Editor’s Note: NRO contributor George Weigel delivered the following commencement address at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, N.H., on May 4, 2013.
When Dr. Peter Sampo, one of the founders of this college, first introduced me to classic Catholic liberal-arts education in the Granite State some 15 years ago, the occasion was an alumni fundraising dinner and I had to confess afterwards that the cuisine was far, far better than I had expected. Dr. Sampo told me that colleges owed students two things: good teaching, and good cooking. I must say that the latter had not been my experience of higher education, as either student or faculty member, but I was delighted to experience what the other side of the mountain looked like — and tasted like. And since, as the Book of Revelation reminds us, the Kingdom of God to which we are summoned is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, I think we may safely assume that Peter Sampo was right, and that good food and drink, and the convivium they enhance, are in fact rumors of angels: an anticipation of the joys that await us, eternally, in the Father’s House.
Then there’s good teaching. That, too, is crucial, for the arts of teaching have too often been degraded in our time into a subset of the arts of entertainment — when they’re not debased into a subset of the arts of career advancement. And as today’s graduates have learned, perhaps not without some chafing, good teaching challenges, even confronts, as good teachers invite us to learn and embrace what is true and good and beautiful, so that the true, the good, and the beautiful shape the contours of our life’s pilgrimage.
So on this day when we rightly applaud our graduates, let’s take a moment to applaud good teachers: Would those who teach here please stand for an expression of our thanks?
Our graduates are entering a world, the challenges of which could not have been imagined by you, their parents, and certainly not by the grandparents present. And by those challenges, I do not refer simply to those issues that dominate the headlines. I mean the challenges posed by the erosion of Western culture and its slackening grasp on the true, the good, and the beautiful.
How should you, the class of 2013, approach those challenges, knowing that you run the risk of at least ridicule, and at worst real persecution, if you proclaim and live the truth, the goodness, and the beauty that you have begun to make your own through your education here?
Perhaps a story from the life of Blessed John Paul II will help you think through what’s required.
In the 1990s, John Paul II got wind that a distinguished Polish actor, Jerzy Stuhr, was in Rome and invited Mr. Stuhr to dinner. After an appropriately impressed Jerzy Stuhr arrived in the papal apartment and the pope had said his usual rapid-fire Latin grace before meals, John Paul turned to his guest and said, “So, Pan Jerzy, what brings you to Rome?” The actor replied, “Your Holiness, I am playing in Forefathers’ Eve” — which for those present who are not close students of Polish literature, I’ll simply note is the most important play in the history of Polish drama. “Ah, Forefathers’ Eve!” said John Paul, who had played in it as a young man — and who then proceeded to recite large chunks of the play by memory. After a pause, the pope then said to his guest and fellow-actor, “So, Pan Jerzy, what role do you take?” “Holy Father,” Jerzy Stuhr replied, “I regret to report that I am Satan” — who is in fact a character in the play. There was a pause, as the pontifical eyebrow went up a millimeter or two. Then the 264th bishop of Rome looked over the table at his guest and said, “Well, none of us gets to choose our roles, do we?”
Now I rather expect that none of you, the class of 2013 of the College of Saint Mary Magdalen, has chosen the role that history has given you: the role of being the defenders of the truths on which the civilization of the West rests, and without which the American democratic experiment will crumble, perhaps into that ugliness that Benedict XVI used to describe as the “dictatorship of relativism.” You will likely have had other, less demanding, roles in mind for the playing-out of the drama of your lives. But that role — defensor veritatis — is the role in which history and Providence have cast you. And you may be sure that playing that role well will not be an easy or simple business.