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To the Graduates

May 22, 2008

To the Graduates

Following is the text of the Baccalaureate Address that Cardinal Egan delivered to graduates of Columbia University at the interfaith Baccalaureate service May 18 in St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia.

My dear friends:

To our graduates, to their families and friends, and to the faculty and administration of Columbia University, I extend heartfelt congratulations on this very happy occasion. These graduates are the future leaders of our City, our nation, and—indeed—our world. I count it a signal honor to address them and to wish them every grace and blessing for the years that lie ahead.

On college and university campuses across the land, women and men of the most varied backgrounds are at this time of the year offering graduates final words of advice as they move into the world beyond academe. As a rule, the speakers strive to avoid being overly serious about their advice. Permit me to be an exception. The graduates of Columbia University have a long and proud history of extraordinary achievement and extraordinary influence in the arts, sciences, professions, business world, and politics. I have been given the privilege of speaking to them at a turning point in their lives. I gratefully and enthusiastically seize the opportunity to tell them what is on my mind and in my heart.

Let me begin this way.

You are a gifted and privileged group of young people. You have been provided with the finest education available in the nation. You have every reason to expect a bright future, and this is precisely what all of us here with you this morning wish for you. There are, however, many different concepts of what a bright future entails. Here is mine.

Your future will be bright and therefore blessed with genuine peace and joy if you are, say I, women and men of justice and compassion, women and men who never fail to give others their due, women and men who feel the hurt of those who are hurting and feel as well an obligation to help relieve the hurt as best you can.

Deep down in each of us, there is an awareness that we are all one with all other human beings with whom we share this globe. People of faith explain this on the basis of there being one Creator from whom we have all received life, mind, spirit, and will. People of my Faith explain it also on the basis of there being one Savior who gave His life to bind humanity together in holiness, self-sacrifice, and—yes—love for one another.

Whatever the basis for the intuition, all of us sense in our heart of hearts—and we are right—that we must see each and every human being, no matter how noble or ignoble, no matter how attractive or unattractive, as our equal, worthy of unalloyed respect, and endowed with a dignity that is unmatched in all of visible creation. Once this is established, once this point of view has taken hold, the beauty and necessity of justice and compassion in our lives become crystal-clear. They are recognized as fundamentally, essentially, and inescapably right and good; and we come to understand that, if they are truly embraced and lived, they beget within us that peace and joy which constitute an authentically bright future.

Assuming that all of this is true, I have some rather specific suggestions to make concerning the achievement of such a future.

Esteemed members of the Class of 2008, you have successfully concluded your university studies in a City in which less than half of the African-American and Latin-American youngsters earn a high school diploma. Thousands upon thousands of them will therefore live their lives without the kind of gainful employment that will allow them to form families and rear children in dignity. They will be easy targets for those who would lead them into crime. They will in large numbers look for respite from failure and humiliation in alcohol and drugs. They will in shameful numbers spend significant periods of their lives behind bars. And they will in ever-increasing numbers see life as an altogether unfair, even hopeless, struggle against forces more powerful than they.

Some of this, of course, can and does result from factors other than inadequate education. Still, let the current situation of elementary and secondary schooling continue in this City and countless other cities across the land, and the price that all of us and those who come after us will need to pay will be enormous. For justice and compassion will not have been sufficiently at work, and the future will be very less than bright for way too many of today's youth and, to a considerable extent, for all of society as well.

What to do? Forgive me if my proposal appears somewhat self-serving. What I am suggesting, however, as regards the educational system with which I am connected can be, and needs to be, said with no less conviction about other non-public systems of elementary and secondary education that are doing work similar to what we are doing and doing it well.

In the three Boroughs of the City of New York that the Archdiocese of New York serves, the Archdiocese has over 100 elementary and secondary schools which we identify within our system as "inner-city schools," inasmuch as at least 65% of their enrollment live under the federally defined "poverty line." The elementary schools are all testing above the national and State levels; and the secondary schools—23 in number—are graduating 98% in four years and sending 95% of the 98% on to college or university. Again, I would note that other non-public school systems on the elementary and secondary levels are doing equally well. I point to the record of the "inner-city" schools of the Archdiocese because ours is the largest non-public system in the nation and the one about which I am best informed.

One could argue as to whether what is happening academically to so many of our young people constitutes a failure in the realm of justice or a failure in the realm of compassion. At the beginning of these remarks, I put the two together to avoid the issue. The unity of all of humanity, as suggested above, requires on the part of each of us both giving others that to which they have a right and coming to the aid of others whom we find to be in pain and need. Accordingly, whether on the basis of justice or compassion, I offer you what I consider an important approach toward your achieving a bright future, that is, one permeated with peace and joy; and I offer it in terms of your participating in the education of those youngsters in our community and nation who are most in need of you and all of us.

Give to successful institutions, I would suggest and plead, two or three years of your lives as teachers or teachers' aides, knowing full well that you will be paid less than you deserve and many may wonder why you are "throwing away" a part of your lives for such an endeavor. The good that you will be doing will be evident immediately, and a peace and joy will overtake you that can be appreciated only when experienced. You will see your fellow human beings, the handiwork of the one Creator, come alive intellectually, spiritually, and morally. You will be deeply touched by the gratitude of students, parents, and guardians for the sacrifice you are making. And you will love what you are doing and those for whom you are doing it in a manner far beyond anything you might imagine.

Or if this be, for whatever reason, beyond what you might consider in your pursuit of a bright future, perhaps you might decide to visit and offer what assistance you can to a school that is educating the needy well but struggling because of insufficient funds or limited administrative capabilities. You could speak with the principal and make available whatever time you could spare to assist in the classroom, work out budgets, prepare reports for accrediting agencies, or even join in the pursuit of support from benefactors. I know of one couple, both of whom have degrees from Ivy League universities, who met a beleaguered principal of a private inner-city school on a train from Washington to New York. She told them of the challenges facing her, her teachers, and her staff; and they came to see her school. They were amazed by the quality of the education that was being offered to the poorest of the poor in one of New York City's most distressed neighborhoods, and they recently completed their 10th anniversary of doing everything that they could for the school from substitute teaching to painting classrooms. Both have told me that they could not imagine their lives without this involvement or, as I would prefer to put it, without this response to the call of justice and compassion to make futures truly bright.

And if even this measure of involvement is beyond the pale for you, there is still much that you can do. As a lawyer, judge, or legislator, you can work for fair treatment of all educational institutions that are making real contributions to the lives and futures of those most in need. As a businesswoman or businessman, you can join boards and committees of such institutions and share with them your expertise and even your financial support. As an author, a reporter, or an editor, you can tell the story of such institutions which seldom have the resources to attract the attention and approval of the media. And as an educator, you can inspire your students to give of themselves, however they can, to prepare youngsters in poverty to learn and succeed.

This morning I might have said very much the same regarding systems and institutions of charity. It is my good fortune to oversee the work of 120 agencies of justice and compassion that make up what we have come to call Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. I could recite remarkable statistics about millions—literally millions—of meals served each year and tens of thousands of men, women, and children helped&3=#8212;again, each year—with shelter, clothing, medical assistance, psychiatric care, and more. And I could point to numerous other private systems and institutions of charity with records no less impressive, all of which need you and will very likely never stop needing you throughout your busy lives in our wondrous but ever-troubled world. Focus those lives of yours, my dear friends, on works of justice and compassion, to the extent that you are able; and confidently claim for yourselves a peace and joy that open the way to bright futures.

In the interfaith readings chosen for our Baccalaureate Service this morning, we heard all of this in a variety of expressions and styles. In the first, we were exhorted to offer "service" to others "with determination." In the second, we were reminded of "the awesome gifts of freedom and responsibility" that make possible lives of genuine love. In the third, we were invited to imitate the Lord, who "watches over" humanity, "keeping it from harm." In the fourth, we were ordered to "allay the sufferings of others" and "uplift the poor and afflicted." And in the fifth, we begged the Almighty to "show us His ways," which in the Psalms and the Book of Job from which the Reading is taken we know to be the "ways" of justice and compassion.

I would like to end these remarks, however, not with citations from works of philosophy and religion but rather with a brief account of a New Yorker who lived with incredible commitment all that about which I have been speaking. His name was Pierre Toussaint. He came to New York in 1760 from Haiti as a slave. The family that thought it "owned him" lost all of its considerable wealth in 1780; and the father of the family died shortly thereafter of a broken heart, leaving his wife and children penniless.

Pierre had become the hairdresser to the most elegant ladies of New York and soon found himself doing very well financially. Thus, having gained his freedom, he assumed responsibility for his former "owners," supported them in all their needs, and did so well himself that he became the board member of a New York bank. He founded the first agencies of Catholic Charities, including an orphanage and a shelter for the homeless. He attended Mass daily in Saint Peter's Church on Barclay Street in Lower Manhattan, and passed away as the devoted husband and father of a loving family.

In 1997, my predecessor, John Cardinal O'Connor, had the mortal remains of Pierre Toussaint moved to the crypt under the altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral and introduced in Rome a process to have this remarkable man of color and character recognized as a Saint of the Church.

Our City and our nation have throughout their histories been blessed with untold thousands of women and men like Pierre Toussaint. Should we call them champions of justice, compassion, or both? It makes little difference. They are fellow human beings who made their futures and the futures of others bright with a strategy that never fails, the strategy of justice and compassion. My prayer for each of you is that you courageously and generously follow their example and join their ranks.

Thank you very much indeed.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York

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