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1957 Commencement Speech
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1957 Commencement Speech

Over the stage of an auditorium where I gave an address some time ago, I read the following inscription:

“And thou my minde aspire to higher things
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust.”

A little bit of research revealed that it came from a 16th century general and poet, Sir Philip Sidney. In thinking over what I might use as the theme of my remarks this afternoon, I remembered Sidney’s lines and am hopeful you will agree, that they are appropriate to this inspiring occasion—especially if we join them to St. Peter’s exhortation (II, i, 10) to the early Christians: “Strive ever more for good works to make your calling and election sure.” Whatever else you may do in life, and however great your success may be, your life will have been lived in vain if you do not fulfill your calling and make your election sure.

Sidney’s words, it seems to me, might well serve to remind you of your calling as students of this illustrious order of religious teachers, the devoted Sisters of Notre Dame. For the inscription holds up the ideal you must keep bright down the years—if you are indeed to make you r election sure and realize the hopes and efforts, the love and sacrifice, which have gone into your education on the part of your generous parents and dedicated teachers, religious, laymen, and lay women.

Today you are their joy, and no words of mine can add to the satisfaction they feel in your achievement, which we are gathered to honor. I am sure, however, that you young graduates want me to express your thanks to your parents and teachers. And may I, both in their names, as well as in my own and in the names of your pastors, relatives and friends, express our sincerest congratulations to you.

Returning now to Sidney’s inscription “And thou my minde aspire to higher things, Grow rich in that which never taketh rust,” I want to speak to you about what seems to me to be the most virulent and prevalent challenge you will face in fulfilling its imperative. This threat to all that your education stands for is, in my estimation, materialism.

Materialism is a special way of looking at the world, at life, at human beings and their destiny. From the simplest element—even to the most complex organization of a human society, materialism thinks of it all as nothing but highly developed matter.

Materialism of course rejects he existence of a Supreme Being. God is explained as a superstition, as the product of human needs and fears—as a father image—or as the invention of an elite few to make the great bulk of humanity more manageable.

Materialism regards man as the evolutionary product of spinning and unpredictable electrons, protons and other sub-atomic particles. Man, no more than a stone or a dog, has anything of the immaterial and spiritual in his make-up. His hopes of immortality are not only fictions but may even prove harmful—since the expectation of a future life may lead a man to make too little of life in this world.

Materialism dismisses as wishful thinking any postulate that man can be self-determining and morally responsible for any of his actions. All of his conduct is explained in physical terms of inherited characteristics, environment, the profundities of the sub-conscious, and automatic neutral responses.

These factors undoubtedly operate to some extent. But it is a far cry from granting them to some part in human conduct to claiming that they account for all of man’s activities.

From this you can see what materialism does for man. It rejects God; it denies man’s spiritual and immortal nature; it leaves no basis for human freedom.

Its impact on the democratic ideal is no less disastrous. For materialism makes democracy impossible. If democracy means anything, it means a nation of free men. Bu if humanity furnishes no foundation for freedom, then democracy seems futile. It has nothing to build on and corresponds to nothing in human nature.

Our democracy’s greatest peril, it seems to me, is not alien enemies and atheistic communism from abroad, but materialism at home, boring from within and spreading its dry rot to the very sinews of our nation’s vigor. Materialism is not communism; but it creates an atmosphere highly favorable to the anti-democratic aims of Marxian Socialism and totalitarianism.

An antidote to materialism is desperately needed. One of the most promising seems to me to be a sound education based on the right conception of man’s nature and destiny.

“The true function of education,” as Francis M. Crowley has observed, “is to liberate the human spirit, to give it the power to rise above and control its environment. A true education makes a man conscious of the freedom of his will and develops a sense of responsibility for its proper use.” … such an education to be Christian must strive by “every means, at all hours and in all places, to drive home to individuals a realization of the fundamental purpose for which they exist, of the manifest destiny which is theirs; that they alone can make or break themselves; that they alone are accountable to God for the talents which He has given them.”

“Education, then, is the harmonious development of the physical, mental, aesthetic, and the moral and religious powers of man to prepare him for right living in this world, so that he main attain the end for which he was created.

” Pius XI has stated it with magnificent simplicity: “The proper and immediate end of Christian education is to co-operate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian, that is, to form Christ Himself in those regenerated by Baptism… (1929 Christian Education of Youth)

“For precisely this reason, Christian educating takes in the whole aggregate of human life, physical and spiritual, intellectual and moral, individual, domestic and social, not with a view to reducing it in any way, but in order to elevate and regulate it, in accordance with the example and teaching of Christ.”

Against this, you may be sure, materialism offers its own theory of education, which is varying degrees is evident throughout our nation. Its goals may be fairly summarized as follows: 1. the student’s “adjustment to the environment,” 2. the “meeting of his immediate needs,” and 3. “social reform.”

Just what sort of environment students ought to adjust to—just what sort of immediate needs ought to be met, and finally, just what direction social reform ought to take, there are questions which materialism fails to answer.

When we turn to the colleges not operating under the aegis of Christian principles, we find conditions which may well give us food for thought. We have nothing but praise for those denominational institutions which are striving to stem the tied of indifferentism and crass materialism, which is at floodtide in some institutions of higher learning.

By strange quirk of fate, some of the more famous of them were founded by men or women who wished to glorify God and advance Christian civilization. The founder of one institution, for instance, viewed the movement of higher education as “one of the great ocean currents of Christian civilization.”

The extent to which these institutions have rejected the last tattered shreds of Christian teachings, which might link them with any of the Christian sects, is alarming. Religion is viewed as a figment of the imagination, a sorry mixture of the musings and ejaculations of a few imaginative men. There is no thought but what they call free or liberal thought, which bows to no authority other than what might be called the sovereignty of a man’s own thinking. Divine worship and the study of the Bible, Christ’s gospel of self-abnegation and loving God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God—all this is to be relegated to the limbo of obsolete superstitions. The welfare of the group at all costs is the new interpretation of the gospel. Personal sanctification is not only a delusion—some would classify it as a neurosis calling for approved therapy. (Adapted, F.M. Crowley, Commencement Address, Trinity College, D.C. 1942.)

Our nation sprang into being on the basis of belief in God and the sacredness and spiritual dignity of human beings. What our forefathers fully grasped was echoed by the late President Roosevelt, when he solemnly affirmed that religion is the course of democracy. “Storms from abroad,” he told Congress, “directly challenge three institutions indispensable to Americans, now as always. The first is religion. It is the source of the other two—democracy and international good faith.” (Washington Post, may 7, 1939.)

Fortified with the excellent Christian education you graduates of 1957 have received, you are prepared to cope with materialism’s varied manifestations, to recognize them and divorce yourselves from them.

The last forty years or so have seen many things happen to our country. Perhaps none of them has cut deeper into our national consciousness than the altered status of women. Wars and their aftermaths were among the causes which provided economic opportunities far beyond the feminist’s fondest hopes. Political influence fell to your lot with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Scarcely a profession remains closed to you. And if you are engaged in woman’s noblest vocation of being a wife and mother, today you will have increased leisure for activities outside the home. In short, a new world with limitless possibilities has opened up for American womanhood.

Those possibilities are the challenges you are fully prepared to accept. The sort of education you have received fits you young ladies to take your places in the contemporary world and fulfill you part in the divine plan. You are equipped to be perfect instruments in the hands of God. And never in our history has America stood in greater need of women of your training.

More than that, you have youth; and youth is ever a symbol of hope. Your parents and teachers, and all who have had a share in your education, see in your eyes “the revival of all the dreams and hopes that have in their own lives been unfulfilled.”

What a failure then, for you and for your Alma Mater, for the Church, the nation, and your loved ones, should you fall prey to materialism’s many allurements and spend your years in gathering spoils for death! What a tragedy, in view of our critical shortage of leaders, if you should be seen only as one in a crowd! Never has our country experienced a greater need for the inspiration which is found in the truly Christian woman.

Having in mind your truest happiness, the hopes that are in the hears of those who love you, and the school which you will represent before the world, I offer this prayer for you—

When your day in life is done, may victory in its truest sense be yours. May you be able to say with the great apostle St. Paul: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” (IITim., iv.7)

Joseph B. McAllister, S.T.B., Ph.D.