Open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words: A reflection on commencement speakers at Catholic colleges

Liz Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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President Barack Obama peruses the program before delivering the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame in May 2009. Photo courtesy Liz Lefebvre.

In March of 2009 I was in Detroit, Michigan celebrating a conference championship for the Notre Dame men’s hockey team when I learned that the president of the United States was going to be the commencement speaker at my graduation.

My initial reaction was that I would have to put up with a few “I told you so!”s from my mother, who had been predicting this event for approximately two years.

Most of my fellow seniors and I on the hockey trip were pretty excited. As we returned to campus, I couldn’t wait to hear what my other classmates were saying about the news. Though I knew that the presidential election had been tightly contested and that many of my peers had not voted for President Obama, I still imagined that most people would be honored and proud to welcome the leader of our country to speak to us on our final day at the university.

Then came the nasty letters to the editor in our student paper, each variations on a theme: “How can this university call itself Catholic?” or, “Obama is a baby killer.” Then came the protests outside the gates of the university, complete with signs, banners, and advertisements on the sides of buses decrying abortion. And, worst of all, then came what became known as “the fetus plane,” a small airplane that flew circles around campus portraying graphic pictures of aborted fetuses and (often misspelled) taglines condemning abortion. Why weren’t more people pointing out that it is a tradition for presidents, regardless of party or policy, to deliver commencement speeches at Notre Dame? Why weren’t more people acknowledging that the president would not stand behind the podium and praise abortion? (Has he—or anyone, for that matter—ever actually done that?)

To be absolutely fair to my classmates, the protests and fetus plane were arranged by outside groups, and the majority of the negative letters to the editor came from underclassmen and alumni. (This sentiment was confirmed in a private letter delivered to each graduating senior from university president Fr. John Jenkins, thanking each member of the class of 2009 for our maturity and dignity in handling the controversy.) It was my experience that most of the class of 2009 was ready to welcome the president, even if they were not absolutely pleased with Notre Dame’s decision. A very small number of my classmates arranged for a separate commencement ceremony and did not attend the main celebration. Some attended the regular ceremony with cutout images of baby’s feet mounted on the top of their graduation caps. But most stood and clapped with honor and pride as the Notre Dame band played “Hail to the Chief.”

My commencement is still often cited as a benchmark for protests against speakers at Catholic colleges, but I have nothing but fond memories of that day: seeing Air Force One fly over campus, becoming speechless as I was ushered into my seat in about the tenth row back from the podium, and finding my family in the seats and waving furiously to them. And what I remember most of all is not the controversy that led to Obama's arrival, but rather the way I felt listening to the president’s words: Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. That we might disagree on certain topics, but that there are ways to work toward common goals. That cooperation and understanding is a part of Catholic identity and human existence. Encouraging us to continue in service to our community and world.

There has been no shortage of controversy this year surrounding commencement speakers at Catholic universities. Victoria Kennedy at Anna Maria College; Archbishop Desmond Tutu at Gonzaga University; and most recently, Kathleen Sebelius at Georgetown. As I’ve heard of the protests against each speaker, I can’t help but hear the whirr of a small airplane in my mind, thinking of the fetus plane and the frustration that I felt for the last few weeks of my undergraduate career as I listened to criticism from and about my university, as it seemed the topic of abortion would overshadow a special day for 2,000 young people and their family and friends.

I know that each of the speakers will not use (or would not have used) the time to champion abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, or any other topic that is sure to earn you a quick label of “not Catholic” if you have an opinion differing from official church teaching. I am confident that each of the speakers—wonderful examples of men and women working to improve our world—will have more than enough good words to say about respect, courage, dignity, service to community, and other tenets of our faith that aren’t always so loudly shouted about. (I say this with confidence especially about Desmond Tutu, whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak at a gathering of youth in Tacoma, WA, where he talked not about gay marriage, but about peace and the importance of building a caring community.)

Have we come nowhere since Obama spoke at Notre Dame in 2009? Will we ever be able to have reasonable dialogue surrounding complex issues that concern us in our lives? As Obama noted in his speech at Notre Dame, “One of the vexing things for those of us interested in promoting greater understanding and cooperation among people is the discovery that even bringing together persons of good will, men and women of principle and purpose, can be difficult.” Difficult, but not impossible. I think of protests to John Boehner speaking at Catholic University, where he was still welcomed and allowed to speak. I think more recently of Paul Ryan, who, having been recently criticized by Georgetown faculty for his budget plan, was still welcomed to campus and allowed to speak, where he dismissed and criticized Catholic bishops.

I’m sure many will read this post and denounce me, this publication, and the University of Notre Dame as unabashedly anti-Catholic. But please excuse me if I took to heart the words that President Obama spoke to me and my classmates on that day in May three years ago:

“Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family and the same fulfillment of a life well-lived.”

Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. What could be more Catholic than that?