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Advice to Students New and Old

Last week I offered some remarks at the matriculation ceremony for Thomas Aquinas College in California. Since I would give the same advice to any Catholic students reentering the school year, I thought I would share my thoughts here.

A few months before I was named bishop, I gave another lecture at Thomas Aquinas College. I was asked to deliver a talk that I thought was going to be a little too heavy. It was late at night, I had flown in from Chicago and driven up the California highway, and I thought, “Oh, this talk is going to bomb.” Yet when I finished it, there was an hour of questions from the engaged students! The experience gave me a direct taste of the intellectual vitality of Thomas Aquinas College, which has always been a joy. One of the pleasures of being assigned to Santa Barbara is that this college is in the region.

Today, I would like to share a few simple thoughts, directed especially to incoming freshman. It's a privilege to welcome these new students to the school, which is one of the premiere liberal arts colleges in the country. You have come to a great place—and to a pivotal moment in your lives. For the next four years, you will have the opportunity to immerse yourselves in the best minds that the Western world has produced: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Dante, Newton, Lincoln, and Einstein—among many others.

In doing so, you will be standing very much athwart the contemporary culture, which holds that truth, both theoretical and moral, is relative and that personal freedom trumps objective value. Your instructors here don’t drift with the cultural mainstream; they believe, with G.K. Chesterton, that an open mind is not an end in itself but rather is like an open mouth, designed to bite down on something solid and nourishing. And they maintain, with Pope John Paul II, that authentic freedom always subsists in tight correlation with the truth. In light of this, please know that you are going to be formed, whether you like it or not, as warriors. For the vision of life that you will take in here will not be widely shared by your contemporaries. Expect opposition; expect a struggle; but enter into the lists with what the French call the joie de combat.

Young friends, know that you will engage in a study of the great minds of the West precisely because this college is dedicated to Jesus Christ and his Gospel. St. John tells us explicitly that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is crucially important to grasp—especially in our relativistic time—that Jesus is not one teacher among many, one more in a long line of prophets and sages, but the very truth that every teacher, prophet, and sage has sought. But if he is the Logos in person, then every particular expression of the Logos—whether it is found in mathematics, poetry, chemistry, physics, or metaphysics—speaks, in some way, of him. This is the ground of Christian humanism and the explanation as to why the best representatives of the Catholic tradition never drove a wedge between faith and reason. It is also why the patron of this school, when asked by the Lord himself what he desired as a reward for his service, famously responded, “Non nisi te, Domine” (“Nothing but you, Lord”). Thomas Aquinas understood that in receiving Christ, he would also receive everything else of value.

A final consideration, which might seem a tad trivial after all of this high-flying talk. The study of the greatest minds is, quite simply, a delight. Machiavelli is a thinker with whom I rarely agree, but he said something that I have always treasured. He observed that when he entered his study to read the most sublime philosophers, he took off his mud-spattered workaday clothes and put on a regal gown, for he knew that he was entering into communion with masters.

Over the coming years, you will set aside mere practicality, clothe yourselves in regal gowns and become participants, however humble, in the most stimulating conversation of all. God bless you on this great adventure!