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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.

* * *

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 Paul thinks of "the human drama," he's not thinking only in grand, sweeping, historical terms. He's thinking very individually, very concretely.

In "Novo Millennio Ineunte," his apostolic letter closing the great jubilee of 2000, the Holy Father reflected on his experience of standing in the window of the papal apartment during the jubilee year, watching long lines of pilgrims, day after day, waiting their turn to go through the Holy Door of St. Peter's. Each one of those lives, the Pope writes, represented a unique encounter with Christ, a unique story -- a unique drama.

Each of us, John Paul teaches, lives a life that is structured like a drama. Why? Because each one of us lives, every day, in the gap between the person I am today and the person I ought to be. That's a dramatic situation. Closing that gap -- becoming more the person I ought to be -- is the drama of daily life.

Those of you who have visited London know that, on the Underground, the London subway, there are endless signs admonishing riders to "Mind the gap!" -- the space between the subway car and the edge of the platform. As I told a group of priests in London recently, "Mind the gap!" is in fact the story of all our lives, not just our lives on the subway.

And we're not simply to "mind" the gap; in cooperation with God's grace, we're to close the "gap" between who we are today and who we really ought to be. That's what it means to grow as a human being. That's what it means to become an adult -- and then to keep on growing.

This profound conviction about the drama of every human life is what allowed John Paul II to say in Fatima on May 13, 1982 -- one year to the day after he was shot down in his front yard, St. Peter's Square -- "In the designs of providence, there are no mere coincidences."

Nothing is just "coincidental." Everything counts. Everyone counts. In John Paul II's dramatic understanding of our lives, every person we meet, every situation in which we find ourselves, is an encounter or scene in the drama of life: the great cosmic drama in which our individual lives are playing, and the unique drama that is each one of us.

So the second lesson we learn from John Paul II is to "mind the gap": to live our lives fully and intensely, because each of us is capable by grace of spiritual and moral grandeur. Each of you, members of the class of 2004, is capable of spiritual and moral greatness.

Some of you will go on to do great things, as the world measures "greatness." But all of you are capable of greatness in the most noble, the most deeply human sense of the term: You can be the person of moral conviction and purpose and goodness that you were made to be -- the person that you must be, if you're to fulfill your human and Christian destiny.

Finally, let me suggest that there is a profound lesson for the members of this graduating class in John Paul II's age, and indeed in his physical difficulties of recent years.

This may sound peculiar. You are young. He is old. You are vigorous. He, once a great sportsman -- a daredevil skier, a man who could hike for hours on end, a kayaker and hockey player -- now leads the Church from a wheelchair. The Pope often treats his infirmities with the medicine of humor.

A few months after he had had his not-altogether-successful hip-replacement surgery, I asked him, "Holy Father, how are you feeling?" "Neck down, not so good," he immediately shot back. But it's not simply his ability to laugh at his difficulties that commends John Paul, in his old age, to you who are young.

In a culture that tempts us to think of people as disposable when they become burdensome, or troubling, or inconvenient, John Paul II is teaching us -- not just with words, but by a powerful example -- that there are no "disposable" people. Human beings are not problems to be solved -- or, in the case of the inconvenient unborn or the burdensome elderly, problems to be dismissed through the technological fixes of abortion or euthanasia.

Every human life is of consequence. Every human life has inherent, built-in, inextinguishable dignity. Every human life has infinite value. That is what John Paul II teaches us when he walks, in pain, in the footsteps of Jesus and St. Paul, in the Holy Land, in Damascus, in Greece. That is the truth he embodies when he returns insults with affection, when he acts on the belief that even those most filled with hate can become, once again, capable of decency.

There are no "ordinary" people: That is the third great lesson to be drawn from the life of John Paul II. You have never met, played, studied, or argued with a "mere mortal," C.S. Lewis reminds us. Everyone you have met in your life -- everyone you will meet in the years ahead -- is someone with a dignity beyond measure. Everyone you will ever meet is a someone with an eternal destiny.

To live that truth is to live life at its most bracingly, engagingly, thrillingly, human. To live that truth is to live life as the adventure that God intended it to be from the beginning. To live that truth is to become the kind of person who can be happy living with God forever.

That is the kind of love for which Franciscan University of Steubenville has prepared you. For that is what Catholic higher education is for: the preparation of vocationally serious men and women for whom faith and reason meet in one foundational conviction -- that every human life is, by definition, extraordinary. That is the conviction on which this college can and must build its future.

In living out that conviction by preparing men and women whose competence is enhanced by their character, the Catholic colleges and universities of the United States perform an immense public service. For our freedom depends, in the final analysis, on the content of our character as a people.

Only a people of character will be able to understand that freedom is not a matter of doing what we like, but of having the right to do what we ought.

Only a people of character will be able to build community out of the materials of diversity.

Only a people of character will know how to deploy the explosion of knowledge in the life sciences so that the biotechnologies of the future serve the ends of genuine healing, rather than leading us into a brave new world of stunted humanity.

Only a people of character will be able to defend freedom in the world by defending the human rights of all, especially the first human right of religious freedom.

By preparing those kinds of citizens, Catholic colleges and universities today are defending the truth that Thomas Jefferson inscribed in the birth-certificate of American independence: that our freedom rests on self-evident moral truths about human beings, our origins, and our destiny.

Congratulations on your graduation. Permit me a last suggestion: Take a moment, on this happy day, to thank those who have brought you to this moment of celebration and transition -- your parents and grandparents, your teachers, and the administrators of this college. And in thanking them, make a quiet promise to yourself that you will be as generous with others as these men and women have been with you.

In the years before you, think back sometimes, perhaps often, on what it meant to have earned your baccalaureate degree at a time when a Christian giant -- John Paul II -- walked the earth. And learn from him the truth that he has preached: that each of you, because of the grace of God in Christ, is an extraordinary person with a destiny greater than your imagining.

Godspeed on your journey.

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