“A Journey of the Intellect, Will, Heart, and Conscience into the Brilliant Light of the Truth”
by Most Rev. Robert Joseph McManus, S.T.D.
Bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
My dear brother priests, President McLean, President-Elect O’Reilly, faculty, staff, students, members of the graduating Class of 2022, family members and friends, and all my dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
I am deeply honored to have been asked to deliver the Commencement Address for this first graduating class of Thomas Aquinas College at its Northfield Campus. I would also like to thank Dr. Michael McLean as he takes leave as president of the College for his exemplary service to Catholic higher education by promoting so effectively the Catholic intellectual tradition. Dr. McLean, in the name of the Church, I sincerely thank you for your accompanying generations of students in the pursuit of all that is good, beautiful, and true. May God bless you abundantly for all you have done for Thomas Aquinas College and for the Church.
For people of faith, there is no such thing as mere coincidence or sheer good luck. Rather, for people of faith, all that we experience as good and wholesome and holy comes from God’s providential care and love for us. Therefore, I believe that it is providential that we celebrate this commencement ceremony during the Easter season, which is a season of hope and joy. The first gift that the Risen Christ bestowed upon His apostles after His resurrection was the gift of peace, and that is exactly the gift and blessing that I wish for all of you as you graduate today from Thomas Aquinas College. I wish you a peace that only comes when we know that we are pursuing that mission and destiny that God intends for us.
For the last four years, you the graduates of the Class of 2022, have had the opportunity, indeed, the privilege, to pursue the truth during your course of studies at Thomas Aquinas College both in California and here in New England: the truth about God, the truth about the world and our society, and the truth about yourselves. But a well-educated and intellectually informed person must also be aware that in certain sectors of our society, even in the world of academia, the very existence of objective truth is called into question. For some of our contemporaries, truth is seen as the enemy of intelligence and freedom, an impediment to radical inquiry and the frank discussion of ideas that are fundamental to the life of the mind. Some in our American society who have considerable influence on social and cultural trends would even maintain that objective truth is a quaint idea whose time has passed.
But for you graduates who have studied within the context of a Catholic college such as Thomas Aquinas College, you know that that is not the case. The fact of the matter is that there is no rivalry between truth and freedom, and between faith and reason, as Pope St. John Paul II reminded us so often during his long and luminous pontificate. Indeed, the Catholic intellectual tradition is firmly rooted in the conviction that the attainment of truth is the very condition for being truly wise and truly free.
Moreover, to quote the late St. John Paul II, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Fides et Ratio) that allow the human person to seek after truth that reason can discover and that faith solidly affirms. Yes, a Catholic liberal arts education is predicated on the principle that faith does not shackle reason in myth or illusion but provides reason with a new transcendent horizon within which to discover the very meaning of human existence.
On August 15, 1990, St. John Paul II issued an Apostolic Constitution entitled Ex Corde Ecclesiae, From the Heart of the Church. Historically the first universities in Europe began and developed in the shadow of some of the most famous Italian, French, and English cathedrals. What these Catholic universities sought to do was to ground their academic endeavors in the words of Christ spoken in the 8th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel: “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). At the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition is the profound realization that all authentically Catholic education is a journey of the intellect, will, heart, and conscience into the brilliant light of the truth.
What is also fundamental to the Catholic intellectual tradition is the fostering of a proper understanding of what it means to be truly human. Many of the most neuralgic problems in our contemporary culture, most notably the rapidly growing acceptance and even promotion of transgenderism, find their roots in a faulty anthropology and an outright rejection of an Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. One only has to cite the statement of the retired Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, where he stated, “At the heart of liberty, is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of life itself.” Such a statement demonstrates in a stark and disturbing way how the rejection of an Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics leads to such blatant philosophical absurdity.
One of the greatest contributions that Catholic education at all levels can make to our contemporary culture is to re-introduce into curricula and then into the public square, through a well-formed conscience, a philosophically correct understanding of what it means to be human. Which is to say clearly and without apology the following: “The human person is created in the image and likeness of God. There is an essential metaphysical difference between man and woman. And that all people have an inviolable human dignity that is not bestowed upon them by culture, society or government, but by the creative hand of a gracious and benevolent God.”
John Cardinal Wright, who was the first bishop of Worcester, where I now have the privilege of serving as its fifth bishop, stated after the Second Vatican Council that a type of collective intellectual and moral amnesia had settled over the Catholic Church and by extension over American society in general. The most evident indication of the truth of the Cardinal’s astute observation is the rampant and insidious intellectual and moral relativism that has infected not only most of our secular universities, but also some of our Catholic institutions of higher learning. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, one of the most influential theologians of the mid to late 20th and early 21st centuries, has insightfully described this disturbing phenomenon as “the dictatorship of relativism”.
The Catholic Church, particularly through its institutions of Catholic education, can help restore the public’s understanding of fundamental metaphysical and moral truths about reality. This type of education is very important in countering the dictatorship of relativism in our American culture because the firm acquisition of metaphysical and moral truth leads to true wisdom as well as to a pressing desire to “restore all things in Christ.”
My dear graduates, I firmly believe that Thomas Aquinas College is well-equipped to prepare its students to reclaim the intellectual and moral foundations of our culture by means of what our recent popes have called “the promotion of the new evangelization.” Here in New England, we are blessed to have several colleges that are authentically Catholic, that rigorously introduce their students to the Catholic intellectual tradition in a systematic way, based on a reading of the Great Books of Western civilization. Thomas Aquinas College and some other Catholic colleges are carrying out what the Church expects from her academic institutions of higher learning, namely, to present the Catholic tradition of faith and morals and the abiding relationship between faith and reason in an intelligent, reasonable, and coherent way.
In 1981, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published a book entitled After Virtue, which set off shock waves throughout the American academy and beyond. The book’s fundamental thesis was that modern moral discourse had suffered shipwreck and had lost its foundation in reason and virtue. In the last paragraph of the book, MacIntyre makes the following sobering statement: “If my account of our moral predicament is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now, we have reached a turning point. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time … We are not waiting for Godot … We are waiting for another — doubtlessly a very different — Benedict” (After Virtue, p.263).
What did St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, do for Western civilization in the 5th century in Italy? Simply put, he withdrew from the political chaos and moral decadence of the declining Roman Empire to ora et labora, to work and to pray. But this initial withdrawal from the world was only in preparation to send forth Benedictine monks back into Western Europe to share the fruit of their work, prayer, and study. Establishing monasteries and monastic schools throughout Europe, these monks sowed the seeds of the truth of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, Who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” And by doing so, Europe awoke as if from a deep cultural slumber.
My dear graduating Class of 2022, you have received an excellent classical Catholic education here at Thomas Aquinas College that has prepared you to be the new “Benedicts” of our contemporary American culture, something that our contemporary American culture desperately needs. You may rightly ask: “But how do we do this?” May I suggest the following.
The most significant contribution that you can make in fashioning the uncharted future that lies before you is to undertake your life journey with that peace that derives from being grounded and living in the truth. Christ tells us who are His disciples and friends that we must be “the salt of the earth and light of the world” (Mt. 5:13,14). That is a daunting challenge. What is Jesus really asking of each of us? It is this: He is asking us to transform our society and culture with the light of his Gospel so that you and I and our brothers and sisters in the human family might have life and have it to the full.
But who is this Jesus, Who offers us such a gift if we follow Him as his friends and disciples? He is the truth of God made flesh. And if we remain rooted in Him, we will know and love the truth and the truth will make us free, free enough to embrace the future with confidence, free enough to celebrate life with joy and tranquility of spirit.
Graduates of the Class of 2022, do not be afraid! Do not be afraid to be witnesses to Christ, Who is the Splendor of Truth and the Gospel of Life. Do not be afraid to cast your nets into the deep waters of the salfivic truth of the Gospel. And finally, do not be afraid to be “other Benedicts.”
Congratulations, dear graduates, and may the peace of the Risen Christ reign in your hearts forever! Amen. God bless you!