Until a couple of weeks ago, I never had the occasion to return for commencement exercises at my alma mater, St. John’s University, where I am a proud member of the class of 1985. That may seem a little odd considering my work and the fact that we have lived about half an hour from the Queens campus for many years.
This year’s commencement speaker was Cardinal Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila, who is also president of Caritas International, the Church’s worldwide federation of relief and development agencies.
When I applied for a media credential to cover the 2018 commencement, I also requested short interviews with Cardinal Tagle and the university president, Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D., whom I had not met before. I wasn’t sure if I would get both interviews, but I aimed high and decided to see what happened.
I got some good initial feedback from Jen Tucholski, director of media relations at St. John’s. We went back and forth by email a couple of times, and I agreed to show up early on Sunday morning, May 20, for an opportunity to speak with Cardinal Tagle, and a good possibility for an on-the-spot moment with Gempesaw.
At the appointed hour, I made my way to the beautiful St. Thomas More Church, where I was to meet Cardinal Tagle. First, I was given the opportunity to speak with two of the university’s bright graduates, Aria Laucella, an English major, and Elizabeth Adam, a theology major, who are both members of the Catholics Scholars program.
Ms. Adam said that she would be pursuing her master’s degree in education at Providence College while teaching at a Cristo Rey High School in that Rhode Island city. She said she was “incredibly excited, and a little nervous” about her immediate future, which sounded just about right when I considered how I felt on my own commencement day at St. John’s.
When Cardinal Tagle walked into the church, he was friendly, approachable and very willing to answer my questions. Bringing to mind my interactions with the students, I asked the cardinal what he would tell them and others who were graduating from St. John’s University on Pentecost Sunday.
Cardinal Tagle said Pentecost was “a beautiful day” to have graduation, and that the students should become part of the “missionary movement of the Church.”
“The Holy Spirit reminded the disciples of what Jesus taught them,” the cardinal said, “but to be sent as messengers of the gospel of reconciliation and forgiveness.”
He said he hoped the Holy Spirit would send “a mighty wind to push all these young people out into the world.” The day’s readings stressed communion, and the cardinal said he thinks the graduates can play a significant role in bringing “a spirit of communion” into a fractured and divided world that so desperately needs it.
Speaking briefly with President Gempesaw as the St. John’s faculty and administrators were gathering before their academic procession, he called commencement “one of the happiest days” in the life of a university. It’s a chance to celebrate the success of students, and to mark them moving into their professional careers, where they would join 181,000 fellow alumni of the Vincentian school.
In a low voice, Dr. Gempesaw shared a comment meant only for my ears. “Welcome back,” he said.
Dr. Gempesaw also had a personal message for this year’s graduates, who numbered 1,853. He told them the day made him feel a bit nostalgic for his first year as university president, which coincided with the freshman year of the Class of 2018.
“Your success is our success,” he told the graduates, “and our success is yours as well.”
Cardinal Tagle made an impression on the students right from the outset of his commencement address. After the expected thanks and greetings to the chairman of the university’s board and president, members of the Vincentian community and other ranking officials and staff, the cardinal drew cheers for offering enthusiastic greetings to the university’s janitors, canteen and cafeteria workers, landscapers and tree trimmers, laundry workers and security people.
Cardinal Tagle, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from St. John’s University, proudly displayed the watch on his wrist that he received as a gift from his parents when he graduated from high school in 1973. He encouraged the students to check the video monitors if they were having a problem seeing it from where he stood on stage. The cardinal said that some people have told him that he should buy himself an updated watch with more features. “This belongs to the museum,” they tell him.
“They see an object,” the cardinal said. “I don’t see an object. I see persons, my parents, who strove to be able to give their son a gift for graduation.”
“How do you see your parents?” he asked the students. “What do you see in them?”
It was a pretty good lesson for today’s St. John’s graduates to hear, and not a bad one for a 1985 graduate to encounter, either.