St. Bonaventure University - May 13, 2012
Thank you to St. Bonaventure University for this great and deeply moving honor. Thank you to Sr. Margaret and the University administration for proposing this award and to the Board of Trustees for approving it. And I add my gratitude to all the mothers who are here, and those who cannot be with us, on this special day. Our graduates, indeed all of us, owe each of you an incalculable debt for the lifetime of love and support that only a mother can give.
It is a special privilege for me to share the stage with the other two outstanding honorees. Sr. Mary Jean is an accomplished leader in Catholic health care. She and her achievements represent the great debt that all Catholics owe to our religious sisters. Jack McGinley is a personal friend and an outstanding attorney. Every alum of St. Bonaventure has benefitted from his dedicated and masterful leadership of the University’s Board of Trustees.
It is also a special honor to be at my Alma Mater, my institutional mother, on this Mother’s Day. It gives me an appropriate opportunity to acknowledge that St. Bonaventure is responsible for the three great loves of my live. The first is my wife. She was Sandy Drabik, when I met her here in our first semester in English 101. She got my attention when, on the very first day of class, she displayed her ability to recite from memory the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales-- in Middle English. That and a multitude of other considerable talents have led to the celebration of our fortieth wedding anniversary this summer. My second love at Bonaventure began with my encounter with Philosophy. To my great benefit, the study of philosophy opened a new and exciting world of ideas for me, a world I have never left. Finally, Bonaventure gave me my third love, mission-driven leadership. I learned important lessons here about leading, especially in challenging times. Those lessons gave me skills that have shaped my life positively--and have benefited, I believe, the organizations I have been privileged to lead.
I want to express my special gratitude to the University faculty. Some of you are the very same teachers who prepared me and my wife, now retired Judge Sandy Dougherty, so well for our lives and careers. The other faculty here are carrying on in that same great tradition, ensuring that a Bonaventure education is the very highest quality for every student. Thank you to all of you.
I also want to express my gratitude to the graduating students. You have not only maintained but also enhanced the Bonaventure spirit in your years here. I offer a special thank you to the graduates who were members of the student government. Your contributions have been exceptionally important to the University. Moreover, I know that the lessons you learned about leadership will serve you well throughout your careers. And thank you to our teams and to the whole student body for representing the University so well in the NCAAs. Although I admit that there have been a few occasions here when I have supported one other team, I have always been proud of the brown and white. The enthusiasm of Bonaventure students continues to make this home court one of the most difficult places for other teams to compete.
As you graduate today from this outstanding university, you leave with the deep imprint of a Franciscan Catholic education. Let me tell you what I think this will mean to you in the future, speaking from the perspective of someone who sat in your seat more than 40 years ago today.
Rarely, if ever, will you find yourself thinking or saying, “I am doing this because of my Franciscan Catholic education.” But this is not because your education won’t shape your choices. St. Bonaventure will shape your choices in very real and pervasive ways, but the shaping will be far more subtle. You will often be unaware of its impact on you in any direct way, even as it happens. But it will guide you in some of your most important decisions in life.
As you graduate, you leave here with a distinctive Bonaventure set of tuitions about life, with a special ways of seeing things and valuing the world. Often these become clear only by comparison. They rise to consciousness somewhat when you discover that others share your intuitions, but especially when you realize that they do not. You are aware of them to some extent when others see things and value the world the same way that you do, but particularly when you find that they do not.
Here are some of the areas where you may find your education shaping you. Regardless of your faith commitments now—whether highly traditional or very unorthodox—you will find that you are more intuitively religious than most of the people around you. You will see the importance of your faith and value it as part of the meaning of life, even when many around you cast theirs aside and lose their bearings without it. You will find that your Bonaventure education has given you a deep intuition that life’s very meaning is linked to love of God and neighbor.
And even when the media is filled with disheartening messages about failings within the Church itself, you have had the experience of a larger, more valuable truth. You have seen that caring men and women of faith who are selflessly devoted to others have changed, and will continue to change, the world for the better. Francis himself knew a medieval Church that was filled with abuses and contradictions. He lived through a state of affairs far worse than any we experience today, far worse than many of us can even imagine. Yet Francis saw through the human failings of an imperfect institution to the very core message of our faith—and with that intuition he made a profound difference in human history.
You will find that many of those you meet and work with lack the ability to see and reason about the big picture on any important topic. Because their educations did not include the liberal arts that were so central to your Bonaventure education, they will be blind to the key organizational role played by theory on virtually every topic. In particular, they will miss the importance of large concepts in philosophy, theology, literature, and the social sciences. And most importantly, they won’t see the practical applications these theoretical disciplines have to daily life, how they shape people and events. Without an anchor in such larger ideas, others’ views on particulars will often strike you as narrow and chaotic; at times, even outright contradictory.
In your careers, you will meet many graduates from universities with prestigious reputations from across our nation and around the world. Your first instinct may well be awe and deference to the impressive names behind their degrees. But that will change quickly when you realize that for many of them their actual talents are limited to only the few well-defined areas in which they concentrated their studies. They may know all there is to know today about A, or B or C, but they won’t be able to see their contexts, the lasting value of the whole alphabet. Without that fundamental intuition, they cannot lead. By contrast, Bonaventure has given you the intuitive tools for leadership because your liberal arts education has taught you to see and value the big picture in everything you do.
You will be surprised to learn that many of your future friends and coworkers are much less interested than you are in world events. Ironically, after four years in Olean, N.Y., you have become a citizen of the world. You will find that others from more cosmopolitan college backgrounds are nonetheless isolated and completely self-absorbed. They live in their own small worlds as if what happens in Nigeria or Costa Rica makes no difference to them at all. But Bonaventure has given you different intuitions about the connections between all human beings, about the links that bind us across all borders and divisions. You cannot be indifferent to human events wherever they occur, and especially not to the sufferings of natural and manmade tragedies.
Similarly, you may be stunned by the widespread ignorance of history among your contemporaries and by the cavalier attitudes that many of them have about the future. Again, your intuitions are different. You see that self-understanding begins with understanding our past. And your values are different. They tell you that it is our collective responsibility to shape a positive future for generations to come.
As you know, in our post 9-11 world, fear and even hatred of Muslims is widespread. Many of us are from the New York City area and lost family or friends on that terrible day, or we know of others who did. Justice for those killed or injured and prevention of another such attack are reasonable goals that we all share. But is it important that we not cast a major world religion as a universal villain. It is even more important that we not brand our own Islamic neighbors and fellow citizens as enemies.
Your Bonaventure education has given you a unique set of intuitions that are most helpful on this matter. Francis lived in the world of the Crusades when all of Christian Europe regarded Islam as composed only of violent infidels and trespassers in the Holy Lands who had to be removed by force. By contrast, Francis traveled in peace to Muslim Egypt to bear witness to the truth of the Catholic faith and to seek conversions. As it turned out, no conversions occurred. But respectful dialogue did. Francis left with an admiration for the religious devotion and deep spirituality of the Muslim world. This gave him a new way of seeing and valuing Islam—one that is available for all of us to share. And to this day, in tribute to him and his followers, and the mutual respect they fostered with Islam, all of the Christian sites in the Holy Lands are managed by Franciscans.
You are likely to find, as well, that you have a sharper intuitive sense of ethics than those around you. You will see more clearly the destructive impact of the lying and cheating, great and small, that you will encounter in your relationships and careers. And you will value more fully the admirable traits of personal integrity and respect for self and others that lie at the heart of our ethical code. Most importantly, you will be able to give reasons to yourself and to others as to why some actions are right and some are wrong—and how changing contexts may change those ethical assessments.
By contrast, so many of your future friends and colleagues will fall into two extreme camps. Some of them will be wholly indifferent to ethics. They will seek only their own immediate advantage without moral constraints. This is a path to self-destruction. On the other hand, you will meet those with exceptionally rigid moral commitments. Too many of these people will be unwilling or unable to articulate reasons for their views and will therefore be incapable of adjusting them to changing circumstances. This is a path that often destroys others.
Your Bonaventure education has given you the intuitive skills to avoid these two extremes. It allows you to see and value the balance that lies at the heart of the classical and Christian ideals of moral and religious virtue.
Generally, you will discover that you are much more intuitively empathetic to the plight of others, especially to the poor and least well-off. You will find overall that you have a more developed sense of caring about other people. The hard-edged, lack-of-compassion you will find in some people may surprise you, especially when it comes from otherwise decent individuals. Your different ways of seeing things will come to the fore when others ignore the plight of the least well-off, ridicule them, or blame them for their own misfortunes. You may never be consciously aware that your different way of seeing the poor is due to Bonaventure. But you will know intuitively that such indifference to hardship, cruel humor, or blaming those who suffer are not your values. And you will always be glad that they are not your values, glad that you do not see things that way.
You will meet and work with many people whose lives are spent racing to amass as much money and consumer goods as possible. Your Bonaventure intuitions will lead you elsewhere. Voluntary poverty like that chosen by Francis will probably never be an explicit goal in your life. Few of us have that kind of heroic vocation. But you do see the value of that deep faith commitment as few of your contemporaries can. Even those of you who will become relatively wealthy will probably do so as a byproduct of doing the work that you love, and not out of a drive for money itself. You will also, I predict, be more generous to others with what you have.
Among the saddest moments in your futures will be those in which you witness people you know sacrificing other more fundamental values for the sake of money. It is tragic when the drive for wealth leads directly to unhappiness--to the destruction of families, to theft and fraud, or to other harms to innocent people. When you see such things, you won’t have to think or say “my Bonaventure education tells me this is wrong.” You will just know it intuitively.
You will also find that your intuitions and ways of seeing and valuing things align you closely with those who are concerned to protect our environment. You will want to be a partner in avoiding ecological damage to ourselves and to other species. You’ll have a greater intuitive sense than the next person for the proper place of humans in nature. You will see, as many others do not, that human beings are part of nature and do not stand outside it or above it. You will value, as others do not, our special responsibility as caretakers within nature.
You may never use this thought consciously in a decision but a deep part of you knows and will always remember that Francis blessed animals and addressed elements of nature as his brothers and sisters. Some others who know this may dismiss these actions by Francis as mere sentiment, or even as wholly senseless. But your intuition is different. You know that this is an important part of our spiritual heritage and a powerful way to see and value all of creation for the future.
You will be surprised to learn that so many of your future friends and coworker have little affection for the place that they went to college. Where they went, they led anonymous lives and did not engage in campus activities. Many of them attended a huge college town where they were lost, a lonely needle in a state-school haystack. Or they went to school in a city where their college had no real campus identity.
But this was not your experience. You lived in a campus community that was a vibrant small town. You involved yourself in multiple student activities and then you led them. Bonaventure students may complain about driving distances and about snow, but they develop an extraordinary affection for their Alma Mater that few others college graduates share. No matter where you live, you will always have fond recollections of the special sense of place you experienced during your time here. In your memories, you will continue to see your college days set against the beauty of this campus. Bonaventure, and all the values associated with it, will come alive again for you every year when the fall leaves turn color and the first snow falls.
Finally, you know, because it is a common observation of philosophers, poets, as well as parents that the life ahead of you is filled with many challenges. Among them are hard circumstances that lead many people to despair. Death, disability, and the loss of loved ones are parts of all our lives. But what you will find truly remarkable about life is the profound difference in people’s intuitive reactions to these inevitabilities. Some people succumb to these negative realities and wallow readily in sorrow and self-pity. At the same time, there are others who see the same things but their values lead them to find happiness each day no matter what trials the day may bring.
Your parents supported your choice for St. Bonaventure, and this University has worked hard for you these last four years. One reason they did so, of course, was to help you succeed in your life and your work. And you will. But they did so, most of all, to give you the Bonaventure intuitions, ways of seeing things, and values that will place you among those who find happiness in life, come what may. They worked to give you the simple but profound gift of joy in all you do and all you experience for all your days—and for well beyond your days. I join your parents and the University in that great hope for each of you.
So I offer you my sincerest congratulations on your graduation from St. Bonaventure University. I am proud that we are now fellow alums of this great Franciscan Catholic institution. And I wish for you, your families, and the entire Bonaventure community what Francis himself wished for each of us: peace and all good things.