The knowledge you’ve absorbed, the grades you’ve earned, the honors you may have won, the degree conferred today are yardsticks of your intellectual growth.
What about your values? How has education at a Catholic institution of higher learning changed you? More pointedly, as you pursue your career, will colleagues and associates notice that you are a professional who is grounded in and informed by faith?
Will you make a difference in the workplace … or will you check your values in the closet with your cap and gown?
From my own experience, I can tell you that time and again, you will be transported to the mountain top, shown the splendors and riches of the world – or your slice of it – and will have to choose. Will you be able to discern: Is this just the start? Does the slow erosion begin here? Where does it end?
When you arrive at your workplace, do not expect the Holy Spirit to meet you at the door pointing the way toward right choices over wrong. We often find it difficult to take Sunday into the weekday unassisted, to distinguish the relationship between our human purpose and God’s purpose, to make a relationship between the Scriptures we read, the life we lead and the work we perform.
Let me express it in the words of one who was transported to the mountaintop:
“No one forced me or the others to break the law. Instead … we ignored our better judgment out of a combination of ambition, loyalty and partisan passion.
“I, and many members of my generation, placed far too much emphasis on our personal ambition, on achieving success as measured in materialistic terms, and far too little emphasis on moral and humanistic values,” wrote Jeb Magruder, a Watergate “plumber,” in his book, An American Life.
Whatever your chosen arena, you, too, will eventually be confronted with the beckoning finger of ambition, the call to beat the competition at all costs – success, serenaded by a Nuremburg-style amorality.
To maintain a proper perspective, it would be well to start each day with a question: “How will my faith influence my decision making today?” Similarly, end the day asking: “How did my faith influence my decision making?” Did I make the right decision under great pressure, in a threatening environment, irrespective of the group’s approval or disapproval?
I pray that St. Thomas has shaped you to make decisions based on what you believe in, that you appreciate the importance of vigilance against letting your faith life drift into a kind of insurance policy state, something that’s there in case your own effort fails. There is an ancient Chippewa Indian saying: “Pray to the Great Spirit, but paddle away from the rocks.”
You should return to society through some measure of public service. Thomas Jefferson said: “Sir, I prefer to be known for what I have done for others than for what others have done for me.”
As you pursue your career, with the obvious urgency of earning at least enough to pay off your student loans, keep in mind the Catholic bishops’ pastoral message, “Economic Justice for All”: “The Christian ethic is incompatible with a primary, or exclusionary, focus on maximization of profit. That so many people are poor in a nation as rich as ours is a social and moral scandal that we cannot ignore.” Keep always in mind the obligation of a preferential option for the poor.
Cardinal Newman said that the proper task of the university is to nourish a “clash of mind with mind.” If you have “clashed” well within these walls, you will be prepared for critique and challenge in the larger arena of public discourse.
In more contemporary words, Adlai Stevenson told a college graduating class: “As you leave, remember why you came.”
Go forth in peace and fidelity.
Congressman James Oberstar never has forgotten how his father helped him go to college, and over the years he has tried to repay that debt by helping others.
The 1956 St. Thomas alumnus recalled at a May 18 luncheon for political science majors and faculty members how he had received a $250 scholarship his freshman year from a Slovenian organization on the Iron Range, where his father had worked in the mines.
The scholarship made it easier to afford St. Thomas, Oberstar said, but he didn’t realize the sacrifice his father had made until his death many years later. As Oberstar went through his father’s belongings, he found an old financial passbook with scores of entries.
“Every payday, dad went to the home of the S.N.P.J. lodge treasurer and put 25 cents in an account,” Oberstar said. “That was the equivalent, then, of an hour’s wage in the depth of the Depression. He couldn’t afford to do that, but he did it. Those quarters added up, and they helped me go to college.”
Oberstar excelled at St. Thomas and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in political science and French. He taught language in Haiti before becoming chief staff assistant to Congressman John Blatnik in 1963. When Blatnik retired, Oberstar won election to the seat and has represented the Eighth District in Congress since 1975.
Shortly after taking office, Oberstar received a letter from a retired lighthouse worker in Two Harbors, Minn. The Coast Guard had taken over responsibility for the nation’s lighthouses, and in the process those lighthouse workers had been excluded from the federal pension system.
Oberstar didn’t think that was fair, and he sponsored legislation to provide pension benefits. After President Ford signed the bill, Oberstar sent a copy to the lighthouse worker with the note, “You did it!”
A short time later, Oberstar received a letter from the retiree’s wife. She thanked him for his efforts, and said her husband had received his first pension check before dying.
“I’ll never forget that,” Oberstar said. “Now that’s the kind of good that government can do.”