To say that being here among you today is both a privilege and an honor is, at the very least, an understatement. I am among friends in this auditorium, most especially your President and beloved Archbishop Flynn. But for some among you, it may also be surprising that I was asked to speak today. A brief story will illustrate why I mention this. Twelve years ago, my aunt and uncle happened to be vacationing in the Southwest and encountered a couple from Minnesota with whom they struck up a conversation. My aunt mentioned that her niece was moving from California to Minnesota to become the President of the College of Saint Benedict. “Oh no, dear”, the wife replied, “that is one of our finer colleges. They would never hire a Californian!” So, you see, it s more amazing that this very fine women’s college would offer a reborn Californian such an opportunity.
One of the benefits of living where I do is that every day I look out on the Pacific Ocean onto what appears to be a limitless horizon. It’s a sensation similar to looking out over the flat, snow covered plains of the upper Midwest, just a bit warmer. A commencement ceremony, like today’s, celebrates the expansion of your own horizons, a public ritual that proclaims, “My education has liberated me to push beyond the limits I had before earning my degree.” Of course, we all know that the notion of a limitless horizon is illusory. Lurking in the back of many of your and your family and friends’ minds are all of the very real limits that graduation signals: looking for a job when the job market is less than robust; paying off student loans, deciding where to live and with whom. For those of you with family responsibilities of your own, you may be torn knowing that the end of school means you won’t be pulled in so many directions; at the same time, grieving the loss of the refuge and stimulation of the classroom and the companionship of your classmates and professors. No matter what your circumstances, today is a good time to think less about your limits; more about the expansion of your horizons.
This is a rite of passage shared with thousands of men and women, who, like you, sit patiently, tolerate a seemingly endless parade of speakers, wait for the brief but all important handoff and photo op as you receive your degree. What distinguishes this gathering is that it occurs here at a college created for women, by women who understood then and now the particular needs and challenges of women in our society be it in 1905 or 2008! The genius of the system of American Higher Education is its diversity, and today you have every reason to be grateful that a women’s college like St Kate’s continues to thrive, serving women like you in partnership with men, as President Lee says “Who get it!”
As the newest generation of St Kate’s women, you leave well prepared to pursue your own ambitions. But that is only part of your inheritance. As reflective women committed to lead and influence, you are challenged to spend that inheritance generously on behalf of others. For a moment, I would like to focus on three of the “graduation gifts” that you receive because you chose to study here at the College of St. Catherine.
First, from the time you began your studies here nearly everything you encountered presented a vision of life that celebrates creation, especially the dignity and beauty of the human person. This college, so thoroughly committed to the liberal arts and sciences, set the bar very high when it received its Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1937, insisting that graduates from every program would be more than informed by the arts and humanities; they would be formed by these. While your intellectual life was being nurtured, so too were the affective, physical, and spiritual dimensions of your being nourished and developed. You have been served a rich banquet of encounters and experiences of beauty that should not only continue to feed your own spirit for years to come; it also has prepared you to feed others. At a time when we seem to place the greatest value on efficiency, cost-effectiveness, productivity, and spend endless hours roaming through virtual realities, it is all too easy to forget or dismiss as irrelevant or non-essential humanity’s need for beauty. Think about what public school programs are the first to be cut and the last to be restored during every economic downturn. Of course it’s reasonable to think that when the choices are between fixing pot holes or investing in public art, the arguments for beauty rarely prevail. But that’s where you come in, women of St Kate’s. You know better; you’ve been taught here not only through the content of the curriculum but also by the culture of a campus devoted to the arts and to the ennobling influences of beautiful architecture, gardens, and sculpture; not only in the literature, music, dance, and drama of your theaters but also through the aesthetic qualities of your liturgies. A co-founder of my university, Mother Rosalie Hill, also insisted that it was beauty that attracted one to seek the truth, and in that pursuit we found God. The Sisters of St. Joseph built this college on a similar assumption. You are the inheritors of this vision of life and upon whom so many depend to insure that it is preserved for future generations. Women of St. Kate’s, I urge you to stand for beauty.
This brings me to a second gift from your St. Kate’s experience that should have enhanced your capacities and, thus, expanded your ability to lead and influence; that is, your experience as a graduate of a Catholic College. No matter what may be your personal faith tradition, as a St. Kate’s woman you are also an inheritor of a Christian education inspired by the heroic legend of Catherine of Alexandria and crafted by Mother Seraphine Ireland, Mother Antonia McHugh, their collaborators and successors. If they had conducted a feasibility study before embarking on the great adventure of founding a women’s college, this acreage would appear quite different today. Nothing but sheer faith and optimism, coupled with the generous financial support and encouragement of Archbishop John Ireland, moved these women to move mountains on behalf of you and generations of your predecessors. Now, as it happens, I myself was a Sister of St. Joseph for five years, not among the women from St. Paul but from a community in Orange California. Thus, I understand something about why these women, committed to the Gospel, devoted themselves so selflessly to the education of women like you. Who better to proclaim Christ’s message of love and redemption than those who are the first teachers of their own and others’ children, those who care for the sick, often assuring the dying of God’s merciful love and promise of salvation; those offering social services to men, women, and children desperate for the most vital services, frequently on the edge of despair, rescued by one of you who offers both help and hope? And as the range of your professional options has grown over the years, so has your responsibility to bear this message of love and these works of mercy and justice with you into every conceivable corner of the globe. There are many women of my generation who, like me, benefited from the formation and education that came from membership in a women’s religious community like the Sisters of St. Joseph. There are, as you know, far fewer of these laborers in the vineyard and most of us who were privileged to live among them, if only for a brief time, are at the end or nearing the end of our professional lives. In the immortal words of John F. Kennedy, “This torch must be passed to a new generation.” And that is you. Be inspired by your foremothers who built a college on the solid rock of the Catholic Church’s intellectual, spiritual, and social tradition, and stand now, like them, as women of peace in the midst of violence; women of compassion in the presence of suffering; women of justice in the face of intolerance, women of ingenuity and action in place of indifference and complacency.
Finally, a third gift that comes to you as a graduate of the College of St. Catherine derives from its character as a women’s college. I don’t need to repeat here the many benefits that you received by enrolling at a college that takes our gender seriously, adapting from one generation to the next its academic programs, its student life, and its outreach on behalf of your needs and your aspirations. But in most cultures, like ours, the giving of a gift implies an exchange. So, what will you return for those whose lives have been so singularly focused on a mission to and for women? Here I’m not thinking about the paying off your students loans or giving to the annual fund (though these are surely appreciated). I am thinking more about how you “pay it forward;” that is, how you make the welfare of women (and by consequence children) a central tenet of your own life’s mission. I hesitate to state the obvious, but the ravages of poverty and the consequences of violence affect women and their children disproportionately throughout the globe. Women, especially their children, need powerful advocates; you are better prepared than most to be these. But I hope that your education has also taught you lessons not only about how far women have advanced in their march toward equality and justice but also how much farther we have yet to go. Women of my generation can sometimes be so thankful for the advances we’ve seen in our own lifetime, that we’ve settled for conditions as they are. Dangerous attitude! For example, during my 25 years as a Naval Officer I witnessed tremendous advances for women. When I began my career as an Officer Candidate, women had not yet been admitted to NROTC units or the Naval Academy. I attended Women’s Officer Candidate School, one that was contiguous with but separate from the men’s. In retrospect, we were indeed well prepared for the largely administrative assignments we received, but there were moments that gave me pause, even then; like the morning I discovered our male counterparts were enjoying a day of small boat handling on the bay as we sat in a classroom listening to a representative from Max Factor instruct us in the proper application of make-up! While it is true that conditions and opportunities for women in the military have vastly improved; it is also true that these gains have shielded neither women nor men from the ravages and brutality of combat. These opportunities for women place them on many fronts, shoulder to shoulder with their male combatants; often with the most tragic consequences. So, you can see, these gains mean absolutely nothing if greater opportunities don’t also inspire us to be companions with all on a journey, away from violence, and toward greater peace and justice.
So be mindful of the gifts you have received as graduates from the Catholic Women’s College; offer them when you encounter patients, students, clients, customers, family, friends, and strangers. If here you have found your voice; then speak the truth, especially on behalf of the powerless. If here you have developed well your intellect, generate greater opportunities for others and solutions for the many problems plaguing our human family. If here you cultivated your imagination, then create, leaving a legacy of beauty wherever you find yourself; if here you discovered your talents and sharpened your skills, then use these to build peace by working for justice.
You are indeed women ready to lead and influence. On behalf of all who witness your achievements today with the belief that you will be generous in offering your gifts as alumnae of the College of St. Catherine, thank you.
Mary E. Lyons, Ph.D.
University of San Diego
18 May 2008