What John Paul II Has Helped Teach Us
By George Weigel
Graduation Commencement speech
delivered on May 8, 2004 at the Franciscan
University of Steubenville
For more than 25 years now, we have all been
privileged to live at the same historical moment
as John Paul II. Most of you, members of the
class of 2004 at Franciscan University of
Steubenville, have no memory of any other pope
in your lives.
Those of us whose memories go back much further
know that no pope in our lifetimes -- perhaps no
pope in centuries -- has left such an imprint on
history. But even that, I suggest, does not take
the full measure of the man whom future
generations may well know as "John Paul the
Great." Perhaps baseball helps.
In the most compelling baseball book ever
written, "The Boys of Summer," Roger Kahn
described the legendary Jackie Robinson in these
terms: "Like a few, very few athletes ...
[Jackie] Robinson did not merely play at center
stage. He was center stage; and wherever he
walked, center stage moved with him."
In the same way, Pope John Paul II has not
simply left an imprint on history. He is
history, and where he goes -- whether that is to
Poland in 1979, Nicaragua in 1983, Chile in
1987, Denver in 1993, or the Holy Land in 2000
-- history moves with him. And history is
changed because of his presence.
How does this happen? Not simply because the
Pope has a winsome personality -- although he
surely has that. And not just because he has an
acute mind -- although he certainly has that,
No, his impact on history -- his singular
capacity to be history, to embody the history of
his times as only one other man, Winston
Churchill, did during the last century -- is the
result of his faith, his convictions and his
commitments: In a word, his impact on history is
a result of his discipleship.
Are there lessons to be learned from that
discipleship for you who will shape the 21st
century? I think so. Let me suggest three such
lessons, as a graduation present to you on this
John Paul II lives an intense sense of vocation
that has implications for all of us. In the
Catholic Church today we still use the world
"vocation" as if it applies primarily, or even
solely, to priests and nuns.
The Pope, who knows the crucial importance of
the ordained priesthood and consecrated
religious life in the Church, disagrees. In his
mind, and according to the teaching of the
Second Vatican Council, every baptized Christian
has a vocation: a singular, unique place in the
cosmic drama of God's creative and redemptive
Each one of us, the Pope believes, is an actor
in a drama with eternal consequences. And each
one of us has a distinctive role to play in that
It's interesting to remember that John Paul II,
as a young man, struggled -- really struggled --
to discern his vocation, his unique place in
God's scheme of things. He was intensely
attracted to the theater. He had the normal
social life of a young man of his time,
including serious friendships with both young
women and young men.
When he began his university studies, he
certainly intended to live his life as a
committed Christian, but he thought he would do
that as a layman: an actor or writer or director
in the theater, perhaps later a professor of
language. It was only after an intense period of
reflection and prayer that he came to a
different understanding: that God had chosen him
for the priesthood, and that to that
being-chosen there could only be one answer.
How very different the history of our times
would have been, had young Karol Wojtyla not
taken seriously the question of where and how
God wanted him to "play" within the drama of
That's the kind of seriousness of purpose that
all of us can learn from John Paul II. Many of
you will enter the world of work after this
graduation; others of you will continue your
studies. No matter what you will be doing
tomorrow, or next week, or next September,
however, there is a lesson for you in the life
of John Paul II: Don't think of your life simply
as a "career." Think of your life as a vocation.
God has something unique in mind for each of
you. There is something singular that each of
you brings to the making of history. Think of
your lives in those terms, and you'll never fall
prey to the most deadening of temptations: the
temptation of boredom.
In the second place, we can learn something from
the Pope's conviction that life is dramatic.
When John Paul thinks of "the human drama," he's
not thinking only in grand, sweeping, historical
terms. He's thinking very individually, very
In "Novo Millennio Ineunte," his apostolic
letter closing the great jubilee of 2000, the
Holy Father reflected on his experience of
standing in the window of the papal apartment
during the jubilee year, watching long lines of
pilgrims, day after day, waiting their turn to
go through the Holy Door of St. Peter's. Each
one of those lives, the Pope writes, represented
a unique encounter with Christ, a unique story
-- a unique drama.
Each of us, John Paul teaches, lives a life that
is structured like a drama. Why? Because each
one of us lives, every day, in the gap between
the person I am today and the person I ought to
be. That's a dramatic situation. Closing that
gap -- becoming more the person I ought to be --
is the drama of daily life.
Those of you who have visited London know that,
on the Underground, the London subway, there are
endless signs admonishing riders to "Mind the
gap!" -- the space between the subway car and
the edge of the platform. As I told a group of
priests in London recently, "Mind the gap!" is
in fact the story of all our lives, not just our
lives on the subway.
And we're not simply to "mind" the gap; in
cooperation with God's grace, we're to close the
"gap" between who we are today and who we really
ought to be. That's what it means to grow as a
human being. That's what it means to become an
adult -- and then to keep on growing.
This profound conviction about the drama of
every human life is what allowed John Paul II to
say in Fatima on May 13, 1982 -- one year to the
day after he was shot down in his front yard,
St. Peter's Square -- "In the designs of
providence, there are no mere coincidences."
Nothing is just "coincidental." Everything
counts. Everyone counts. In John Paul II's
dramatic understanding of our lives, every
person we meet, every situation in which we find
ourselves, is an encounter or scene in the drama
of life: the great cosmic drama in which our
individual lives are playing, and the unique
drama that is each one of us.
So the second lesson we learn from John Paul II
is to "mind the gap": to live our lives fully
and intensely, because each of us is capable by
grace of spiritual and moral grandeur. Each of
you, members of the class of 2004, is capable of
spiritual and moral greatness.
Some of you will go on to do great things, as
the world measures "greatness." But all of you
are capable of greatness in the most noble, the
most deeply human sense of the term: You can be
the person of moral conviction and purpose and
goodness that you were made to be -- the person
that you must be, if you're to fulfill your
human and Christian destiny.
Finally, let me suggest that there is a profound
lesson for the members of this graduating class
in John Paul II's age, and indeed in his
physical difficulties of recent years.
This may sound peculiar. You are young. He is
old. You are vigorous. He, once a great
sportsman -- a daredevil skier, a man who could
hike for hours on end, a kayaker and hockey
player -- now leads the Church from a
wheelchair. The Pope often treats his
infirmities with the medicine of humor.
A few months after he had had his
surgery, I asked him, "Holy Father, how are you
feeling?" "Neck down, not so good," he
immediately shot back. But it's not simply his
ability to laugh at his difficulties that
commends John Paul, in his old age, to you who
In a culture that tempts us to think of people
as disposable when they become burdensome, or
troubling, or inconvenient, John Paul II is
teaching us -- not just with words, but by a
powerful example -- that there are no
"disposable" people. Human beings are not
problems to be solved -- or, in the case of the
inconvenient unborn or the burdensome elderly,
problems to be dismissed through the
technological fixes of abortion or euthanasia.
Every human life is of consequence. Every human
life has inherent, built-in, inextinguishable
dignity. Every human life has infinite value.
That is what John Paul II teaches us when he
walks, in pain, in the footsteps of Jesus and
St. Paul, in the Holy Land, in Damascus, in
Greece. That is the truth he embodies when he
returns insults with affection, when he acts on
the belief that even those most filled with hate
can become, once again, capable of decency.
There are no "ordinary" people: That is the
third great lesson to be drawn from the life of
John Paul II. You have never met, played,
studied, or argued with a "mere mortal," C.S.
Lewis reminds us. Everyone you have met in your
life -- everyone you will meet in the years
ahead -- is someone with a dignity beyond
measure. Everyone you will ever meet is a
someone with an eternal destiny.
To live that truth is to live life at its most
bracingly, engagingly, thrillingly, human. To
live that truth is to live life as the adventure
that God intended it to be from the beginning.
To live that truth is to become the kind of
person who can be happy living with God forever.
That is the kind of love for which Franciscan
University of Steubenville has prepared you. For
that is what Catholic higher education is for:
the preparation of vocationally serious men and
women for whom faith and reason meet in one
foundational conviction -- that every human life
is, by definition, extraordinary. That is the
conviction on which this college can and must
build its future.
In living out that conviction by preparing men
and women whose competence is enhanced by their
character, the Catholic colleges and
universities of the United States perform an
immense public service. For our freedom depends,
in the final analysis, on the content of our
character as a people.
Only a people of character will be able to
understand that freedom is not a matter of doing
what we like, but of having the right to do what
Only a people of character will be able to build
community out of the materials of diversity.
Only a people of character will know how to
deploy the explosion of knowledge in the life
sciences so that the biotechnologies of the
future serve the ends of genuine healing, rather
than leading us into a brave new world of
Only a people of character will be able to
defend freedom in the world by defending the
human rights of all, especially the first human
right of religious freedom.
By preparing those kinds of citizens, Catholic
colleges and universities today are defending
the truth that Thomas Jefferson inscribed in the
birth-certificate of American independence: that
our freedom rests on self-evident moral truths
about human beings, our origins, and our
Congratulations on your graduation. Permit me a
last suggestion: Take a moment, on this happy
day, to thank those who have brought you to this
moment of celebration and transition -- your
parents and grandparents, your teachers, and the
administrators of this college. And in thanking
them, make a quiet promise to yourself that you
will be as generous with others as these men and
women have been with you.
In the years before you, think back sometimes,
perhaps often, on what it meant to have earned
your baccalaureate degree at a time when a
Christian giant -- John Paul II -- walked the
earth. And learn from him the truth that he has
preached: that each of you, because of the grace
of God in Christ, is an extraordinary person
with a destiny greater than your imagining.
Godspeed on your journey.
© Innovative Media, Inc.
a Senior Fellow of the
Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman
Catholic theologian and one of America's leading
commentators on issues of religion and public
life. He holds the William E. Simon Chair in
Catholic Studies at EPPC. He
the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of
John Paul II, published by HarperCollins.
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