Thomas More vs. St. Eustaby: A Tale of Two Commencement Ceremonies

Last Saturday I attended a celebration the like of which will only be experienced by a very few and very fortunate people in our nation. Seventy thousand were the witnesses to the miracle of the sun at Fatima. We were not seventy thousand, only two hundred or so, attending the commencement at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts. Perhaps if we continue to be faithful, the sun will dance for us too, and Merrimack will have been named more aptly than its founders could have conceived.

The president, Dr. William Fahey, began the ceremony by declaring to the assembled students, faculty, family, and friends, that they were not going to hear anything like their contemporaries would be hearing elsewhere – at places I will call Land Grant State, Saint Eustaby Catholic, Formerly Classic and Faintly Protestant, and Harvard. They would not be hearing lies and platitudes. They would not be sent forth, apostles of hedonism and consumption, to “make the world a better place.” Instead they would be urged to remember the real things, the human and divine things, to embrace suffering as our lot in life, and to rejoice in the truth.

Those were the keys to the day, joy and truth. Not pleasure and political correctness, but joy and truth; joy which is not inconsistent with profound sorrow, and truth which, far from being inconsistent with charity, is its foundation. For we know who is a liar and the father thereof. It was that first among spiritual beings to go on a political campaign, that first of self-advertisers, first of tyrants to portray himself as a patron of liberty, while keeping his subordinate demons, whose good he ruined, under the gloom of his infernal glare. I suppose there is a way of speaking the truth that is not charitable, but there is no way to be charitable apart from the truth. God is not the author of confusion, nor does He contradict Himself.

So it was a joyful day, with the eminently sensible and joyful Bishop James Conley (Lincoln, Nebraska) presiding at the baccalaureate Mass. Bishop Conley was a student of John Senior, whom we take as the inspiration for our educational program, and his own conversion story springs from his reading with Senior and his comrades Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick the great poetry and thought of our western heritage – not to mention learning to look up at the stars, the actual stars in the actual sky. Christopher Check of Catholic Answers gave a rousing keynote address, laying it on the line for the young men in attendance, telling them that if they were not called to the priesthood, they were then called to be married, and to get on that without delay. Be men, not boys!

I am sure that the young ladies present appreciated the command. That was another thing about the celebration; we all knew that in a few short days some of those graduating students would be married. One of them already was, and still another, a sophomore, surprised me afterward by telling me with great joy that marriage was in the offing for her too; she said it by way of thanking me for my class on poetry, because she was going to be setting up a home soon, and that love of poetry was going to stand her in good stead when she came to teaching her children.

Our students have learned about what is good and beautiful and true; all of them write senior theses, and I can attest to the fact that that means that they know how to write, which is a great deal more than I could ever say about college seniors elsewhere. If you are worrying about your child’s prospects for putting a roof over his head and getting out of debt before he dies, you need not worry about that if he knows how to write, how to read difficult books, how to present a case in public and defend it in public, and how to tell the difference between the true and the specious, the logical and the wayward, and the conclusive and the merely suggestive. Why, at many a so-called university the very assertion of truth is considered an offense. Building up the intellect at such a place is like filling your foot with lead from a shotgun and then trying to win a race – or bowing out of it entirely and attacking as prejudicial and unfair that there should be races at all, and people with whole feet winning them.

Readers, you should have seen it! Gallant young men and gracious young women, whose attitude toward the opposite sex is not one of suspicion, envy, hurt feelings, lewdness, or indifference, but gratitude, the powerful attraction of gratitude. The ancestors of one fellow must have hailed from ancient Gath of the Philistines, because he had to stoop low in the knees for the President, who is himself quite tall, to invest him in the college’s colors. That brought forth a volley of cheers that rang out through the fields. Not that there weren’t cheers for everybody, cheers peculiar for each young man and young woman, because when each name was called, it was another friend going up for the award, and no two friends are quite alike.

When my daughter graduated in 2010 from Saint Eustaby Catholic College – well, from Providence College – the ceremony had to be held in a convention center, to hold the 1,000 graduates and their families; and there was of course a necessary anonymity about it all. Nobody in the building was acquainted with more than a minority of the students, and the president was hardly acquainted with any of them at all. The speaker that year, no doubt brought in at exorbitant expense, was a reporter-babe from NBC, who gave a speech full of platitudes and lies, all of which I have long since forgotten, except for her odd comment that Mother Teresa was a “late bloomer.” I still have no idea what she can possibly have meant by that. I do remember one of the president’s comments; he said that he had seen her dress before they put on their academic regalia, and it was “hot.” One of my favorite students, a brash chap who has no opinion whatever of fools, hollered to me over dozens of heads in the hallway afterwards, “Dr. Esolen, wasn’t that the worst speech you ever heard?” It wasn’t the worst, but it could make a claim for Dishonorable Mention.

Hedonism and consumption; add also pride and vanity. I once told a group of graduating home-schoolers that everybody else would tell them they must be “Leaders of Tomorrow,” as if Tomorrow would not come on its own, but had to be hauled by main force like a dragon from its cave, puffing and snorting. Meanwhile the day itself goes unregarded, and so do young people waste their youth on bad dreams, and end with little knowledge, less wisdom, and much debt.

Not here. And as I spent the next hour meeting mothers and fathers and rich crops of children, I was persuaded once again that only God can ultimately bring human beings together. We are united from above, never from below. How good and pleasant that was, to be brothers and sisters dwelling in unity.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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