On Saturday, May 10, Aquinas College conferred its first master’s degrees and hosted noted co-foundress of the Sisters of Life, Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., as commencement speaker.
The day began with the Baccalaureate Mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation at 9 a.m., celebrated by Bishop David R. Choby of the Diocese of Nashville, followed by the academic awards ceremony and nurse pinning. The commencement exercises took place at the War Memorial Auditorium in downtown Nashville at 2 p.m.
The Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Teaching and Learning were conferred on Aquinas’ first students to receive graduate degrees. It was truly an historic day in the history of this growing college. The School of Nursing and the School of Education began offering graduate studies in 2012. The School of Education offers a Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Teaching and Learning, a Master of Arts in Teaching (K–6), and a Master of Arts in Teaching (7–12). The School of Nursing offers a Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.) in Nursing Education and a Post-Master’s Certificate in Nursing Education. In Aquinas’ new Strategic Plan for growth, “Vision 2020: Truth and Charity,” several new graduate and graduate degree programs are being planned.
The selection of the commencement speaker underscores Aquinas College’s commitment to the Catholic understanding of human dignity and the Dominican charism of preaching and teaching. After a heartrending visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp, Cardinal John J. O’Connor wrote an entry in his newspaper column entitled “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” Mother Agnes Mary was among the first women who responded to this call. Founded in 1991, the Sisters of Life are a contemplative and apostolic community whose primary work is prayer on behalf of vulnerable human life. Their apostolic works include a “Holy Respite” where pregnant guests are welcomed to live in the spiritual environment of a religious house and a phone mission to women whose pregnancy creates a crisis. Mother Agnes Mary received a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and served on the faculties of the College of William and Mary and Columbia University before helping to found the Sisters of Life. She has been involved in higher education as a professor, psychologist, program coordinator, and program director. Her life and her love are dedicated to the order she helped found and leads as Mother General.
Also of note at the ceremonies, School of Education graduate Sheila Williams-Martin overcame many hardships to walk across the stage to receive her degree. Read Sheila’s story here.
Here follows a full transcript of Mother Agnes Mary’s commencement address:
Thank you, Sister Mary Sarah, and thank you Your Excellency Bishop Choby, reverend fathers, sisters and brothers, faculty and staff, students, faculty and friends of the graduates of Aquinas College. It is truly an honor and a joy to celebrate this day with you. The past four years, I have to believe, here at Aquinas College, have been something of a Cenacle experience during which the Holy Spirit has prepared you to be sent as disciples of the Lord. You are the blessed inheritors of faith in Jesus Christ within the great Catholic tradition, and you, I trust, are among the blessed of all ages to have found the Pearl of Great Price. Here at Aquinas College, you have been knitted together as a family and here you have found a place in the greater family of the Church. And today, Aquinas College presents you to us, and invites you to take your place among the educated citizenry of our Church, of our nation, and of the world. And we are blessed to receive you. As a college community, I know that you have taken as a unifying theme this year a consideration of the dignity of the human person. So I thought that your commencement address might well be simply a post script to your year-long reflections. So my address will contain three sections. The first, just a simple reflection on the mystery and the dignity of the human person. Secondly, how we, all of us, and each one of us, make a passover from the natural and secular understanding of life, to living fully the mystery of human life. And finally, allow me to point out to you a few practices which might sustain you on the way. So as we begin, what light might we take from the Easter mysteries that would shed some understanding on the human person. Well, you and I cannot have lived out these Easter days without being reminded of the personal and generous and total love of Jesus for each one of us. We tremble, literally, at the worth of each human person in the sight of God. What we Christians believe about the human person changes everything. We believe that each person is will and loved by God into existence as a unique and unrepeatable icon of the living God, a unique reflection of the divine image. And each one of us is sustained in life by that same love. Cardinal O’Connor, our father and founder of the Sisters of Life, once reflected upon the nature and the sacredness of the human person, with us in this way: He said, “If there were millions and billions of persons who in this same way reflect the divine image, then the loss of any one, or of a thousand or a hundred thousand, would be as the loss of a falling star. But each one of us is an unrepeatable act of God. Each one of us brought into being for a specific purpose, a purpose that will not be carried out by anyone else. A person’s specific mission will not be completed by another. It cannot be. For it is that person’s mission. If a person is unique, then what that being in time would do is undoable by anyone else because it would be done uniquely in accordance with the individual’s unique nature. This makes,” he said, “every human being very special, sacred.” I believe it passionately. As graduates of this Catholic institution, you embrace the truth that every human person is a masterpiece of the Creator, made in God’s image to grow by grace in His likeness, alive to the transcendent, capable of knowing and loving things visible and invisible. And we can stand only in awe and humility before the mystery of the human person. Jesus’ redemption, the mystery that we all celebrated this past Easter, is pure gift. A pure, unmerited, gratuitous gift, simultaneously revealing the truth of who we are, prized, precious, cherished, chosen by the Lord, and set free from the bondage of sin and death by love, to love and to be loved. The challenge for the believer is to live the moment of the redemption, fully alive, fully human, trusting confidently in this most wondrous gift. Unfortunately, it is much more likely that each one of us will be tempted to live comfortably some portion or some aspect of our lives in the narrow confines of self-accusation, self-condemnation, self-doubt, and self-blame. To become effective witnesses to the possibilities for human life demands that we first receive in full measure the abundant blessings and graces of this greatest mystery of our faith. And rejoice that Jesus did it for me. For as Jesus prepared to die, He would have looked at you, each one of you, and said of his brutal sufferings and death, “You were worth it.” Standing in the strength of that grace, we become witnesses to a wounded world thirsting for love, desperate to know their identity, and desiring to live fully the life that they have been given. So let us rejoice in a God so great that he works his redemption in spite of my sinfulness, if I be but repentant and humble. Nearly two weeks ago, we were all aware that we celebrated great Feast of Divine Mercy and the canonization of the Pope of Mercy, Pope John Paul II. It was Jesus’ message of divine mercy to Sister Faustina that reminded the world that there is nothing about us that is too much for God. At the heart of the Culture of Death is a lie that stifles hope and stamps out light. And our culture will be healed only by a thoroughgoing embrace of the truth about human life and human love. And perhaps the greatest evangelist will be those who have lived firsthand the experience of the life-changing power of the love of God and know the truth of Jesus’ words “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.” The one healed from sin knows best the truth we celebrate in these Easter days. For it is His light and His love that shines through our wounds like five crimson stars. To be pro-God, pro-woman, pro-life, is to offer to others the hope we receive from the resurrection of Jesus. New life is possible for every person no matter what one’s background might be. Each person is capable of greatness, of heroic love, of living beauty. For God is making all things new. So let me tell you a story, share with you an example of just how this is so true. Recently our sisters came to know a young woman, I’ll call her “Monica,” who lives nearby us in the Bronx. The Friars of the Renewal recognized that grace was stirring in Monica’s heart, and introduced her to us, and encouraged her to attend one of our young women’s retreats. Monica arrived, complete with tattoos, for a weekend retreat which would change her life and recapture the hope she needed to dream. So let me tell you Monica’s story in her own words. She begins, “I didn’t have a relationship a girl needs to have with her father. I had several broken relationships with men, and had seen a lot of abuse. I didn’t know who I was. I felt unlovable, and yet I still wanted to give myself away. So I decided to go on retreat with the Sisters of Life whose theme was ‘Perfect Love Casts Out Fear.’ And I really wanted to believe that that was true. One of the sisters gave a conference on the dignity of being a woman made in the image and likeness of God, and when she described woman as the crowning glory of creation, something happened to me. It dawned on me. I have so much to give. God made me. And he decided to make me. The world needs me. And I went to the Lord in prayer saying, ‘Jesus, show me how to be a woman. I need to know the truth of who I am.’ I’d been living in a world of so much anger, feeling I could never be pure again. And that weekend, I knew God was saying, ‘You have dignity. You do not need to degrade yourself.’ I understood then that I needed help and it wasn’t long before I was able to receive God’s forgiveness. It made me cry because I knew I wasn’t alone anymore. And all my dreams came back. I had yearned for a fairy tale, for someone to come and save me, and I reclaimed my freedom by accepting God’s infinite love. I started sitting before the Blessed Sacrament because it was the one place where I felt myself. I would just sit there and allow myself to be loved. I started living, really living. I wanted to be a woman, the woman that Christ made me. I could love myself and give myself to Him. It was transforming. I now know that I am a daughter of a king. I know that I am beautiful, my body is beautiful. It took sacrifice, you see, to live this way, for things changed for me, the way I spoke, the way I saw other people. I started really loving people, seeing the good in them. I knew happiness was out there, but the joy of knowing Jesus Christ is like a never-ending fire. What’s more, I started to want to see God face to face. I desired Heaven. Now, the prayer of the Mass is what gets me through the day through life. I can’t be thankful enough.” Following that retreat, Monica became a vibrant leader of her young adult Catholic community in the South Bronx. And today is graduating as a full scholarship student from Ave Maria University, a dream she could have never imagined for herself before this. So, young men and women, graduates today of Aquinas College, to you has been given the blessing of a vision of the dignity of the human person, ratified in the Incarnation. To you, young graduates, has been given the true perception of human love as a gift and a privileged participation in the life-giving love of the Trinity whose sublime beauty is manifested in self-sacrifice. And to you, young graduates, has been given the recognition that the astounding beauty, intricacy, and symmetry of the natural world is but a reflection of the grandeur of God. To you, young men and women of Aquinas College, has been given belief in Jesus Christ, Who is Truth, the one who is my rock and my salvation. Today’s ceremony is one of the rituals of young adult life which signifies that the stewardship of the awesome gift of your life is being passed into your hands. Receive that gift with a full measure of gratitude to your parents who gave you life, with gratitude toward those who by their lives, their love, and their witness, have led you to an encounter with the living God, and to a vision of the Mystical Body of Christ as his Church. And with gratitude toward those who have shared with you the great adventure and dignity that is to be found in human life. The ways in which you steward the gift of your life is the most fundamental contribution that you can make to the building of a culture of life and a civilization of love. Christians throughout the world, in this Easter season, celebrate our final and definitive liberation, the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. The Church’s celebrations are founded on that reality as prophesied by Isaiah as we have been ransomed by a savior, Jesus Christ, Who came to set the captives free. We rejoice in the freedom won for us by so great and loving a God. Seize that freedom. Promise yourself that throughout your life, you will avail yourself of the Sacrament which frees one from the bondage of sinfulness. Secure that freedom. As you leave here today, promise yourself that throughout your life, you will receive from the treasury of grace, in times of personal prayer, in the grace of the Holy Mass, and in the praise and adoration of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Young women and men, graduates today of Aquinas College, be witnesses to the greatest freedom of all, women and men, fully alive in the Lord and capable of reflecting the glory of God, be heralds of God’s love to all who do not yet know Jesus Christ. And invite others to join you on a journey to a future full of hope. Then measure the success of your lives at the end of each day, at the end of the week, and at the end of your careers, if others have found in you a reason to believe that He is alive. May God bless you and keep you.