Sister Andrea Lee, members of the board, distinguished faculty and staff, graduates, families and friends, thank you for the honor of addressing you today. We gather in this gracious space with many emotions swirling in our hearts. Looking out at all of you, I can see grandparents feeling a certain, secret vindication that spoiling you rotten when you were small has not caused lasting damage. I see parents beaming with delight and, perhaps, just a touch of relief. I see brothers and sisters, some fidgeting a bit, who can scarcely believe that you would let yourselves appear in the gowns you’re wearing. But mostly, I see you, the graduating seniors, the pride of this great institution and the promise of our future as a nation and as a world.
It is a personal pleasure to be with you today because I have long felt myself to be a child of both Minnesota and the College of St. Catherine. My father was born in a Norwegian-American community near Winona, Minnesota and I can recall early childhood visits to the family farm. My connection with St. Kate’s is more tenuous but, in some ways, symbolically stronger. My mother was raised in Medford, Wisconsin, one of fourteen children in a family that often struggled to live from payday to payday. She was a bright girl, a good student and finished high school by age 16. At graduation, according to family lore, she was offered a full scholarship to the College of St. Catherine, but her family simply couldn’t afford to let her take it. They wanted her to get a job; they needed her salary. For my mother, the loss of this opportunity was a life-long regret and if my father’s work had kept us in the Midwest, I have no doubt that she would have moved heaven and earth to send me to St. Kate’s.
But my early childhood in Madison, Wisconsin, was followed by a family move to Washington, D.C., and, eventually, the chance to attend another, fine Catholic women’s college, Trinity College. At Trinity I was blessed with an academic experience like the one that is now concluding for you. The years that you have spent in this Catholic liberal arts college for women, the attention and mentoring of your dedicated faculty, the spiritual formation and freedom offered here, the focus on social justice—on doing good, not just doing well—that is woven through your coursework and your co-curricular activities—all of this is an incomparable privilege that will nourish you for the rest of your life.
But beyond these benefits, I am convinced that the College of St. Catherine, as a women’s college and as a Catholic college, has prepared you for the leadership of this country and of this globe in uniquely important ways. That’s a bold assertion but I am fully prepared to argue and defend it. Our nation is changing with greater rapidity than most of us realize. We are becoming more ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse with a speed that subverts census projections. Ten years ago, demographers predicted that the United States would cease to be a majority-white nation by 2050. Two years ago the demarcation date was advanced to 2042, a year well before most of you will have retired.
With a rise in immigration that mirrors that of a century ago, we are creating a new America of unprecedented religious, ethnic and cultural pluralism. Our new America needs a new kind of leadership and at St. Kate’s you have been educated to exercise that new leadership. Here, within these classrooms and dorms, you have found your own voice. Here you have already learned to lead in many ways. You have organized student initiatives, won elections, run fundraisers. Your years here have also connected you with a proud and distinguished history of female leadership. Every stone in these beautiful buildings testifies to what a group of fearless, hardworking and visionary women can accomplish. I have long felt that one of the most important but least heralded benefits of going to a women’s college is living every day in a physical environment that has been planned, built, sacrificed-for and worried over by women. Almost by osmosis, we breathe in a sense “If they could do this, I can do great things, too.”
But our new America needs not just the leadership that you have learned at this women’s college, it needs the religious sensitivity that you have learned at this Catholic college. When I moved from the University of Toronto to Georgetown University, I discovered something that I didn’t know I was missing. I discovered a campus where religious discourse flourished freely and naturally. People could speak comfortably about religion in ways that were foreign to the stridently secular cultures of most colleges and universities. Some conversations were theologically sophisticated; others touched areas of spiritual practice. Some verged on testimony and proclamation; others revealed doubts, difficulties and disappointments. These discourses and dialogues were, in other words, ‘catholic’ with a small ‘c’, embracive of varying perspectives, traditions and stages of personal development. Consequently, colleges and universities like Georgetown and St. Kate’s were ready for the cataclysmic change of consciousness wrought by September 11th. On that tragic day, America’s fast-increasing religious and cultural diversity registered with everyone. Interreligious and intercultural dialogue went from being the quaint and curious concern of a few to the urgent necessity of all. And it remains at the forefront of our national and international agendas.
Schooled in the lively social, economic and religious pluralism of St. Kate’s, you are well-prepared to advance that dialogue and poised to lead it in the many different professional and personal environments in which you will soon find yourselves. You are also equipped to deal with cultural and religious difference in a more sophisticated fashion than most 2009 graduates will be. In your years at St. Kate’s you’ve lived the reality of Catholic pluralism. You know, from the inside, that religions are not monolithic, they don’t speak with a single voice. They are inherently a chorus of voices, a profusion of perspectives. As you meet other religious traditions, then, you won’t make the mistake of forcing a false univocality upon them. Yours won’t be the voice that emphatically asserts, for example, that all Buddhists are one thing and all Muslims are another. Yours will be the voice that recognizes nuance, that understands heterogeneity, that moves the conversation beyond dismissive and uninformed generalizations.
Right now, more than ever, our nation and our globe need you and need your sensitive leadership as we struggle to live with the challenges that our new-found proximities present. A generation ago, when your parents were graduating from College or starting their first jobs, who would have predicted the Twin Cities of 2009? Who could have imagined that Minneapolis/St. Paul would become the multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious metropolis that it is today? Forty years ago, the United States made sweeping changes to its immigration policy. It opened doors that had been shut for generations. Today we live the compounded results of those changes as our census-takers prepare us for the white-minority country that we will become before the mid-century mark.
In my pre-commencement reading about the College of St. Catherine and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet I discovered repeated reference to the wonderful expression “dear neighbor”. What a good and gracious phrase! What a superb standard for a world that must move beyond tepid declarations of religious and culture ‘tolerance’ to a genuine delight in diversity. Last November, I flew to Rome to participate in the Vatican’s first Catholic-Muslim Forum, a global gathering of scholars and leaders from both traditions. Our concluding declaration affirmed that “God’s creation in its plurality of cultures, civilizations, languages and peoples is a source of richness”. When we met with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to present this declaration, he made an important public statement in which he said: “Together we must show, by our mutual respect and solidarity, that we consider ourselves members of one family: the family that God has loved and gathered together from the creation of the world to the end of human history.”
Let me leave you with an image that captures some sense of this ‘one family’ and this ‘good neighbor,’ an image that connects Minneapolis to Mecca and Moses to Muhammad. As you doubtless know, the patroness of this college, St. Catherine of Egypt, has given her name to an ancient monastery that sits at the base of Mount Sinai, a site revered by Jews and Christians. When this college celebrated its 75th anniversary, your then president visited the monastery to commemorate the connection between the college and this sacred spot. What may be less well known is that this is a site sacred to Muslims, as well. There are ten references to Mount Sinai in the Qur’an and recent scholarship has associated the monastery itself to a passage in the Qur’an (Q 52:4-5) that speaks of the “frequently visited house” with its “fortified roof”. May this linkage be a touchstone for all that you, the graduates of the College St. Catherine, bring to the building of our new America and the betterment of our wider world. Congratulations to the Class of 2009!
Jane Dammen McAuliffe
23 May 2009