Commencement Address (Abridged)
By Francis Cardinal George
June 9, 2001
Dear graduates, the education you've received here at Thomas Aquinas College has begun to set you free and will continue to do so to pursue the truth in life, to discern good from evil, to recognize falsehood and destructive ways of living, to live life at the highest level possible: a life lived in communion with God and with all those whom God loves. Where do we encounter and experience this life-giving communion most intensely and see it in ways that are not available without our celebrating the liturgy? Of course, we find it in our gathering precisely to celebrate the Eucharist, to celebrate the mystery of Christ's saving death and resurrection. And while the Church has made much progress in liturgical renewal in some ways, to establish the necessary connection between liturgy and life remains still the continuing challenge to Catholics everywhere. Without this connection, the faith that establishes Eucharistic communion may be, for you and for me, a source of personal motivation. But it cannot be something that organizes our life, privately and publicly.
It is nearly 100 years since Pope Saint Pius X instructed the Catholic people to make the liturgy the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful derive the Christian spirit. The changes in the liturgy mandated by the Second Vatican Council were not intended to be merely external changes in format and language, but rather, changes in the way the liturgy was to express the mysteries of faith and was to shape the lives of the people involved in its celebration.
Romano Guardini, a great German liturgist, in an open letter to the 1964 German Liturgical Congress at Mainz, just a few months after the publication of the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy suggested that the question facing us would be whether we would be content simply to revise text and rubrics and offer better explanations of the meaning of the rites or whether, as he said, we would relearn a forgotten way of doing things, recapture lost attitudes. Guardini and many of the liturgical pioneers - Lambert, Beaudoin, Josef Jungman, Driedel Hilenbrand from Chicago and others - realized that the external reform of the liturgical text and rituals would not at all automatically communicate the spirit of the liturgy, which in fact, was the spirit that these pioneers in the liturgical renewal sought to recapture for the Church.
To recover this spirit of the liturgy now, we must not only reconcile the dynamic of personal and communal prayer such as we heard a few moments ago. We must also probe deeper into the relationship of the individual to the community and the community to the individual. The core and effect of participation in the liturgy, of establishing through word and symbolic action, our entry into the mystery of Christ's self-sacrifice for our salvation is an evermore intense experience of personal conversion, which leads us into communion, not only with God, but with others. Full and active participation in the liturgy leads people to embrace the truth, to take up the cross, and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, throughout every dimension of their lives.
The pastoral problem that the priests and others involved in the ministry of the Church often meet is the kind of segregation of the Sunday Eucharist from everything else that follows the other days of the week. That means, however, if that happens (and it does happen) that the Eucharist has not been celebrated as the Church wants us to celebrate it. The liturgy invites us to a new life and shapes our attitudes towards this life. The liturgy does not merely express who we are and what we believe, but helps us to discover who we are and what we can become in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.
In Jesus' great priestly prayer, in the Gospel according to St. John, just before He surrendered Himself to His death, He addressed His Father, Whom He has told us that we may now dare to call Our Father, and prayed, "I pray not only for them but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, so that they may all be one as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they may also be in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me." If we are not one, the world will not believe. Which explains, I think very much, why after 2000 years only 20% of the world knows who Jesus Christ truly is from within His body, the Church.
Here there is the emphasis on mission that is bound up in the celebration of the Eucharist itself. Our unity with God is not something simply meant to insure our personal salvation but rather to bring about our being agents of Christ and His witnesses in the transformation of the world. If this is then, a new world in Christ, then there is a new language. For a world - God's world, and the human world - is always a worded world. The Word that God speaks in His own Trinitarian life, and Who becomes incarnate in the Virgin Mary for our life here and hereafter, need be only one Word, for God is infinitely simple.
We, however, divided as we are in many ways and always finite, need many words to name this world which God gives us as a gift. You spent four years here, particularly in seminars, but also outside of the seminars themselves, listening, reading, talking. You have learned the importance of words, you have learned to appreciate that if the words are right, then everything else has a good chance of following correctly. Our most important words are always those used in prayer and the in liturgy of the Church. They are our words, but along with symbols and actions, given us and being rooted in the ministry and intention of the Lord, they speak to us of the mysteries we recognize and enter into and probe through the faith.
The language of the Roman Missal which is used for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Roman Rite is, of course, Latin. But now, as a result of the Second Vatican Council's reform, the Roman Rite is celebrated not only in Latin, and I'm glad that you preserve that celebration here, but in many other languages as well, including English, and this, too, according to the will of the Council. It is necessary to word this liturgical world well. But battles over translations have occupied too much of the Church's energy in recent years - so much of our energy, that we haven't looked at the world around us and asked what words must we say there. One cannot have full, active participation in the liturgy unless there is full, active participation in the Church. And one of the great sadnesses of the Post-Counciliar world in the Catholic Church is that we have yet to see the new Pentecost prayed for by Pope John XXIII. We cannot rejoice in the fact that two-thirds of the Baptized Catholics of this country do not participate in the liturgy.
You, who have in your years here struggled to understand classical texts in their original languages can appreciate the problems of liturgical translation. The first translations of the Roman Missal in the late 1960's, the translations still being used in our celebration of the liturgy in English, were done far too quickly, probably with good intent. But they have been heavily criticized, even by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy itself. Which is why they have redone the Sacramentary. They did not adequately capture the Latin original and a new document on authentic liturgy issued just a few weeks ago from the Holy See presents guidelines for the second generation of translated liturgical books. These guidelines recognize the need to be both faithful to the original and to be understandable in English, but with the first emphasis on fidelity to the Latin.
That is, in a sense, what I want to tell you today. You are like a good translation. You are to be faithful to the original, to the image of Christ that is in you, faithful, and yet understandable to the world that will read you, to the world for whom you are to be a word. None of this difficulty of being faithful and yet understandable in a new language would be as difficult as it is were it not for the fact that English has become something of a field for ideological warfare in the past 30 years. Recognizing that the language we speak does shape the way we think and the world in which we live, advertisers and politicians work to create phrases and words that influence people to buy products and to make choices.
As a public language - and this is important - as a public language, American English has self-censored many references to God in the past generation or these references to God have been deleted from public discourse by court order. And you can see the way in which new immigrants, when they come from a culture that has been shaped in dialogue with the Catholic faith, in a while, even when speaking their first language they begin to censor themselves. When the Mexican people and others from Latin America come to Chicago and other places, the first two years they continue to say "Gratias a Dios" and after a few years, it becomes simply "Gratias."
Languages have developed differently in relationship to historical and social circumstances. We are much more linguistically self-conscious now, and that is very good. Yet language is and must be more than the construct of any one generation or any single group. We just heard that from your class representative, quoting Chesterton: "Language puts us in contact with people long dead.." And therefore, linguistic manipulation which severs these connections, is a first cousin to human genetic engineering and just as morally ambiguous.
Therefore, we recognize because of this sophistication in understanding the way in which words do shape our world, that language can hide as well as disclose truth. The way in which a language is structure enables us to see some things more easily than others and that is indeed the source of much of the difficulty in the great discussions around liturgical language. Particularly when, for pastoral reasons, we want to see that this language is as inclusive as possible. And yet we cannot do that, and most Bishops, being kind men, are sensitive to that. We cannot do that by sacrificing the fidelity, a fidelity which isn't even possible unless you have a linguistic idiom which is able to make a distinction between individuals and natures.
You studied the classical thinkers, you studied Catholic theology and you know how Trinitarian and Christological theory depends upon an absolute necessity to distinguish between individuals and natures so that we can predicate natures and therefore can talk about the mysteries of faith. An idiom that says that the world is composed not of individuals and natures and collections of individuals, but only of individuals and collections of individuals is not an idiom that is capable of expressing the Catholic faith, nor able to be used for translating the Roman missal. And that is very often the case, as we start to discern what is a good translation and what isn't. It comes down to what is this idiom able to express? And very often, in the kind of language that now is politically correct, we have an idiom that is, in itself, intrinsically incapable of expressing the mysteries of our faith.
Celebrating the liturgy makes us not only more self-conscious about language, liturgy also moves us to express in action what it is that unites us to God and therefore to one another, and what it is in our action that either permits us or prevents us from living joyfully the mission Christ gives his people here and living most joyfully with Him forever. The original liturgical movement of the past century insisted on this relationship between celebrating the liturgy and creating a new world, transforming this world in which we live. You are to come to the altar, to receive the Lord, to listen to the inspired word of God, not just when you read it by yourself in personal prayer, important though that is, but to read it as it is proclaimed in the liturgical assembly, which is where it is explained in a normative way for all of us.
You should see yourselves, as a result of this experience, as a priestly people, committed therefore, by that very prayer to bringing Christ's own healing and reconciliation to all the world. We are to bring Christ to a world caught up in all the many things that we can give words to, give names to, but which in fact, if we don't have a face in front of us, often we can only be involved in abstractly. Individualism, racism, secularism, violence. It is when you are acting in the world, you put faces with all those words, that you can come to see yourself as God's own instrument, spreading His peace and justice within the community that God has given you to love. This, this in its entirety is the spirit of the liturgy. Liturgy is not about us, except to the extent that we are in Christ.
Our Holy Father, in speaking so marvelously about the vocation of Christ's faithful in the world, tells us precisely that our action in the world follows from our action in the liturgy. Our words in the world follow from our words in the sacred liturgy. Our conversation in the world follows from and is integral to our conversation with God from within Christ's body, the Church. Only if, like a good liturgical translation, we are faithful to the original, to the image of God, stamped in us through Baptism so that we are like Jesus Christ, and yet understandable to everyone we meet, only if, like a good celebration of the liturgy, our actions are witnesses to God's own transcendence and to our own future eschatological banquet, only then is liturgy good and are our lives holy.
Liturgy cannot be motivation for justice which transforms the world. Liturgy itself transforms us and the world itself so that we are truly present and Christ is really present to the world through us. If you have ever been in a place where the liturgy has never been celebrated, where the Eucharist has never been confected by Christ's body the Church, there is a vast difference. The world is different because Holy Mass is celebrated. The world is different because we participate in that celebration. Not just we individually, not just the Church, but the whole world would be a very different place were the Holy Eucharist not celebrated.
If the Holy Father has called us to a new evangelization, it means he has called us to love the world in a new way and to be apologists once again in the sense of St. Peter tells us to be able to give reasons for the hope that is in us. And you can do this very well because of the marvelous education you have received here. But we must do it, after the Council, not in a defensive way, but to in a dialogical way where you have to enter into the world of the other and appreciate the words spoken there precisely so that you can find the right words to introduce these people to your friend, your Savior, your Lord, Jesus Christ. We are to live in this world with Christ's own love.
In the consistory that the Holy Father called to examine the Church's mission at the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity, from all parts of this world, from every part of the globe, Cardinals stood and said what is important is that we judge everything that we do, every college that we run, every grade school and high school, every hospital, every movement, every religious order, every ministry, every particular mission - that it all be judged by how it contributes to the holiness of God's people. That's a rather broad prism but it is a narrow enough spectrum to enable us to begin to ask the most basic question we probably can ever ask: How is what we are doing, in every part of life, consistent with what we do when we celebrate the liturgy? This means that we have to give ourselves entirely to its celebration so that we can enter into God's own life and be prepared to pick up Christ's mission to transform the world.
Sometimes when we are called to love God we look at what we have to do to maintain that relationship of love more or less intact, and then see what kind of energy and space and words are left over so we can do what we want to do. And only, if through the liturgy we are brought to participate in Christ's own self-sacrifice, to see that the liturgy will enable us to have not only the understanding but the strength of mind and spirit to surrender everything we do to Jesus Christ, only then can we be part of the Holy Father's call to a new evangelization.
And yet in all this it is your faith that will sustain you. This is the gift that God has given you: to be a lifelong reflector on the mysteries of faith, the truth that the liturgy makes visible for us. For we never plumb those mysteries entirely. They keep drawing us farther and farther along into God's own life and deepen in us the deep desire to share that life with everyone whom God loves, which is everyone.
Remain true then, my friends who are now my brothers and sisters of this family of Thomas Aquinas College, to whom the liturgy tells you you are, to whom the liturgy makes you to be, to the vocation that God has called you to, that you have discerned here and you will discern in the months and years to come. Remain true to all of that because you know that on the night before he died, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, "Take this, all of you and eat it. This is My Body, which will be given up for you." And he took the cup and said, "This is the cup of My Blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant. It will be shed for you and for the many so that sins may be forgiven. Do this (act this way) in memory of Me." We become one body, one spirit in Christ by doing this, by bending our will to the will of the Father through His Son, Christ Jesus who is Our Lord.
The sound teachings you have been given here are a foundation for that life. I congratulate you on your many achievements at this unique, this outstanding Catholic college. May the grace and peace of God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and in the days to come. Thank you very much.
“The diverse and in-depth education I received at Thomas Aquinas College was extremely valuable, first and foremost, for my soul; but it also proved to be more beneficial for my vocation as a physician than all the ‘hard sciences’ combined, perfectly blending the practical with the philosophical, and allowing me to see Christ in all whom I treat.”
– Caroline Johnson, M.D. (’97)
Internal Medicine Hospitalist
“I thank you so much for what you are doing at Thomas Aquinas College. I hope there will always be a Thomas Aquinas College. Your contributions to the Church and the world are marvelous to behold.”
– John Cardinal O’Connor (†)
Archbishop of New York