Commencement Address
By J. Francis Cardinal Stafford
May 17, 2003

(official text)


Cardinal Stafford
J. Francis Cardinal Stafford

Congratulations! Today you become graduates of a premier Catholic liberal arts college. I am privileged to address young men and women who are truly free and have tasted wisdom. You are liberal in the original sense of the word: you are liberated. "For freedom Christ has set [you] free," St. Paul wrote to the Galatians.

You know not only the freedom from spiritual, physical, and emotional addictions, but also the freedom for what St. Thomas Aquinas calls, "quodammodo omnia." In your deepest interiority you are an active readiness for everything, especially for the highest realization of Christian humanism - prayer and contemplation, friendship and love.

Your search for truth and training for freedom are part of the ancient Christian tradition. The Cathedral of Chartres, dedicated to Our Lady, Notre Dame de Chartres, is part of that tradition. It is an architectural monument inspired by the medieval School of Chartres. It is a witness to Christian freedom and truth.

This is especially revealed in its mid-twelfth century west facade. Thierry of Chartres, one of the school's great teachers, was responsible for conceiving its iconography. In the Cathedral school Thierry's teaching covered the trivium and quadrivium, both of which, nearly a 1,000 years later, have strengthened your own mental discipline.

Forty-five years ago I stood transfixed in wonder before the harmonious vision of Thierry's Catholic imagination. On the Cathedral's three western portals the sculpted figures of the liberal arts float like a constellation of stars around the Incarnate Logos and his Virgin Mother.

Engaged in activities like the ringing of bells or pondering books, they stand for the trivium - logic, grammar, and rhetoric for the training of the inner mind - and the quadrivium - arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, a further development of the mental constructs necessary by which men give order and meaning to the reality they experience. Those portals remain for me "a smile of the universe." Thierry anticipated Dante's Paradiso by 150 years.

The seven liberal arts, as you know, are disciplines preparing the mind for grappling eventually with the intrinsically related subjects of science, philosophy and theology. In the center of the Cathedral's tympanum to the right of the Royal Portal, the Virgin Mary of Chartres is seated with her Child on her lap, surrounded by these signs of mental discipline and knowledge.

Along with the liberal arts, one also sees depicted the signs of the zodiac and the human works associated with each of the twelve months. All of these constitute a superb homage from the School of Chartres to the Virgin of Sapientia, the throne of divine Wisdom. One sees why the Fathers of the Church called Mary, "the table at which faith sits in thought." The South and North Porches of the Cathedral also are impressed with the imagination of the same School. In the Creation series of the North Porch, for example, the face of Adam bears the exact "image and likeness" of the face of the Word Incarnate who is calling him forth into life.

The new College Chapel here will be a contemporary expression of faith. It will similarly reflect your experience of truth and freedom. Dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, its bell-tower will be an exclamation point or a kind of light-house for the entire campus indicating that the search for wisdom is basic to this academic community. The tutors' conscious educational method and goal - "Christian education has divine wisdom as its ultimate objective" - will be clear to all.
Likewise, your journey over the past years has been a thorough introduction into the Catholic imagination. Its truth is symphonic. It is at once dialogical, doxological, analogical, liturgical, sacramental, and relational.

Above all, it is trinitarian and incarnational. Your chapel, with its title and in the harmony of its parts, will reflect both of these central mysteries. In fact, it will be a physical embodiment of a verse from the Book of Wisdom on which monks, prelates, architects and laity have meditated upon for centuries: "But thou, O Lord, hast arranged all things by measure and number and weight" (Wisdom 11:21).

To be free is to affirm the truth of being. Truth does not arise after the exercise of freedom, but rather is discovered within the very act of freedom itself. You have learned that freedom of inquiry can only be exercised within a context in which the question of truth arises within the question of freedom and not after it. May you never forget the joy when you first discovered that obedience to truth is freedom.

David Schindler has rightly emphasized the Trinitarian foundation of the lay confessor's freedom in the academy:

What holiness requires, precisely in its implications for the mind, is that we come to see all of reality as made in the image of the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ, hence in the image of the Logos who is (Eucharistic) love; that we thereby help to draw out of creation, out of every fibre of every being in the cosmos, its meaning or order as a creature destined, in and through love, to glorify the Father.

You have dedicated four years to the search for truth. That is no small part of your lives. You now recognize that truth is not a human construct but a gift from outside oneself. As one of your college's formative documents says, "Men do not create truth; they discover it."

Together with the polarity between existence and essence in the structure of being, a similar polarity is seen in the three transcendentals of being: the polarity between form and splendor in the beautiful; the polarity between obedience and freedom in the good; and the polarity between subject and object in the true.

Truth is acknowledged when an existent object is immediately unveiled and present to the consciousness of a knowing subject. Polarity means that the poles of the knowing subject and the known object exist strictly through each other.

Above all, years of philosophic dialogue have taught you to shudder in awe before the abiding mystery of being. The dependence of being for its explication in the existent is a definitive indication of the contingency of all perceptible being.

Moreover, in so far as every existent partakes in the non-subsistent fulness and perfection of being, so St. Thomas can draw an original, unexpected, and foundational correspondence between God and creature, "Ipsum esse est similitudo divinae bonitatis. (Being is a likeness of the divine goodness)." Once one has been grasped by this truth, all reality is transformed. Do not allow yourselves ever to let go of the day when you first said 'Eureka!' here at Thomas Aquinas College when confronted with the implications of the polarity of essence and existence.

Clearly, man cannot capture created being in all of its elusive complexity. Something always transcends our understanding. The experience is analogous to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. In the polarity of its existence and essence being will remain always veiled. As soon as one believes that he has gotten his hands on either essence or existence, it points immediately to the other pole as the seat of the mystery.

For example, the sound of one note of the piano in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto is perceived as surpassingly beautiful within the total ensemble, but it exists no longer as soon as it is heard. When one considers the essence of music as easy to fathom, it quickly reminds one that one has not grasped it unless one has also taken into account and solved the riddle of its existence. Yet when one takes existence for granted, it points to its essence, that is, the interiority of its being, which externally exceeds everything one has grasped so far, as Hans Urs von Balthasar teaches.

Each thing possesses its own unique self-being which, in turn, grounds its own intrinsic, incommunicable value. In an ascending scale, this holds true for inanimate objects, for vegetative life, for the animal world, for man, for angels, and for God.

Never forget the mysteries of being unveiled for you here. Your studies of both the Athenian and Jerusalem Stoa have pointed the way to the truth of being. Continue to recognize the unavoidable, but scarcely acknowledged, polarity expressed in two Greek terms: truth as theoria, the subject's observant, contemplative attitude towards the object on the one hand, and truth as poiesis, the subject's spontaneous, creative, normatively measuring posture towards the same subject on the other hand.

Both theoria and poiesis are necessary for the creative act of discovering the truth. This process is both an act of justice and an act of love in so far as one acknowledges that it is an inextricable interweaving of receptivity and spontaneity.

I said earlier that the Catholic imagination is analogical, and its content is very specific The concrete analogy of being is the cruciform image of Christ. It is in this foundational analogy between God's crucified Son and human love that the Church asserts that every true likeness between God and his creatures implies an ever greater unlikeness.

This is the sublime teaching of the IV Lateran Council. "Between God and creatures there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them." St. Thomas taught that knowledge is a question of a relation, an inherent, intrinsic relation of one being to others, the order of which is disclosed in the creation of all things by and in the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ crucified. Knowledge is a relation of God the giver of created being who in an act of love calls out to the creature.

Thus it is the fierce Catholic conviction that the concrete otherness and similarity between God and man is embodied in the abandonment of the crucified Son of God to death and hell. It is here, in the culminating event of the Incarnation, that the similarity and ever greater difference between God and creature can best be seen. Here and here alone do we begin to think both of the freedom of God that is entailed in the power to bestow divine love without reserve and limit, unconstrained by any imaginable distance, threat or absence and of man's free response to this divine drama.

To see this requires a profound conversion of mind. During these years you have been precisely about this task, the conversion of your minds. St. Paul articulates the challenge, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12:2.

Paul describes the source and reason for this conversion of mind: your baptism into Christ Jesus. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." Romans 6:3-4. Your mission in the academy has been to see that sanctity proper to Christology and liturgy is intrinsic to the mind and hence to the order and methods of the 'logic,' the logos, of the academic endeavor.

In concluding I wish to be very frank about the reality you face. Your experience of the wonder of freedom and your taste of the sweetness of divine wisdom in this academy are rare phenomena today. You are entering a world dominated by the conviction that knowledge is preeminently power.

For Francis Bacon, one of the founders of the contemporary academy, and for those engaged in typically modern science, reason is instrumental; its task is to isolate and analyze objects. The relationship of one object to another is reduced to being in external, extrinsic juxtaposition to the other.

Each entity maintains its integrity only by independence from all others. Any unity ascribed to separate entities is simply mathematical after the manner of an aggregate or sum. Homo technologicus identifies himself with the power to objectify and remake, and by this act attempts to distance himself from all the particular features which are the objects of potential change. Instrumental reason attempts a radical disengagement from the self.

Graduates of this academy need to be critically aware of this mind-set. As you move into the wider world, I urge you to resist any attempt to establish a definitive disjunction between practical and intuitive intelligence. Such an attitude represents a despairing refusal to acknowledge the fundamental mystery of being. The technological/mechanical mind-set can never thoroughly exhaust the mystery of being, nor totally master it.

Opposed to this power-mechanistic motivation is the ancient Catholic perception of knowledge: the order of intelligence or knowledge is more a matter of love and beauty. St. Thomas Aquinas taught, "All cognitive beings know God implicitly in whatever they know." How does one know this? You discovered it when for the first time you came to an awareness of God and found that you were meeting an old friend. Isn't it extraordinary that when you came to know God explicitly for the first time, you in fact recognized Him.

By studying the metaphysics of being, each of you, some to a greater degree than others, has experienced a deeper undertow of thanksgiving for the gift of existence. And that is matched by a quality of modesty, increasingly foreign to a litigious and rights-conscious modernity, which instinctively thanks God and restrains the self.

My prayer for you is that you will thank God that "for freedom [he] has set [you] free." My further prayer includes the final part of St. Paul's exclamation, "Stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).