A Commencement Lesson: The Law of the Gift

With a special embrace of all our graduates—from eighth grade, high school, and college—let me share with you this Ascension Thursday my commencement address last Saturday in Washington, D.C., at The Catholic University of America.

Cardinal Wuerl, our eminent chancellor;

Archbishop Vigneron, the chair, and my fellow members of the Board of Trustees;

President Garvey, officers of the administration and distinguished faculty;

rightly radiant class of 2012, with your family and friends, now proud alumni of this venerable and renowned university:

Thanks for your gracious invitation and warm welcome; thanks for the honor you bestow upon me, in company with Father Julian Carrón, Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta, [and Carmen Ana Casal de Unanue, and Joseph A. Unanue, who I understand are not able to be with us today;] thanks especially for being true to the noble mission of this great university; and thanks, class of 2012, for the hope and promise you give all of us. Congratulations!

I do this quite a bit—speaking at commencements. I enjoy it. This spring alone I have or will give three university commencement addresses, two at our high schools, one at an eighth-grade occasion, and even an address at Pre-K graduation. Bring ’em on! I love them!

But this one this morning is especially meaningful for me, as I myself am a proud and grateful alumnus of this institution of highest learning, having left here 30 years ago… and just finished paying my tuition…sorry to bring that up!…; and because I am deeply grateful, as a Catholic, and as an American, for the iconic value of this, The Catholic University of America.

Just six days ago, Pope Benedict XVI, in addressing bishops from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, spoke warmly of Catholic education here in the United States, and of the need of our Catholic colleges and universities “…to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service to the Gospel.”

The Holy Father showed a somber realism, though, when he expanded that need to include “…ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate, becoming all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership…”

Is not a big part of our gladness and pride this happy morning of graduation a grateful recognition that this university does indeed exude such “ecclesial communion and solidarity?” That this university is both Catholic and American, flowing from the most noble ideals of truth and respect for human dignity that are at the heart of our Church and our country? That a university’s genuine greatness comes not from pursuing what is most chic, recent, or faddish, but what is most timeless, true, good, and beautiful in creation and creatures? That the true goal of a university is to prepare a student not only for a career but for fullness of life here and in eternity?

Some wonder if Pope Benedict’s description of a university is way too impractical; if a university can be really Catholic and American; if the real freedom a university demands can flourish on a campus whose very definition includes a loyalty to Holy Mother Church…well, to them I say, as you and I did, “Let them come to Brookland!” This university you can now, with me, call alma mater, at the heart of our nation, is also ex corde ecclesiae, from the heart of the Church.

The Holy Father mentions not only truth as being at the core of the mission of a Catholic university, but also love. So I want to tell you about a wonderful woman named Clara Almazo. Just a little over a month ago, Clara and her little 8-year-old grandson, Michael, were walking home from Holy Thursday Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish on Staten Island. As they crossed the street, a car barreled toward them, with little Michael in the crosshairs. His abuela, Grandma Clara, pushed her grandson away to safety, taking herself the whole force of the car, and was instantly killed.

Clara’s selfless act of heroic love was, as you might imagine, the tearful talk of New York over the Easter weekend. No one failed to note that her life-giving act was made the more poignant as it came on the night before Jesus died, returning from the Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper, when He spoke of His own sacrificial death, and where he gave the touching example of selfless service in washing the feet of His apostles.

When I celebrated her funeral on Easter Tuesday, every one of her 13 children and 23 grandchildren were profoundly sad; but not one of them was surprised, for through their sobs, they told me she was a woman of constant, heroic, selfless giving.

Jesus Christ…His Church…this university…Clara Almazo…truth…love…the words of Pope Benedict…the achievement and the hopes of the class of 2012…

…might I suggest these all coalesce in what we call the Law of the Gift.

“Greater love than this no one has, than to give one’s life for one’s friends.” There’s the Law of the Gift as defined by the Son of God Himself.

“It is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” There’s the Law of the Gift as chanted by St. Francis.

“I know Jesus Christ, who sacrificed His life for us. I understand well the meaning of His cross. I am ready to give my life for my people.” There’s the Law of the Gift according to Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Catholic government minister, a veteran activist in defense of the rights of religious minorities, murdered by extremists only last year.

“For we are at our best, we are most fully alive and human, when we give away freely and sacrificially our very selves in love for another.” There’s the Law of the Gift as described by Blessed John Paul II.

It should not surprise us that the Church founded by Jesus Christ, nourished by the blood of the martyrs, serenaded by a Francis, led by a John Paul II, loved by a Clara Almazo, should have as its charter the Law of the Gift.

Not long ago at a dinner I sat next to Admiral Mike Mullen, a Marine, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, himself a Catholic, who asked me, “What percent of the American population is Catholic?”

I replied, “About 24 percent.”

“But do you realize,” he went on, “that 40 percent of the Marine Corps identify themselves as Catholic?”

I did not realize that, but I was not surprised, nor was Admiral Mullen, for at the heart of the Church’s ethos is the Law of the Gift, and it would be tough to be a Marine— or to be an abuela like Clara Almazo—if you didn’t believe in that.

Or, as the head of the department of pediatric oncology at a leading hospital recently told me, “Cardinal Dolan, I’m not even a believer, but, when I hire doctors, nurses, attendants, or staff for this grueling work of trying to heal kids with cancer, the applicants who are alumni of Catholic school have a leg up.”

I didn’t know that either, but, I’m hardly surprised, for, while it’s sure not listed in any catalogue, the course on the L
aw of the Gift is part of the DNA of any Catholic school, this sterling one included.

So, I conclude that all of you, at this university where every classroom features the most effective audio-visual aid of them all, the crucifix; and where the entire campus is overshadowed by the dome of the shrine devoted to the Jewish woman who whispered, “Be it done unto me according to your will, not mine,” that I’m looking out at graduates who have majored in this Law of the Gift.

Now, let’s be clear: I’m hardly claiming that Catholics have sole “bragging rights” on fostering, protecting, and obeying this Law of the Gift. The exaltation of selfless, sacrificial love and service is at the marrow of every religion, and, as a matter of fact, on the ground floor of most purely humanistic values.

However, even our critics admit that a particularly pointed contribution that religion, that the Church, that faith makes to any enduring culture, society, or nation is that it has a honed talent to foster, protect, and obey the Law of the Gift.

Without the Law of the Gift we have no Marines, fewer effective pediatric oncologists, no Shahbaz Bhattis, and no Clara Almazos. Religion, faith, the Church promote a culture built on the Law of the Gift. Thus, wise people from Alexis de Tocqueville to John Courtney Murray—both of whose work I was forced to read while a student here—have observed that an essential ingredient in American wisdom is the freedom it allows for religion to flourish. Thus would I predict that a challenge you, class of 2012, will face is the defense of religious freedom as part of both our American and creedal legacy.

Now, one final thing: You all had a head start in learning the Law of the Gift and the importance of faith to sustain it.

For, see, the Law of the Gift is most poetically exemplified in the lifelong, life-giving, faithful, intimate union of a man and woman in marriage, which then leads to the procreation of new life in babies, so that husband and wife, now father and mother, spend their lives sacrificially loving and giving to those children. That union—that sacred rhythm of man/woman/husband/wife/baby/mother/father—is so essential to the common good that its very definition is ingrained into our interior dictionary, that its protection and flourishing is the aim of culture.

And your tutelage in the Law of the Gift, class of 2012, was only refined here at this Catholic University, for it began in the most sublime classroom of them all, your home and family, under the most significant of all professors, your mom and dad. Congratulations, parents of our graduates! Thanks for living out the Law of the Gift.

That we are at our best when we give ourselves away in love to another—the Law of the Gift—is I’m afraid, “counter-cultural” today:

• in an era that prefers getting to giving, and entitlement to responsibility;

• in a society that considers every drive, desire, or urge as a right, and where convenience and privacy can trump even the right to life itself;

• and in a mindset where freedom is reduced to the liberty to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever, however, with whomever we want, rather than the duty to do what we ought…well, the Law of the Gift can be as ignored as a yellow traffic light in New York City.

At one of the eighth-grade commencements I attended, as referred to earlier, the 14-year-old student speaker called his classmates to pay attention to the words of John F. Kennedy, 52 years ago, observing that the temptations he and his classmates were facing now is to ask what your family, your friends, your Church, and your country can do for you, rather than what you can do for them.

Not bad advice at all, leading me to conclude that his parish grade school was also granting degrees in the Law of the Gift.

So, I praise God that I look out at graduates among whom are new Clara Almazos, children of beaming parents, now alumni of a university where goodness, truth, and beauty reign and where every student majors in the Law of the Gift.

Congratulations, class of 2012!