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George Weigel on Why Everyone Counts

6/4/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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What John Paul II Has Helped Teach Us

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, JUNE 4, 2004 (Zenit) - Papal biographer George Weigel delivered the following commencement speech on May 8 at the Franciscan University of Steubenville to 434 undergraduates and 161 graduate students, its biggest class to date.

Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he holds the John M. Olin Chair in Religion and American Democracy.

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For more than 25 years now, we have all been privileged to live at the same historical moment as John Paul II. Most of you, members of the class of 2004 at Franciscan University of Steubenville, have no memory of any other pope in your lives.

Those of us whose memories go back much further know that no pope in our lifetimes -- perhaps no pope in centuries -- has left such an imprint on history. But even that, I suggest, does not take the full measure of the man whom future generations may well know as "John Paul the Great." Perhaps baseball helps.

In the most compelling baseball book ever written, "The Boys of Summer," Roger Kahn described the legendary Jackie Robinson in these terms: "Like a few, very few athletes ... [Jackie] Robinson did not merely play at center stage. He was center stage; and wherever he walked, center stage moved with him."

In the same way, Pope John Paul II has not simply left an imprint on history. He is history, and where he goes -- whether that is to Poland in 1979, Nicaragua in 1983, Chile in 1987, Denver in 1993, or the Holy Land in 2000 -- history moves with him. And history is changed because of his presence.

How does this happen? Not simply because the Pope has a winsome personality -- although he surely has that. And not just because he has an acute mind -- although he certainly has that, too.

No, his impact on history -- his singular capacity to be history, to embody the history of his times as only one other man, Winston Churchill, did during the last century -- is the result of his faith, his convictions and his commitments: In a word, his impact on history is a result of his discipleship.

Are there lessons to be learned from that discipleship for you who will shape the 21st century? I think so. Let me suggest three such lessons, as a graduation present to you on this landmark day.

John Paul II lives an intense sense of vocation that has implications for all of us. In the Catholic Church today we still use the world "vocation" as if it applies primarily, or even solely, to priests and nuns.

The Pope, who knows the crucial importance of the ordained priesthood and consecrated religious life in the Church, disagrees. In his mind, and according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, every baptized Christian has a vocation: a singular, unique place in the cosmic drama of God's creative and redemptive purposes.

Each one of us, the Pope believes, is an actor in a drama with eternal consequences. And each one of us has a distinctive role to play in that drama.

It's interesting to remember that John Paul II, as a young man, struggled -- really struggled -- to discern his vocation, his unique place in God's scheme of things. He was intensely attracted to the theater. He had the normal social life of a young man of his time, including serious friendships with both young women and young men.

When he began his university studies, he certainly intended to live his life as a committed Christian, but he thought he would do that as a layman: an actor or writer or director in the theater, perhaps later a professor of language. It was only after an intense period of reflection and prayer that he came to a different understanding: that God had chosen him for the priesthood, and that to that being-chosen there could only be one answer.

How very different the history of our times would have been, had young Karol Wojtyla not taken seriously the question of where and how God wanted him to "play" within the drama of history.

That's the kind of seriousness of purpose that all of us can learn from John Paul II. Many of you will enter the world of work after this graduation; others of you will continue your studies. No matter what you will be doing tomorrow, or next week, or next September, however, there is a lesson for you in the life of John Paul II: Don't think of your life simply as a "career." Think of your life as a vocation.

God has something unique in mind for each of you. There is something singular that each of you brings to the making of history. Think of your lives in those terms, and you'll never fall prey to the most deadening of temptations: the temptation of boredom.

In the second place, we can learn something from the Pope's conviction that life is dramatic. When John ...

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