Georgetown University Commencement

Washington, DC | June 8, 1964

I wonder what kind of education the Good Samaritan had? I suspect that those who passed by that miserable man who had been thrown among robbers probably had college degrees. Certainly they were busy with their professions -- too busy to take responsibility for someone who was dirty, half naked and half dead. We all raise shields against the poor. Then we say that poverty is invisible. What President Johnson is asking us to do is very simple, but very hard: He is asking us to lower these shields. He is confident that once we see what needs to be done, we will do it.

It is embarrassing for me today to confess that I only remember one quotation from St. Ignatius. Fortunately it is only one word: "MAGIS." -"MORE."

The watchword of the Jesuit order has always been: AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM. But Ignatius was a man of action. His personal watchword was MAGIS: More. More work, more sacrifice, more men to serve the greater glory of God. And that's my message now. We need more.

We need more men and women schooled in the tradition of Ignatius and Xavier. We need more like the 238 Peace Corps Volunteers now serving overseas who came from Jesuit schools. And we need more like the 38 Peace Corps Volunteers who studied at Georgetown, who Arkansas serving in towns and villages of 23 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I have seen them work. I can testify to their spirit and deduction.

As a matter of fact these robes I am wearing here today are evidence of their deduction. These were given to me at Chulalongkorn University by the Foreign Minister of Thailand. He was awarding me an honorary degree to honor the Peace Corps and the 235 Volunteers serving in Thailand. Three of those volunteers studied here at Georgetown.

In his speech commanding them, the Foreign Minister called the Peace Corps, "The most powerful idea in recent times." Let me tell you about eight other Volunteers — eight of the first 300 Volunteers for Ethiopia who took their Peace Corps training here at Georgetown. I last saw them in the little provincial town of Debra Marcos near the blue Nile in October 1962. We sent only men to that post because it was considered the most difficult, most isolated one in Ethiopia. I will never forget the rocky ride from. The strip of grass on which we landed to their school—the cobblestones on the main street were put in with the smooth side down and the pointed, spike side up. I wondered how these eight men, thrown together like that, without any American women around, would get along.

Here is what one of them Dick Lipez, wrote recently. "Through some unimaginable fluke we got along. We were not only friends but we stimulated one another intellectually in a way that perhaps no other people in the same house ever have. Last year, I did more reading and more talking about what I had read than during any three years of college. We talked politics endlessly, we talked about history, travel, sports, women, literature." The liberals, he said, became more conservative and the conservatives more liberal. "If anyone in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania," Dick wrote, "Discovered four or five men sitting around a Coleman lantern in the middle of the night reading and talking about poetry, the scandal would shake the town from the first island bridge to Crow's Diner. We got away with it."

Those eight men who went from this campus in 1962 to Debra Marcos, Ethiopia, are now coming home. One of them, a white boy from Alabama, has volunteered to teach in an all-Negro slum high school in Washington, D.C. Another will work for the Peace Corps. All of them are interested in the War on Poverty. Why is this?

Dick Lipez in his letter tried to explain why they were coming home with a new sense of responsibility. "Peace Corps life tempers one by its sheer irresistible intensity," he says. They look forward to coming home, "missing," he says, will be "the adventure, the thrill that none of us will ever be able to live again with such intensity, such freedom. We had great responsibilities—to or students, to one another, to ourselves—and in meeting these responsibilities we found a kind of freedom greater than any we could have imagined."

Soon Dick Lipez will be home and so will 3000 of our first Volunteers. You will see how much they have learned. They have learned about the world—not in an abstract way, not in books, but in service—in service of the poor; the poor in education, the poor in health, the poor in spirit. They have learned how to serve. They have learned responsibility. They are coming home feeling responsible for their own country. They now feel responsible for poverty in America.

My question today is: Why should they? Why should you? Why should I?

President Johnson has made me responsible for doing something about poverty. But who is really responsible for poverty—who is responsible for the poor? Is Georgetown University responsible for the poor? Is it responsible even for the poor of the nation's capital, the community in which the University was born and has grown to international eminence? Its primary responsibility is surely to its students and to the educational process. Our academic gowns remind us of the high educational purposes of the university. Is it fair to ask it to district itself form these noble purposes?

Is this faculty responsible for the poor? Surly, the task of educating young men and women should be practically all-consuming. Are the students of this University responsible? What time do they have to spare when they should devote themselves fully to their studies — to the academic excellence this nation needs and this school must require?

Are the alumni responsible? You are about to become alumni. I am told that 40 per cent of you will go straight to graduate school, 28 per cent of you will enter the armed forces, and 32 per cent of you will take on jobs in business, in teaching, or in government. How responsible for the poor can you be while embarking on such commendable pursuits and professions? A lawyer's first responsibility is to his client, a doctor's is to his patient. These are high professional duties.

Then, what about the businessmen? His duty is to make profits for his stockholders, his partners, his family. Even his duty to his Alma Mater, to a school like this, may strain his resources.

So, then, who is responsible for the poor?

That leaves only the poor themselves. But they can't all be responsible for their poverty. One third of today's poor are children. Can anyone claim they got to be poor because they are lazy, shiftless, drunken, or profligate? They were born poor. And most of their parents were born into poverty. You will find millions of American children who are the third or fourth generation of poverty in their families. We can't hold these children responsible.

Many of the poor are Negroes. They are born with a legacy worse than just poverty. They are born with the mark of slavery and discrimination — with skin that for five generations has shut doors to them. The old signs "Irish Not Wanted" are gone now, but the doors of many schools and many jobs and many neighborhoods are not yet open to someone who's skin is black. A Negro can't be held responsible for the color that God gave him.

So who is responsible? Is anyone responsible?

You can point to me and say President Johnson made you responsible. But that makes me feel like Lady Astor on the sinking ship Titanic. As the iceberg crashed through the ship's walls, she said, "I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous." Poverty is like an iceberg. Although submerged, cold, and impersonal, it can crash into our lives. When a woman is attacked on a city street, when a gang holds up a subway car, when a bystander is killed in a riot, when little girls are bombed in a church, we suddenly feel one cutting edge of poverty.

Poverty is like an iceberg because it chills us, it freezes our hearts, it makes us cold and impersonal. It is so frightening that we turn our eyes away from the human constituents of poverty, the people who are drowning in the sea of poverty—the men without jobs, the mothers without a man, or money, the children on the streets. These are the ones who feel the sharpest edge of poverty.

The worst news story of the year was about the murder of a woman in New York who could have been saved by onlookers. But not one of 38 witnesses came to aid, not one raised a hand, not one even uttered a cry or called the police until it was all over. No one was ready to go out into the night. No one felt responsible. When we reach this pit, this bottom, there can be no way but up. This kind of irresponsibility is the great pitfall of our complex modern civilization.

The way, up and out, is not easy. But, if any graduating class here know it, if any university should teach it, it should be here. For among the books you read, among the words you ponder, are some ancient ones. "For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?"

For what will it profit you or me, if we make all the money in the world, if we reach the height of our professions, even if we earn honorary degrees, if we find ourselves indifferent and our lives narrow? For what will it profit this university, if after all its good education, it graduates its students into irresponsibility?

I wonder what kind of education the Good Samaritan had? I suspect that those who passed by that miserable man who had been thrown among robbers probably had college degrees. Certainly they were busy with their professions — too busy to take responsibility for someone who was dirty, half naked and half dead. We all raise shields against the poor. Then we say that poverty is invisible. What President Johnson is asking us to do is very simple, but very hard: He is asking us to lower these shields. He is confident that once we see what needs to be done, we will do it.

The President's Task Force on the War Against Poverty is going to do its part. Are you going to do your part? Are you, who are graduating today going to graduate into responsibility? Are you who stay on to study and to teach in the years to come going to practice responsibility right here at Georgetown? Or are you going to turn your back on the hungry and the poor and the strangers on our starts here in Washington?

If you on the faculty tell your students that their only responsibility is their academic studies, if you tell them to think of themselves solely as students, not as responsible citizens, then you are laying the pattern for a lifetime of irresponsibility. If today students are taught to use their books as shields, tomorrow they will find their professions or their family obligations just as effective shields. That is what I mean by graduating students into irresponsibility.

You might say that I am wrong here, that the student of today will join the Peace Corps tomorrow. I hope so — I have some applications handy. That is one way to put down your shields and serve your fellow man, full time, for a short period of your life. And when you come back home, I would try to recruit you for the war on poverty.

When we asked 230 of the first returned volunteers, four out of five said they were interested in the war on poverty. Over 30 per cent said they were ready right away to volunteer for part-time, some even for full-time, service. But do we need this period of service abroad to learn how to serve at home?

If we do, then we are in real trouble. Because the Peace Corps barely scratches the surface of our needs. Soon there will be 10,000 Peace Corps Volunteers. But there are half a million college graduates this year alone. There are over two million college and university students in our land. If 10,000 are to learn responsibility in the Peace Corps, and two million are to practice the irresponsibility of their specialisms, then we are in dependent trouble. If we don't commit ourselves to waging the War on Poverty, if you in our universities and student bodies and faculties don't commit yourselves to this, then the iceberg of poverty is going to bring real havoc to our cities, to our backdoors, yes, even to this university campus.

You of Georgetown have already taken a significant step in this direction. That is, 300 of your students and faculty members have started on the "Road to Responsibility." They volunteered to give their time—to give some time each week—to serve in 24 different social action projects in this city.

From an office under the staircase in Healey lobby, they go out to work in slum neighborhoods and schools. They go out to work with the children of the slums—those behind in school, and those out of school and out of work. They do special tutoring, organize sports programs, assist in community organizations, serve in understaffed hospitals and settlement houses. They work Saturdays, on week-day afternoons, and throughout the summer vacation.

They are learning the hard way, but the real way, who the poor are,—and what poverty means. For them statistics take on faces. The 60,000 faceless, functional illiterates of Washington have become people to them—boys and girls they are teaching to read. Poverty for them has become something personal.

Is this all a distraction from their true work as students? I don't think so. Far from subverting the educational process, this program, it seems to me, is helping to fulfill it. In accepting responsibility for poverty, and for the great social problems of our national life, these three hundred Georgetown Volunteers are pointing the way to a great new frontier in American education: The Frontier of Service!

By serving in this way these men and women will not only be better Americans: They will be better doctors, better lawyers, better businessmen, better foreign service officers. The very nature of a profession is service. But when do students learn this most essential part? Medical students are too busy with intensive studies in medical school. A course in professional, legal responsibility is usually offered in the law school curriculum, but not required. But what can be conveyed there about a lawyer's or a doctor's duty to the poor — compared with what these Georgetown volunteers are experiencing? These volunteers are learning the compassion without which no profession or person is complete — the compassion that keeps us from by-passing the poor.

Take Jule Clavadetcher, a Georgetown student who all this year worked five hours a week at All Souls' Unitarian Church with some hostile and potentially delinquent Negro children. So marked was the good effect upon the children that the Jewish women's organization of B'nai B'rith, awarded this Catholic student its yearly citation for enlightened civic action for youth. Jules learned a lot about the problems of race and poverty. Maybe he learned something about the Ecumenical movement too.

The Chairman of your own Philosophy Department, Dr. Jesse Mann, tells me, "I would much rather have students in my class learning about philosophy of man by working with underprivileged Negro children of this city than merely by reading dusty volumes of Philosophy 104 in Riggs Library." So these students who are passing up a beer party or a dance or a lazy Saturday afternoon favor of this word are not subverting Georgetown.

This program of university service is rather the extension of education — the broadening of education — the deepening of education which we must have if we are to find our way through the web of modern technology. We must find out way through our technical specialties into our full responsibilities as human beings.

Fortunately, the needs of American education and the needs of our War on Poverty meet at this point. For what you have begun here is what we must launch on a vast scale, if we are to win the War on Poverty. For this reason I call upon all of you, students and faculty alike, to follow in the footsteps of the 300—the 300 who have already gone beyond these walls to serve in that "other America" in our nation's capital.

I call upon all the colleges and universities of America to join in this great effort. But this is a special call to all those colleges and universities which like Georgetown stand in the shadow of the Cross. For this war against poverty is America's Holy War. And, if you who represent Catholic education in America fail to respond, you will deeply wrong yourselves, your country, and your faith.

In our great sacraments, we see the love of God for Man. Because His word became flesh, we vow to try to make the word become flesh, in our own, inadequate lives. There is another "Sacrament" that can help us learn how to do this, a "Sacrament" that can give us the strength to keep on trying to do it. It is the "Sacrament of Service to Man-in-Need."

Christ considered this so important that he made our final judgment turn, not on the number of prayers we say, or the number of devotions we attend, but on whether or not, we are too busy to help Him when he comes to us in the garments of the poor. "I was hungry, and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in. As long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me."

So it is time, as it has always been time, for us to lower our shields, and to see the sacrament awaiting us beyond the altar rail, outside the campus gates. It is this mission to which we are sent, when we leave the chapel that stands at the heart of this campus. ITE MISSA EST does not mean our trivial translation, "It is finished, you can go." And this Commencement today does not mean, "I've done my share, I can go and look after my other business." It means instead: "Go and fulfill your mission."