Delivered by Sister Mary Scullion, R.S.M., at Notre Dame’s 166th University Commencement Ceremony, held May 22, 2011 in Notre Dame Stadium
It’s truly an exciting experience being in this setting at Notre Dame, a university with such a storied history. Including, of course, college sports, which reminds me that Joan and I need to talk to Father Jenkins about getting tickets. Joan and I look forward to attending the woman’s final for next spring, when Notre Dame coached by Muffet McGraw, also from Philadelphia and a graduate from Saint Josephs University, wins it all.
Truly, Joan McConnin and I are honored and humbled to share this special day with you, the graduates of 2011; especially Connor Brennon, Jeannine O’Neill and Elizabeth Furman. Your friends and family, the Notre Dame faculty, especially Mary Rose Deangelo, the professional staff, the Holy Cross Fathers; esteemed guests, Secretary Gates, and Father Jenkins.
We accept the Laetare Medal on behalf of the entire community of Project H.O.M.E. People from all walks of life, people from all faiths, people who believe in the fundamental dignity of every single person. Families like the Connellys, Kleins, Middletons, McGuires, and Honickmans. Intelligent and faith filled Notre Dame alums such as Will O’Brien, the class of 1981, our committed friends of the Notre Dame Club and all citizens of Philadelphia, our Sisters of Mercy, and our family and friends who are with us today, Sister Cathleen Sullivan, Sister Melody, Jackie Dawson, Cathleen Owens and Mark, James, Annie and Sara McConnon and of course most especially all the men and women and children who have experienced homelessness.
The work of Project H.O.M.E. is possible because of partnerships, collaboration and leadership from sectors of all society. We believe that our greatest power is unleashed when people come across social boundaries to form a community united by a common vision of justice. As our friend and partner, Jon Bon Jovi often says, “We are made stronger when we harness the power of we.” Thinking of you graduates, who are on the cusp of forging your place in this world, I am mindful that we live in complex and deeply challenging times. Our society often measures the productivity of a person by his or her financial productivity alone and discards the unproductive along the way. We live in a society so mesmerized by our view of success that it considers real only that which can be weighed, measured, counted and touched a culture in which human and spiritual values have almost vanished from our consciousness.
Joan and I could share many stories with you, including that of a seven year old boy whom I visited in foster care because of the neglect of his drug addicted parents, who have lost so track of time that they fail to visit him on those few precious days allotted each month, days which he looks forward to eagerly and innocently, and yet days on which he is invariably disappointed. Or the story of a homeless man, a veteran of four and a half years of Vietnam, honorably discharged and lived on the streets of Philadelphia, a shell of his former person. Hating the streets and his hopeless future, screaming out at those who pass by him without knowing or caring or even seeing him, the invisible man. We invite you to try and picture these two, the innocent broken hearted boy, or the despairing non-productive, invisible man of the streets. What is our response? Our faith does not give us answers, our faith gives us courage. Our faith does not allow us to accept homelessness as an inevitable part of our urban landscape. In harmony with Catholic social teachings, Notre Dame University has made it abundantly clear that indifference to the polite of the poor is not an option.
As Catholics we are a people of hope. And in the work of Project H.O.M.E., we dare to make the hopeful assertion that we can and must end homelessness. This hope is grounded in reality, the reality of concrete solutions that have proven themselves over many years. We know what works; we know how to end homelessness. The reality of a community of people, with the common vision of justice and compassion, that community is a source of tremendous power. But that community must grow if we are to make greater progress. And we invite you to bring the profound resources of your faith and your intellect to the work of ending homelessness, of building as the beloved Dr. Martin Luther King described as “the beloved community.”
The Latin on the Laetare Medal translates: “The truth is mighty and it shall prevail.” This speaks to the greatest need in our world today. We need committed people to live truthfully. We need men and women with the intellectual and spiritual gifts that equip you to pierce through the falsehoods, deceits and the cover ups that are so much a part of our society and even our church today. Such is our ability to find over one hundred and fifty billion dollars in a few short weeks to bail out financial institutions, but at that same time we cannot find enough money to house our people and educate our children. Or when cities across our country pass laws to arrest panhandlers and people on the street, while Wall Street executives face no justice for their corrupt decisions that lead to millions of Americans losing their homes, and their savings.
We need people that can see through the hypocrisy, and stand up for America’s promise of justice and liberty for all. We need people to stand squarely on the side of the poor, and those who are struggling on the margins of our society. We need people to believe that everyone matters, and that there are no throw away people in our world.
I believe that this is our very mission of Notre Dame, to turn the ethics, theories and knowledge that you have learned here into the living breathing expressions of truth of human dignity and of social justice. You must refuse to be blinded by the false values of excessive individualism and phony materialism. You must pave the way in reigniting the quest for the common good. As Joan often reminds us, “Strive to live the life you admire, rather than the one you envy.” Part of our living truthfully according to our faith is a willingness to enter into the world of suffering and struggle. When I was in college, I was touched by the words of a Jesuit, Pedro Orrupe, who said, “If there is hunger anywhere in our world, the Eucharist is incomplete everywhere in our world.” We don’t get involved simply out of a sense of moral duty or obligation. We are drawn towards mercy, compassion and justice, because in the mystery of the gospel we recognize that our common humanity is what is at stake.
This is what we have found over 30 years in working with those who have experienced homelessness, mental illness and addiction. We become most fully human when we enter into the mystery of suffering and with God’s grace, tap into the miracles of transformation and healing. And we see those miracles occurring daily at Project H.O.M.E. A man who has refused to come off the streets 20 times, comes in on the 21st time. A young woman who spent the first 10 years of her life homeless came to Project H.O.M.E. with her recovering mother and 10 years later she’s a junior at Albright College, and her mother is working full time. A 50-year old woman who is mentally disabled is completing her college degree, while working at the HOME Page Café.
It might seem a strange thing to say to people who are about to launch your professional careers, but we are convinced that we must be a people who see beyond what we can touch, weigh, measure and count. We must be a people who believe in the essential dignity of the human spirit. If the spirit withers within us, so too will the world we build around it. Nazism will stand forever as an indictment of progress for its own sake. We must take the small steps on that long journey, to where the waste land ends and human wholeness and fulfillment begin. As the prophet Isaiah says, “If you spend yourself on behalf of the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness. Your night will become like the noon day.” We need your light and the truth to shine brightly across our cities, our country, our church, and our world.
Thank you and congratulations.