Published May 28, 2022
For most of my adult life I’ve carried around a quotation from Mao Zedong. It sounds weird, doesn’t it. Mao was a terrible excuse for a human being. But even bad men can sometimes teach useful lessons, and Mao did have a very keen strategic mind. He wrote that, “Weapons are an important factor in war, but not decisive. Weapons are necessarily wielded by people. It is people, not weapons, that are decisive.”
His words fit very well with our purpose today. And here’s why. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as a “fighting religion” because that’s how the Word of God describes it. We’re engaged in a struggle for the soul of the world. Our weapons are charity, mercy, patience, and courage—not bitterness and violence. But spiritual conflict is part of our reality, with a very long history in Christian experience.
And struggles need good leaders because, in the end, people aren’t converted by abstract ideas. They’re converted by other people who live, preach, and teach with confidence and joy.
Our oldest son, Matt, attended West Point, and his years there taught him how to form and lead other people. That’s what the service academies do: They’re hatcheries for leaders. And the practical skills of leadership they teach are hugely valuable. But the questions of why to lead and where to lead are even more important than how to lead And they can only be answered at the levels of character, conscience, and conviction.
Talent can be a blessing or a curse; a means to serve or a tool to abuse others. It’s a person’s sense of purpose, the truth or mendacity of what he or she believes, that makes all the difference. The genius of a place like Thomas More College is very simple. It takes the Gospel words—You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free—and shares them with men and women in a way that forms them with the moral substance and intellectual skills to form and lead others.
This college is a treasure, and so are its fruits. It’s the undergrad version of a fighter who punches above his weight. So take a moment of pride today in the fact that all of you as graduates, whether you fully understand it yet or not, have the vocation and the ability to be extraordinary men and women in God’s service. The Church needs this exceptional college and faculty that formed you. And she needs each one of you personally—because it’s people, not tools or weapons or even resources, that are decisive.
So, now to business. The job of a commencement speaker is to congratulate you on completing your studies, to encourage you for the road ahead, to offer some useful advice, and to do it all without boring you to mob violence. I’ll try to do that. But I’ll get there in a roundabout way. So I hope you’ll bear with me for a few moments.
I want to share just four brief points with you today.
My first point is a simple but very curious fact. I have a beautiful wife; a very happy marriage of 52 years; four great kids; 11 wonderful grandchildren; and the memories of a great career. I deserved none of it, and I’m grateful for all of it. And yet—here’s the odd thing—I’m also angry a lot of the time. And I’m not alone.
Most of the people I know are angry about something most of the time. I’m angry with the Russians. I’m angry with China. I’m angry with the German bishops. I’m angry with Twitter and the New York Times. I’m angry with Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and all the other self-described Catholics in Washington who’ve turned abortion into a sacrament.
But most of all, I’m angry with myself for enjoying my anger. For dwelling on it, cultivating it, and allowing it to become a poison not just in my own life, but in the life that I share with the people I love. One of the unhappy effects of Original Sin is that we all have a secret laboratory, hidden away in some dark crevice of our heart where, on our bad days, we perfect the flavor of our grievances.
Now, if you multiply that by 30 or 90 or 150 million people, you get a sense of the real virus infecting so much of current American life. The irony, of course, is that we live in the wealthiest, most successful, democratic republic in history. Even many of our poor are rich by the standards of half the world’s population. We should be happy and grateful. But we’re not. So how do we account for the anger?
We’re living through a sea change in our culture and self-understanding. And the Church has survived sea changes many times before. But today is unique, or at least very different. It’s different because of a dynamic that Hartmut Rosa, the social researcher, calls “acceleration and alienation.” Our technologies change not just the way we think and act. They also drastically speed up the rate of change. We can’t digest one change before another swallows us. The result is disruption, confusion – and anger.
What does that mean for us as Christians? It means this: For the next 25 years or so, the road ahead for the Church in our country will be quite challenging in terms of resources, influence, and every other material measurement of institutional health. We can mitigate the pain with hard work and smart planning. But we can’t quick-fix problems that we behaved ourselves into. We’re suffering from outside factors we couldn’t predict and can’t control.
But we’re also harvesting the moral effects of a century of Catholic assimilation and naïve optimism about the compatibility of Catholic teaching and American culture. I believe very strongly in the power of Catholics to be a sanctifying leaven in American life. It just hasn’t worked out that way. And the reason is simple. We haven’t been that leaven.
Of course, that can change. But it takes people and leaders—like the ones in this room—with the zeal and brains to think in terms of the long haul.
Which leads to my second point: the value of realism. The virtue of hope and the American cult of optimism are two very different creatures. Augustine of Hippo was a bishop of profound hope, but given human nature and the turmoil of his times, not so much optimism.
A little pessimism—pessimism in medicinal doses; let’s call it a prudent realism—forces us to search for the real sources of hope. It produces a healthy skepticism that asks sensible questions. For example, when we’re told to “follow the science,” we should ask: Why? And to where? And if, in fact, we should follow the science, then why don’t we follow it when it leads to the heartbeat of an unborn child?
The task of the Church, today and always, is to offer people real hope, the virtue of hope, rooted in Jesus Christ and alert to the lessons of history.
And that brings me to my third point: the importance of memory. Christopher Lasch, the social critic and historian, argued throughout his distinguished career that Americans are consistently bad at history. And there’s a reason. We just don’t like it. We were founded as a novus ordo seclorum—a “new order of the ages.” It’s in our national DNA to distrust the past. We see it as a high-interest mortgage on the present, and a burden on our freedom to invent and re-invent ourselves.
But ignoring the past means we don’t learn from it. And that leads, and has led, to unhappy consequences both at home and abroad.
As Christians, we can’t afford that kind of amnesia. For the Church, history as our shared Catholic memory is absolutely vital. It does two crucial things. It teaches us humility, and it teaches us hope. Humility, because history is one long lesson in our sins, mistakes, and failures. And hope, because despite our ingenuity and best efforts at screwing things up, somehow, miraculously, here we are today. God never abandons his people.
Memory, for individuals, shapes our personal identity. It’s the cornerstone of a sane and fruitful life. And it plays exactly the same role for every purposeful community. The work of remembering who we are, what we believe as Catholics, and why we’re here on mission in the world, is sacred. And it runs directly counter to our current American culture, which reduces us to consumers, and then cocoons us in a permanent present of appetites and anesthetics.
The reason we can hope in the future is our experience of the past and its record of the steady stream of saints among us. Georges Bernanos, the great French Catholic writer, said that we moderns tend to think—either out of arrogance or regret – that the era of the saints is over. But we’re wrong. It’s always the era of the saints.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been reading a lot about the Reformation. Despite all the many and obvious differences between 1522 and 2022, some of the similarities—like the impact of new technologies and the revolution they trigger in thought and culture—are striking.
The Christian century leading up to Martin Luther was a long, slow car wreck of missed opportunities, Church corruption, and bumbling. And yet, again, here we are today. We’re here because God raised up the necessary saints, including men like Thomas More. And if He did it in the past, He can—and He will—do it again in our own time. He’s doing it right now and right here. He can do it with each of you. And that’s a reason for hope.
So finally my fourth point. I worked with Archbishop Charles Chaput as his senior aide and chief of staff for 23 years. We both retired from diocesan service in 2020. Since then, I’ve thought many times about why I hold him in such high regard. The answer is that he had courage. He had a spine. He had a zealous, evangelical heart. He spoke the truth, with real joy and convincing passion, about the absolute centrality of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Church in our lives.
And while he was a prudent man, a kind man, he was also relentlessly honest. He didn’t really care where he stood in ecclesial politics. As a colleague, I found that liberating and fertile. Because extraordinary things can get done when you’re not constantly looking over your shoulder, or jealous for praise, or angling for the next promotion, or worried about what critics might say. In all these things, he was a model of how a mature Christian should live and lead.
The most urgent problem laypeople like my own family and so many others face today is the routine, tepid, practical atheism that seeps into our heads from the noise all around us; the implausibility of the supernatural in a world of nonstop scientistic and consumerist propaganda and mumbo-jumbo. And so much of it boils down to empty falsehoods about our purpose as human beings; lies that rob us of our nobility and joy. We’re better than that. God made us for more than that. We need more than lies because they starve the soul. The human heart yearns for things that are higher than that, greater than that: things like beauty and purity; meaning, love, and truth.
“Love” and “truth” are the two most abused words in the English language. We don’t invent truth; and genuine love can never be separated from truth. There’s no “my truth” and “your truth.” Thomas More didn’t die for the sovereignty of personal conscience—at least not in the crippled way that today’s world understands “conscience.” He died for the sovereignty of the truth that formed and animated his conscience; the truth embedded in his Catholic faith, to which he submitted his will and his life.
Somebody needs to remind us of such things, and lead us to them, and then build a better, holier future. That’s the privilege God invites each of you to today as you graduate. People, not things, are decisive. Which is why your lives matter; not just now, but eternally.
I’m a father and husband with a boatload of flaws. But I do love my wife. And I do love my children and grandchildren. If I’m faithful to that calling and love well; if I do the very best that I can; if I have the courage to live and share the Catholic faith I claim to believe, then that’s all God asks of me. He’ll handle my failures.
The fate of the planet doesn’t depend on you, or on me. But the people God puts into our lives, and into our care; the people who need our love, our friendship, and our Christian witness; they do depend on us—and that’s precisely how God begins the renewal of the world: through us. Through each of you.
The Word of God is water in a desert. It’s the cure for fear and anger, and the wellspring of joy. And a world of thirsty hearts is out there. So this isn’t a bad time to be a Christian. It’s the opposite. It’s exactly the best time, because what we do matters. So brothers and sisters, I’ll pray for you as you start on the adventure.
And don’t forget to pray for me. Because I need it.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.