My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Fifty years ago, I graduated from St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. It was an honor for me to be invited back this year to my alma mater to deliver the commencement address. This time of the year always reminds me of the great impact that our educational institutions have on our young. St. Benedict’s made a profound impression upon my life. Last week as I attended the graduation of my goddaughter at Providence College, it was clear that this wonderful college run by the Dominican friars made an equally significant impact upon her life.
In keeping with its annual tradition, the diocesan Bishop of Brooklyn offers the opening prayer for St. John’s University’s graduation exercises. As a strong believer in the power of Catholic institutions to change the lives of those whom they serve, graduation is one of the highlights of the year.
Think back to your own graduations from high school, college, or graduate school. What do you remember? Was it the talk by the guest speaker, or what the Valedictorian or the Salutatorian said? I recently dug out my old high school yearbook and found an inscription written by one of my priest teachers. He wrote in Latin, ad astra per aspera, which means to the stars through hard work. I was always a good student, but one who had to work hard to achieve good marks. My Latin professor knew it well. He gave me this phrase I will never forget. We can achieve much but it demands discipline and hard work.
At St. John’s graduation, Steve Lavin, the head basketball coach who had just overcome a battle with cancer, spoke so well about his new appreciation for life. At Providence College, the commencement speaker was Viola Davis, the Academy Award winning actress who had the starring role in “The Help.” She spoke in down-to-earth terms about her struggles in life as an African-American.
With the help of Msgr. John Strynkowski, Vicar for Higher Education, I have made a special effort to engage the presidents of our Catholic and secular colleges and universities. Once a year, we have a dinner and all are invited and most do attend. The conversation is always very stimulating and we enjoy getting together with one another in a relaxed atmosphere. Even the public institutions seldom have a chance to speak candidly to one another. There have been several fruitful outcomes by bringing these academics together. One of which I am particularly proud is a city-wide program of engaging all the colleges and universities in New York City in an immigration project, the seeds of which were planted at one of our dinners.
We cannot underestimate the need for quality Catholic education in our diocese. With the exception of Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, all our Catholic high schools are independent. Under the leadership of Sister Angela Gannon, C.S.J., secretary for Catholic education, we are now in the midst of a new project where we will attempt to strengthen the Catholic identity of our high schools. We all have to recommit ourselves to forge these vital and meaningful relationships. One step forward in this project is the conferral of Confirmations for our Catholic high school students who have not been fully initiated into the Church. Many other useful programs are in the planning stage.
As our new graduates put out into the deep we wish them well. With the help of our prayers they will find as I found, ad astra per aspera!