Last year, on Palm Sunday, I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron’s homily about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. To prepare for his entry, Jesus told two of his disciples to go into town where they will find a donkey. He tells them to untie the donkey and bring it to Him, and if anyone should question them, they should answer, “The Master has need of it.” Bishop Barron goes on to explain that we are all called to be that donkey.
I know, you probably didn’t expect to be called a donkey at graduation. You probably would not normally take that as a compliment. But at least I didn’t use a three-letter synonym for donkey that some Bible translations use. I would bet that in all of the graduation ceremonies that have ever taken place, not many commencement speakers have called upon graduates to be donkeys. But, if you wanted to be like everyone else, you would not be Catholic. And as a Catholic, your most important calling in life is to carry Jesus, and his message, wherever you go and whatever you do, because the Master has need of each of us.
Our ultimate goal for ourselves and others is heaven. That is our first priority. But we are also called to bring change to this world. Talk about change is popular today, especially in politics. And many graduates leave college saying they want to change the world. But the change you are called to is not guided by the latest fads or the most recent political trends. It is the type of change brought by St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta. It is guided by Catholic social teaching, which provides a well-formed vision of the common good. It obligates us to protect the intrinsic equal dignity of all human beings, regardless not only of sex and race, but also without regard to age, size, condition of dependency, or vulnerability.
Unlike for many other Catholics through the centuries, this calling is easier for us because we are blessed with a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. This is not just a right to freely worship, but a right to freely exercise our faith in our daily lives. However, attempts to limit our religious freedom are growing. We must continue to work in government and the courts to protect this right so we can live our Catholic faith in the public square.
But even if we had total freedom, we’d face a daunting task. Society has never been so lacking in its understanding of our Catholic vision of the common good. More than a few times I’ve had someone come up to me and say, “I know you vote Catholic.” Sometimes this is a critique. Sometimes it’s a compliment. But often it is someone who seems to have had a “eureka” moment, in which they figure out the logic behind what the world sees as my strange voting pattern. This is because many people cannot understand someone who does not fit neatly into either the Left or the Right tribe. Each of these two has its own distinct set of social and political beliefs. And the two tribes are becoming increasingly hostile to each other.
These two tribes roughly equate to the two political parties. But to be Catholic is to be completely comfortable in neither party. I know. I live this every day. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told by other Democrats that I am not really a Democrat because I am pro-life. I’ve also been told by many in both the “abortion rights” and pro-life communities that I have to stop being a Democrat.
In 2018, more than $3 million was spent to try to defeat me in the Democratic primary because I am unabashedly pro-life. Though I managed to win that election by just a small margin, I didn’t back down. I spoke at the Chicago March for Life, signed the discharge petition to try to force a vote on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, and signed the amicus brief to the Supreme Court on the Louisiana abortion law. This year, the radical abortion groups again spent millions against me. And this time around my pro-abortion opponent was endorsed by many of my Democratic colleagues in Congress, local Democratic office holders, and five Democratic presidential candidates. Though I am just one vote, they could not stand to hear a pro-life voice in the Democratic Party. On March 17, I narrowly lost my primary election.
We live in a political system where there are only two major parties. If you are going to run for most offices, you need to be a member of one of these parties. In most elections, if you are going to vote you have to choose a candidate in one of these two parties. You need to make this choice. I am not going to tell you that there is a correct answer. But as a Catholic there is a much more important choice you must make. Are you going to hold fast to your Catholic beliefs, or are you going to follow the world and make a political party your religion? If you really want to change the world, you must choose to be Catholic, and carry Jesus into the public square.
Many people talk about how tribalism is bad for politics and bad for our society, but they do not provide a way to bring about change. Catholics have the solution, if we have the courage to live our faith. Pieces of the Catholic vision can be found imperfectly on both sides. This gives Catholics the ability to be a bridge between the two and to create the possibility of dialogue and compromise. I have worked to do this in Congress, because dialogue and compromise are essential in our political system to get good things done for our country.
We also have the ability to break the status quo by simply demonstrating that the two dominant worldviews are not the only options available. We can open people’s eyes, hearts, and minds to the fact that there are other ways to think and live. Ideally, we can lead individuals and society to a better place by winning converts to Catholicism authentically understood and lived. This is how you can change the world.
Finally, everyone needs to discern their individual calling. You all know that we have been given different talents and are called to different roles. As you discern, don’t just look for a career, focus on a vocation. Listen for God’s call directing you on how to use the gifts He has given you to make the world better. And have the courage to go where God is leading you. Many of you, maybe most of you, have had much of your life planned out either by you or for you up until now. Remember to be open to God’s surprises.
As you discern, don’t rule out a life in public service. Elective office is only one way to be a public servant. There is civil service, foreign service, the legal system, and many others. These are positions in government that have a significant impact on our world. Some are high profile, but most are not glamorous. While they are conducted behind the scenes, they have tremendous impact. We need smart, well-formed Catholics who understand their highest calling and will live it in their public service.
I don’t know if I’d be speaking to you today if it were not for the inspiration I received from Pope St. John Paul II. I don’t know if my life in the faith or in public service would have followed the path it has. It never ceased to amaze me that a man who suffered the loss of all his immediate family members by the time he was your age, and experienced the horror of two of the most brutal regimes in history, could focus his pontificate on the hopeful phrase, “Be not afraid.” Even after all he went through, he had tremendous faith in Jesus, and Mary the Mother of God.
Graduates, as you leave college, pray for that faith and be that donkey carrying the Lord everywhere with hope and without fear. Remember, Pope St. John Paul II astonishingly changed the world. With your education, your Catholic faith, and the grace of God, so can you. Congratulations!