.

The exercise of basic freedoms on university campuses is an essential part of the protection of liberty in the society at large. Nearly four decades ago, in the heyday of the human rights movement in this country, universities were the safe harbors of free thought and free speech that kindled a social revolution, stopped a war, changed institutional governance, and permanently transformed American thinking about presidential power, military prerogative, academic freedom and the rights of citizens.

Where is that energy today? Where are the voices of the universities in this time of war and global danger? Where is the exuberant exercise of free speech in a raucous debate over the conduct of this new war? Do we have it in us to be as passionate about the ethics of the camp in Guantanamo as we can be about parking on campus? Where is the expression of outrage over the increasingly ominous threats to civil liberties in the name of national security? New federal regulations treat international students with suspicion and limit their fields of study. Academic freedom itself is in jeopardy, yet even on that score, the university community has been remarkably reticent on the question of how our nation can mount an effective program of national defense without trampling upon the very individual rights and freedoms we seek to protect. We need the passion of our past brought to bear on the problems of our present if we are to have any hope for peace in the future.

Consider, further, the witness of integrity and justice through action for the common good. Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “Justice is…the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice.”

The protagonists of too many of today’s headlines seem to be stone deaf. When facts are manipulated for the sake of self-protection, when responsibility is sloughed-off to subordinates, when the awesome privilege of moral leadership is cloaked in veils of legal strategy, the community is harmed grievously, and the conscience of the whole community is deeply offended.

The Greek philosopher and lawgiver Solon is often quoted as saying that, “Justice will not come until those who have not been harmed are just as outraged as those who have been harmed.”

It’s high time for a little outrage.

Where is the outrage for the children and families who have suffered physical abuse and emotional cruelty perpetrated by some of the most trusted people in their lives? Where is the outrage over the betrayal of trust, the erosion of belief in an institution once synonymous with faith in our lives?

A university that dares to call itself Catholic must be particularly concerned about its witness of truth, integrity and justice because these values are inextricably woven into the fabric of our faith. Ex Corde Ecclesiae tells us that a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths, and the most uncomfortable truth right now is that the scandal is under our own religious roof. The evidence of sheer moral failure is stunning; the voice of justice clamors outside the chancery.

Let us seek grace in this moment of pain. Catholic universities in this moment can and must rise above our customary aloofness from parish and school life by reaching out to lay and religious colleagues in the parishes, welcoming friends from all other faiths who can walk with us across this difficult terrain, for a serious examination of the issues confronting the future of our Church. We can be pastors as well as professors in a community that needs so much healing. Catholic universities should extend our traditions of academic freedom, intellectual rigor and pastoral ministry to create a new moment of aggiornamento for the Church in America. Lumen Gentium calls us a priestly people, obliged to share our faith; Gaudium et Spes exhorts us to read the signs of the times . The Century of the Laity is at hand, the future of our Church depends on how well we respond to the call to action. Let leadership for the renewal of our Church be the witness of the Catholic universities to this crisis of justice, trust and truth. Such renewal must begin with an unapologetic demand that justice be accorded to the victims without further delay or legal expense and psychological trauma; and that those responsible for this scandal do the right thing for the faithful: tell us the truth, and concede leadership to others who can restore trust and faith.
Consider, finally, the witness of hope. Speaking several weeks ago at the School of Foreign Service where he received the Dean’s Medal, Holocaust Witness Elie Wiesel expressed deep anguish over the intractable situation in the Middle East, but he reminded his audience of the essential need for hope. “The soul cannot live without hope,” he said, even if hope is found “at the bottom of Pandora’s Box among the curses of the world.”

Another Georgetown Laureate South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote No Future Without Forgiveness concerning the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He offered this wry observation on the divine plan: “God does have a sense of humor. Who in their right minds could ever have imagined South Africa to be an example of anything but the most ghastly awfulness of how not to order a nation’s race relations and its governance? We South Africans were the unlikeliest lot and that is precisely why God has chosen us… God wants to point to us as a possible beacon of hope…”

Writing in a different nation with its own tortured history of injustice, the poet Maya Angelou expressed hope even more simply:

…Up from a past that’s rooted in pain…I rise…
…Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear…I Rise…
…I am the dream and the hope of the slave….I Rise.

Rise. Resurrection. Hope. The ultimate witness of the university in a world gone mad is the ability of its graduates to lead that rising, to have that courage to pursue truth and reconciliation, to lift up the worst among God’s creatures from the bottom of that Pandora’s Box, to restore hope in the ultimate possibility of resurrection for all in our global community.

Commencement is the academy’s traditional ceremony of hope. The ancient ritual and rhetoric of this day is purposefully designed to lift you up as our hope for the future. You may think it a bit corny, but you must never call it trite: you are our hope for the future, the hoods around your necks mark you as people of higher learning, blessed with the gift of knowledge, a talented few whose life’s work will bring joy and hope to so many. You are Georgetown’s witness to freedom, to justice and integrity, to hope.

May your witness bring reason to the madness of evil; may your charity and love bring comfort to those who are suffering so much; may your life’s work be a source of bountiful good for this world, hope for future generations and faithful stewardship of the gifts you have received here at Georgetown. May the work of your lives be a labor of love, sustaining your families, enlarging your friendships, enriching your souls, giving honor and glory to God in abundance.

Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email:



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