Christopher Patten (Lord Patten of Barnes): 2015 Commencement Address

by Notre Dame News

Text as provided.

Father Jenkins, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, and most importantly distinguished members of the Class of 2015, I want to thank you for including me in this splendid occasion.

Oxford University Chancellor Christopher Patten receives an honorary doctorate from Father Jenkins, C.S.C., left, and Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Notebaert Oxford University Chancellor Christopher Patten receives an honorary doctorate from Father Jenkins, C.S.C., left, and Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Notebaert

A few years ago, a group of parents of girls in a poor African country wrote to the late Duke of Norfolk, head of one of the oldest Catholic families in Britain, saying that they wanted to start a new school for their daughters, to name it after the Duke’s stately home, and to use his family motto which dated back to Henry the VIIIth and Tudor times.

The Duke replied saying that he would be delighted to have a new girls’ school named after his home. But he added that the parents might want to think again before using his family motto for their daughters’ school. It might sound all right in Latin, he said, but roughly translated into English it read “pregnant with honor.”

Well, I feel pregnant with honor today.

Honored by this degree. Honored to be here in the year when you are paying tribute to one of the great priests, one of the great Catholics, one of the great educators, one of the great Americans of the last half-century and more. Honored to receive this degree alongside such a distinguished group of people and especially as well to share today with the class of 2015. A class which will surely help to shape the world in the years ahead — shape it in ways that would have given Father Hesburgh cause for justified pride.

I am honoured as well to share today with those who are distinguished by the way they have already shaped the world, and on whom you have now bestowed honorary degrees.

And I am honoured to share in the joy of the families and friends who are present this morning for what is such an important rite of passage for every family. Those of you who are about to receive your degrees have been applauded by your families and friends. Perhaps you would like now to give your grateful applause to them for all their support and all their love.

Had history — or rather had my forebears — taken a different geographical turn, I might have found myself here at Notre Dame as a student some decades ago.

Like many of you, I guess, I am a descendant of economic migrants from Ireland in the mid-19th century, Irish emigrants fighting for a better life. My own family headed east for industrial England, rather than west across the Atlantic. But many of my father’s and stepfather’s relatives emigrated here to this land of liberty — a continental nation which provided haven and home for so many millions. They became, those members of my family, teachers, doctors, policemen and priests in their new homes. For their part my own grandparents, whose family had sailed to England, became head-teachers at elementary schools in the slums of industrial Manchester at the beginning of the 20th century, educating the children of Irish and Italian immigrants.

I imagine that my Irish ancestors would have been surprised to discover that their descendant was the public official who was the last governor of Hong Kong and closed the last chapter in the history of the British Empire. Such are the complications of identity. It is perhaps a personal paradox that I have spent some of my life working with others to deal with the violent consequences of extremist identity politics in Ireland and in the Balkans. So instead of being one of the “fighting Irish,” I spent several years trying to end years of more deadly fighting between the British and Irish before we eventually found a more peaceful way of sharing our green and beautiful archipelago off the mainland of Europe.

You must forgive me for my ignorance of commencement addresses. They are a great part of the academic life in American universities but almost unknown in Britain. So I read some of those given here in the past and I even looked at them on YouTube. I think I now understand what I am expected to do. The exam question for the speaker is this: What advice can I give, without being too sanctimonious or soppy, on how to live a fulfilled and happy life? So let me begin by telling you a true story about an event that had more effect on me than any other in my public life.

It was over 25 years ago. I was Britain’s Overseas Development Minister — running my country’s aid program — and I was visiting hunger-ravaged Ethiopia. While there, I wanted to go and see some of the refugee camps on Ethiopia’s western border. They provided sanctuary for thousands who were fleeing the fighting in their own country, Sudan, between the Islamists in the north and the Christian south, fighting that continues to this day, though some of it is between different Christian factions.

Now, you had to be pretty desperate to flee Sudan for Ethiopia.

To get to the distant camp, we flew from Addis Ababa in a small plane. It was the same plane that a few weeks later crashed on a similar journey, killing Congressman Mickey Leland, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and 14 others. We arrived at the camps in Fuguido; camps which are still there today, full of new waves of refugees. You can see their photographs on the Internet — hungry, smiling boys and girls.

The camps at Fuguido were even then home to large numbers of children, mainly boys. They had fled a war in which they feared with justification that if they were caught they could be raped and then killed. Typically, groups of boys had headed across the parched terrain of southeast Sudan, led by senior pupils at their schools. The temperature was well over 100 F. There was little water and food on the journey. They survived on what they could scavenge — roots, bark on trees — under a baleful iron blue sky and the implacable sun. On average about half the boys died on that road across Golgotha. I asked one little boy, and I remember his age because he was the same age as my daughter, how they had found their way to the border. “It was easy.” he replied. “We followed the bodies.”

The camp authorities had started a school, led by a Lutheran pastor, with the teaching in the hands of older children who had matriculated. I spoke to the students who were drawn up in a big circle around me, thousands of them.

The pastor then asked me if they could sing the Lord’s Prayer to me in their national language, a Nilotic dialect called Dinka. And then — with much ululation and many Hallelujahs — he said they would like to sing a passage — again in Dinka — from the Book of Isaiah. I asked him what it was and he told me it was the second verse of chapter 9. No Biblical scholar, I assumed it was the passage about beating swords into ploughshares and thought no more about it.

But later that evening, back in Addis Ababa, after a good dinner, in my bedroom at the British Ambassador’s charming Edwardian bungalow on the hill above the city, with all the nighttime noises of an African city drifting up from the valley below — the insects and the barking dogs — and with a big fan turning slowly and noisily above my head, I noticed a copy of the Bible on my bedside table and looked up the passage that the refugees had sung. But it wasn’t the verse about ploughshares. It was a text familiar to us all from the Christmas service of carols and lessons. Isaiah 9:2 in the King James Version:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

Those boys and girls had walked in darkness. That’s for certain. And they still dwell in the land of the shadow of death. Their tortured and often short lives an affront to our sense of common humanity. And what of us? What of my children? What of me? Well, the light has surely shined on us.

Here you are, most of you American citizens, most of you American Catholics, all of you graduates now of one of the greatest universities, one of the greatest Catholic universities, in the world. A university which is proudly autonomous, that governs itself, where the products of research are shared with and tested by the minds of those being taught, where — to borrow from the blessed Cardinal John Newman, an alumnus of my own university — “discoveries are verified and perfected and … error exposed by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.” A university which has shown bravely that mutual tolerance and strong faith can go hand-in-hand, can reinforce each other. A university which believes in the central role in our lives of mercy and compassion, a university which has understood the meaning of St. Matthew’s Gospel — “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” A university which has lived by Christianity’s “golden rule” which that Gospel animates. A university which is a pillar of a decent pluralist civilization. A university which stands four-square against ugliness and prejudice. A university with a moral core.

So for those of you on whom the light has shone, who don’t live in the land of the shadow of death, how should you try to continue to be happy and to live a truly fulfilled life?

The answer is prosaically simple: By putting some of what you have received from your community, your country, your church, your family, back into making the world a little better day by day, year by year. From those who are fortunate much is rightly expected, as Father Hesburgh taught.

In civic terms as Americans, don’t forget that you are citizens of what is still the richest, most powerful and the most influential country in the world. This world was made a better place by the institutions of global governance that America above other countries put in place after victory in the last world war. Today, we need international cooperation more than ever. No nation however strong can on its own tackle the problems that threaten to engulf us. Yet we now see the institutions of global cooperation fraying and disintegrating. Institutions created by great Americans like President Roosevelt and President Truman. American leadership will be required to reinvigorate the international response to one problem after another. Responsibility and leadership are never easy, but they cannot be shrugged off. If America does not lead, then who will do so? You are the world’s only superpower. Great responsibilities and great duties are attached to that. They cannot be disowned.

And what of being a Catholic American?

Let me turn to statistics, Class 1, a class which Pope Francis is keen that we should take.

There’s a story about an emperor, whose principal adviser was retiring. He had done a good job and the emperor asked him what gift he would like. He replied that he would like one grain of rice in the first square of a chess-board, doubled-up for each subsequent square. Just try the math. One on the first square, two on the second, 32 on the sixth, over 4,000 on the 13th, more than 2 billion on the 32nd. By the time you get to the last, you require more rice than has been produced in the history of the world. That is exponentialism for you; that is the logical outcome of measuring what is good each year principally by how much more of everything you get and consume. Now in Europe, in comparison with say, life in the 13th century when St. Francis himself lived in Assisi, we are on the seventh square — we are 64 times better off today than we were back then. How much better off still can we get or do we want to get? When does exponentialism collapse exhausted? When does it blow up our planet as Pope Francis has reminded us?

In the century ahead, through most of which you will live, the greatest challenge for you, the class of 2015, will be to help to find a standard of living which is sustainable, which doesn’t destroy us all, and to find a quality of living which doesn’t exclude so many of our fellow citizens. What sort of moral outrage is it that shuts out millions of the world’s poor when the world is so rich? What sort of insult is it to our professed Christianity when rich countries deny a place at the table to so many of their citizens who go hungry?

A fulfilled and happy life is not counted in first-class air tickets, Caribbean or skiing holidays, end-of-year bonuses or the trappings of celebrity. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. But that is not how you measure happiness and fulfillment. You do not build on sand. Happiness comes by making the most of your advantages and your good luck so that others can have a better life themselves.

I looked back in March at the film of Father Hesburgh’s Funeral Mass and at the Wake which preceded it. At the Wake, you sang a hymn set to a great piece of music taken from the Planet Suite by Gustav Holst whose home on the banks of the Thames was about 200 yards from where I live today. The hymn you sing to that tune is called “O God Beyond All Praising.” We sing different words, a different hymn, to that tune, which was written after the First World War by a British ambassador to the United States. It is called “I Vow To Thee My Country.” Sometimes it is deemed by a few as too patriotic for singing in a church, an example of the terrible ravages of political correctness. But the words of the last verse would, I think, have caught the meaning of Father Hesburgh’s life, and I think caught what he would have wanted you to take from your education at this great university – “God, Country, Notre Dame” –

“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know,
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently, her shining bounds increase;
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

So, as Father Hesburgh himself did, help those shining bounds to increase. Help the light shine on more of those who still dwell in the land of the shadow of death. Help the light shine on all those who have not had the good, the towering, the fantastic fortune to belong to the incomparable, the unbeatable, the incredible, the exceptional, the inimitable, the unmatchable, the peerless class of 2015.