127th Annual Commencement Remarks
John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
East Portico, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 14, 2016
My thanks to Cardinal Wuerl, the Gaffigans, and all our honored guests for making this day such a happy occasion. Parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and friends: Thank you for raising our graduates. Class of 2016: Congratulations.
I want to offer you a parting word on a neglected virtue. Pope Francis has proclaimed this a Jubilee Year of Mercy.1 It’s not mercy I’m interested in. It’s asking for it. Repentance, unlike mercy, is not a divine attribute. It’s a virtue for sinners and stumblers. Maybe that’s why we’re so bad at it. One of our candidates for president put it this way last fall: “I think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong.”2
St. Thomas says that the virtue of repentence has three effects: sorrow, confession, and satisfaction.3 It’s the second part we struggle with. We don’t like to say we’re sorry.
We say “Sorry but . . . .” This is what the lawyers call confession and avoidance. Adam admitted he ate the apple. But, he said, “It was the woman you gave me who gave me the fruit.”4 Like it was Eve’s fault. Or God’s!
We say “Sorry if I offended you.” This is the jiu-jitsu apology. It cleverly shifts the weight of blame. It wasn’t my failing, but your thin skin or wrong-headedness.
The extreme form of this is what William Schneider calls the past exonerative tense. It takes the penitent entirely out of the picture. “Mistakes were made,” Ronald Reagan famously said, about the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.
Most often we don’t apologize at all. We wait for things to blow over. Or, feeling contrite but reluctant to go the whole hog, we make amends without an apology. Agamemnon did this in the Iliad, after taking Briseis from Achilles. To appease Achilles’s wrath he offered to return her along with vast wealth.5 But as Maimonides observes, “Someone who injures a colleague or damages his property does not attain atonement, even though he pays him what he owes, until he confesses.”6
A good apology follows a simple formula: name the offense, say you’re sorry, ask forgiveness. In The Wind in the Willows Mole tips over Rat’s boat after ignoring Rat’s instruction. The miserable and wet Mole then says: “Ratty, my generous friend! I am very sorry indeed for my foolish and ungrateful conduct . . . . Indeed, I have been a complete ass, and I know it. Will you overlook this once and forgive me, and let things go on as before?” The effect is remarkable. Rat replies at once: “That’s alright, bless you!” And they go on, closer friends than before.
Repent! A strange message for a commencement address. You’d expect to see it on a sign in Lafayette Park: The end is near! But for graduates on their way out into the world, it’s way more important than remembering to wear sunscreen.
I have been married for 41 years and I have five children, all now grown up. I have had a lot of opportunities to apologize. I have learned that repentance is the duct tape of family life. It can fix anything. “The right words, spoken at the right time,” Pope Francis said, “daily protect and nurture love.”7
I promise you. Your life will be happier if you cultivate the virtue of repentance. This sounds counterintuitive. We think of penitents wearing sackcloth and ashes. But when you apologize, you open the door for mercy. And mercy brings peace. Those are the words of absolution: “May God grant you his pardon and peace.”
So make a practice of apologizing. Make confession a part of your routine. At the entrance to this basilica there is a Holy Door opened for this Jubilee Year, for penitents to walk through to receive God’s mercy. That’s us. Before you leave today make a short pilgrimage. It will be a wonderful way to begin the next stage of your journey.
God bless you.
1Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus (April 11, 2015), 19.
2Donald Trump on The Tonight Show (September 11, 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlQctpKN3Hc
3Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 90, art. 1, reply to obj. 2; art. 2.
5Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), Book IX, lines 135–195.
6Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Teshuvah, Chapter 1, Halacha 1.
7Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia 133, quoting Address to the Pilgrimage of Families (October 26, 2013).