05/27/07

2007 Commencement

In a joyous ceremony that drew thousands of relatives and friends, nearly 650 students graduated Saturday, May 26, during the 144th commencement at Saint Mary's College of California.

The morning ceremony, which was followed by hundreds of family parties in tents set up around the Moraga campus, included a commencement address on the Lasallian tradition by Bishop Emeritus John S. Cummins (see below). Senior Brandon Birr delivered the valedictory address, and Brother President Ronald Gallagher conferred the degrees to graduates.

Along with some 640 seniors receiving bachelor's degrees, nearly 40 pre-nursing students received their associate of science degrees. The bachelor's recipients included 110 nursing graduates in SMC's intercollegiate nursing program with Samuel Merritt College in Oakland.

The commencement ceremony for Saint Mary's graduate programs was held Sunday afternoon in McKeon Pavilion, followed by a reception in the Soda Center. Some 172 graduates from the College's School of Education and graduate programs in the School of Liberal Arts received degrees. Some of the programs include the Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, the Master's of Arts in Kinesiology, Master's of Liberal Studies and a number of educational degrees.

Joseph A. Ovick, Contra Costa County's Superintendent of Schools, delivered the commencement address.

Following is Bishop Cummins' commencement address:

Bishop Cummins

At one time in my life, I was on the faculty of Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland as well as Catholic Chaplain at Mills College. On more than one occasion and contrary to my own experience, I was accosted by fellow priests in campus ministry about our failure in high school to bring about adequate maturity in our students to face their college years. My response was that we were teaching kids. There is a great difference between a 17 year old and a 20 year old.

During those years I recall as well a letter from a mother who herself was a graduate of Mills College. She expressed thanks for the program of liturgy and instruction we had provided her daughter during her four years. The mother explained that from her observation the orientation of life at the time of graduation from college would be the expected pattern for the years to come. There may be little to dispute in that mother's comment. Post-high school years open the mind both to breadth and to depth. Immersion in a college, journeying along with an alma mater at this time is a blessing. You will find that this institution with its particular culture and personality has influenced your development whatever extent you are conscious of it or not.

A current humorous American personality explained recently her surprise that in managing her teenage daughter she found her own mother's very words issuing from her own mouth.

You at Saint Mary's have been immersed in a culture marked by the personality of John Baptist de La Salle and his family that have endured for 300 years.

His was a life overwhelmingly dedicated to the educational needs of seventeenth-century France. His was a vocation that closed in on him, in his own words "imperceptibly." This may indeed be something of the experience of these past four years, your finding new interests, uncovering new areas to like, perhaps changing a major.

You may be fortunate to have some area dominating your interest, ready like De La Salle, to give the best of energies, embracing risk and courting discomfort, with the generosity of spirit that the writer of the Hebrew psalms praised in the young.

He gave up his fortune and his privacy to live with people, whom late in life he would look back on as, below the quality of his valet. He unraveled the career of teacher to find something sacred in that profession and indeed a kind of divine treasure. Such probing is related to your own search in these times, noted by one of your own professors as a responsibility to address students' ultimate concerns as to what is the meaning of existence.

De La Salle left a heritage that embraced versatility. I speak to the atmosphere created here by names that have surrounded you as you walk this campus, Dante, Galileo, Catherine of Siena, Aquinas. I want to say a good word about the heritage of the arts.

The symbol perhaps is the term "the Great Books," looking back to the 1940s with Professor James Hagerty whose 50th anniversary of passing we shall celebrate soon and Brother Robert Smith to whom we paid a recent tribute. They believed in conversations with the great people who have gone before us. They shared with personalities of the Saint Mary's years like Brother Leo Meehan, who often filled the Oakland auditorium theater with his lectures and supplied us in the seminary with a textbook on English literature that was suffused with loving appreciation for thought and expression. In our own decade, the appointment of a United States poet laureate who was the product of this institution signs the De La Salle tradition. I remember from my high school days the admiration we had for the Saint Mary's Collegian and the verbal ability of such people as Jerry Ring and Joseph Alioto.

We were unaware that there was an element of victory about the classics on the part of the brothers in the United States. Their earliest traditions that embraced French and the vernacular not Latin did not suit California education in 1868 before the transcontinental railroad, far distant from the cultivation and vitality of the East. But, Mills College had cast its identity with the liberal arts straight from New England education. So too did the College of California that became the university in Strawberry Canyon later with its Congregational ministers Durant and Willey from Yale and Holy Names College, another contemporary, with its translation of the liberal arts not through New England but through Montreal and New France.

Professor Ron Isetti in his book on the early days of Saint Mary's recounted the graduations in the 1870s when students performed Latin disquisitions to the satisfaction of parents and to the entertainment of dignitaries, a practice happily from the students point of view not long enduring.

The compatibility of the tradition in the arts seems evident. De La Salle was a product of the Sorbonne. He maintained an openness to a variety of approaches in education, colleges, schools for adults, for seamen in Calais. For the Irish wards of King James the II he would echo Irenaeus from the second century of the Christian church that anything that enables the human person to become "fully alive, gives glory to God."

In more recent times a South African Dominican speaking of post-Einstein science talks of the new cosmology and a new scientific mentality that opens up vast possibilities for spirituality and faith and restores to the variety of those disciplines mystery and wonder. Through those liberal arts what is formed in mind and spirit can then respond to a changing world.

Along with that come words from one of your own teachers.

"To teach well is to get the students to enjoy." Aristotle said that once - he probably said it twice too if I know him - "There is no learning without pleasure." That enjoyment will continue through life even to what John Henry Newman describes as "Till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over."

Lastly, De La Salle had neither the intention, the desire nor the courage to travel by himself. Indeed many in the society shared his musings on educational innovation. Where he was singular was in his sense that a strong and tightly knit community was needed for fruitful results. Having established his group of brothers and vowing their commitment for life, he went beyond that to train a cadre of teachers and in effect brought about the first teacher college in the history of education.

How effective he was can be drawn from mere numbers. In somewhat more than one generation, there were 274 brothers following him, spread through France in Chartres, Dijon, Rheims, Marseilles, St. Sulpice in Paris.

The French Revolution with its oath of civil constitution of clergy decimated the brothers. After the stress of those years, there were identifiably only twenty brothers in the world. Within a decade, the seeds of community planted by De La Salle would be palpable, the twenty would become 160. In another decade, they would multiply six times to 950.

At the same time, the genius of the work would move to Rome, Belgium, to islands in the Indian Ocean, to ten countries by 1850 to twenty-four by 1900, in such disparate areas as the Near East, North and South America, Africa and India.

The work fit into many cultures. The first brothers to come to the very Irish Catholic world of San Francisco to call themselves "The Gaels" included Swiss and German. In our era, Saint Mary's has shared its faculties with the University in Bethlehem. In the sixties and seventies, this college was remarkable for its quiet outreach to the diversity that identifies California. Many of you have traveled and studied abroad and have the feel for this part of the De La Salle heritage that falls within the splendid Christian vision that we are one human family, brothers and sisters in Christ. The secular parallel is the term globalization with its promise and seeming inevitability, at the same time the object of sharp words and criticism from parts of Asia and Latin America.

A well-traveled, ecclesiastical diplomat remarked about this year's graduating class. "Often," he said, "I tell the graduates to have confidence in themselves and to make a difference and to change the world. Something however is left out, namely the need to work with others and have confidence in them. We are not called to make a difference just by ourselves, but to be part of a team and family. In this way, we can make the contributions great or small and make much by joining with others. It is a scary world and a futile aim if we are sent out alone but there is a great multitude willing to lend a hand to pursue a cause. Because there are good people and some not so good but many are ready to support and share and help us in what we cannot do alone."

This has an echo of De La Salle. You take it with you -- congratulations to you, to your parents and family and to Lasallian heritage.

--Erin Hallissy
Office of College Communications

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