Academic Convocation

Sep 21, 2011

I want to express my deepest gratitude to our honored guests: Katie Bringman Baxter and Hind Makki, who are representing the Interfaith Youth Core. We thank them for sharing their experiences and enlightening us on the good work done by the IFYC. By respecting people of all faiths and traditions and working together for the common good, we demonstrate the constructive progress than can be accomplished through interfaith cooperation and understanding. I want to say on behalf of Marywood University that we are committed to do our part to increase interfaith cooperation and community service endeavors on this campus. Let's show our guests the depth of our appreciation with another round of applause.

I want to share with you the shining example of someone very near and dear to Marywood, who was the epitome of interfaith respect and positive action. One of our oldest and dearest alumni, Helen Bernstein Miller '36, who passed away on September 6, left an incredible legacy of service to her alma mater, perhaps only equaled by her legacy of service to the community.

The guiding principle of Helen's life could be found in a single Hebrew word—Tzedakah—a word, she once explained, that has two meanings. The first is "righteousness." The second is "charity." Her life was, indeed, an expression of righteous charity. "One is born," she said, "under the yoke and obligation of being 'my brother's keeper.'"

Helen found this particular yoke easy; to her, it was an obligation joyfully fulfilled. When Helen graduated from Marywood in 1936, her grandfather, a Jewish immigrant who had sought refuge in America from the pograms of his native Russia, wrote her a letter, filled with advice, wisdom, traditions, expressions of religious faith, and whatever he thought she should know to guide her life. He wrote:

Education is a woman's best companion. If a woman has received prior education, she brings the broad world into her home...from educated women, the children have more to learn.

Helen, a true teacher at heart, always considered her time at Marywood a blessing, always sought common ground, always offered a helping hand—never once tempering her enthusiasm for our mission. Over the past seven decades, she contributed in myriad ways to our advancement. Her accomplishments and service activities could fill a book. The consummate volunteer, the generous humanitarian—spunky, yet gracious and affable at all times—Helen, the recipient of the 1996 Sister Denis Donegan Award for Long-term Service to Marywood, exclaimed upon notification of the award, "But how can I get an award for doing something I loved so much? It's always been my pleasure to work for Marywood!" She then added, with a twinkle in her eye and her characteristic good humor, "Besides, it gives me an excuse to go out and put on mascara."

We can learn much from Helen's example—most importantly, that everyone has a place in the family of God, and, no matter what faith traditions we hold, we are all called to love and joyfully serve one another, always seeking the common good.

As a Catholic institution, Marywood University draws on the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching (dignity of the human person; common good and community; option for the poor; human rights and responsibilities; economic justice; promotion of peace; stewardship of God's creation, global solidarity, and more).

Our core value of Catholic Identity represents a deep commitment to spiritual, ethical, and intellectual values in the context of a faith community. It does not mean that only Catholics can enjoy the fruits of this commitment, as Helen's life attested so well.

Thomas H. Groome, Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College and Director of its Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, explains that the root of the word "catholic" comes from the Greek, katha holos, which literally means, "to include everyone." He continues:

To be catholic calls a community to welcome all people, regardless of their human circumstances. It demands that we reach out with love for everyone, neighbors next door and on the far side of the world—to care without borders. It requires that we respect people with religions that are different from ours, being open to dialogue and learning from them (Vatican II, On Non-Christian Religions, #2)

In the encyclical letter, "Caritas in Veritate," Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that desiring the common good is integral to human development in charity and truth, and something to which we, as individuals and as a society, are called. He wrote:

Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of "all of us", made up of individuals, families, and intermediate groups who together constitute society...To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity.

We live in a complex world, yet we are called to serve, to be global citizens, and, as Groome says, "to care without borders." If we are also to "desire the common good and strive towards it," then we must thoughtfully consider a question that beckons through time and transcends all traditions: "Who is my neighbor?"

Jesus, when presented with this question by a man who Scripture says was "anxious to justify himself" (Luke 10:29), replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is so telling that Jesus chose a representative from a tribe long known for its history of animosity with the Jewish people—a person with whom Jews of that time would normally have no dealings. The key to this entire parable is the man's realization that compassion, demonstrated by any person, is something to be cherished and imitated—even when it comes from a Samaritan. At the end of the story, Jesus gives the transformational reply: "Go and do the same yourself." (Luke 10:37)

Jesus understood and endeavored to teach by His example that God's love isn't about stereotypes—it's about relationships. When we can look beyond our differences and build bridges of understanding—even though our philosophies, our faiths, and our cultures may differ—we begin to truly experience what the Lord meant when He said, "I give you a new commandment: love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you." (John 13:34)

Indeed, as a Catholic university—a learning, teaching community, connected by meaningful relationships—we are called to build bridges of understanding through education. Truly educated people are not mired in stereotypes. We must look beyond what we see with our physical eyes; instead, we need to view others with the eyes of our hearts. We are linked by and through relationships. This is not new for us; it is the continuation of a sacred way of life that Jesus modeled and still calls us to follow today.

Marywood's bountiful heritage of Catholic higher education has blessed this region for nearly a century. Through times of great challenge and times of unparalleled growth, we have persevered, always understanding that we are connected to something far bigger than ourselves. Each generation of our graduates—over 30,000 of them—has emerged with the knowledge that we are to live responsibly in this diverse and interdependent world. Helen Bernstein Miller knew this, and, for over nine decades of her beautiful, precious life, she did all she could to be a light for others.

Marywood's mission is authentic. We know who we are, and we remain true to our ideals. From the pioneering spirit that led to our founding to the enduring commitment that continues to empower people through education today, we have never compromised our identity or avoided difficult choices. Remaining true to who we are does not mean we exclude others; rather, our Catholic identity frees us to accept others with love, dignity, and respect. Our Catholic identity allows us to value the sacredness of others without sacrificing the sanctity of who we are.

We are builders of dreams. Since 1915, we have been helping people realize their dreams of a comprehensive Catholic higher education. Our reach and provision of educational access have expanded with each passing decade, as we continue to live our mission to encourage "men and women of all backgrounds to shape their lives as leaders in service to others."

We are a dynamic, living institution. At Marywood University, we affirm an enduring message of hope, an inclusive culture of respect, and a strong commitment to social justice. I urge you to not just hear these words, but to experience their worth—to actively do your part in advancing these life-giving principles.

It is important to understand the significance of our core values. We don't just name them in the catalog and move on; we live them, inside and outside the classroom. To do so is a compelling call to action, requiring the meaningful participation of each person in our university community. It may be easier to engage in negativity, division, and strife, but such pursuits are the essence of foolishness. It takes courage, conviction, and character to stand for what is positive, unifying, and life-giving.

When asked by a news reporter what his message was, Mahatma Gandhi replied, "My life is my message." So, too, must our lives be a message for others. What will your message be? Will you be a voice for the voiceless? Will you be a beacon of hope in times of darkness? Will you stand for peace, for dignity, for respect, and for the common good?

I encourage you all of you, especially our newest students: Let your life be a loving, hopeful message, full of meaning. Seek the face of God in others, even when their perspective, background, faith, or culture differs from your own. Use your gifts and talents to make a meaningful difference in the world. Be courageous in spirit. Be builders of peace. Be agents of change. Be proactive, not reactive. Be positive forces for good. And, in all you do, be blessed, and be a blessing to all whose lives you touch.