Archbishop José H. Gomez delivered the 129th Annual Commencement Address at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. on May 12. During the exercises, the university awarded the archbishop an honorary doctor of fine arts degree for his contribution in advocating for immigrants. The following is adapted from Archbishop Gomez’s address.
Three years ago, I had the privilege to be here in Washington, D.C. when Pope Francis canonized St. Junípero Serra. It was a historic moment, the first time a Catholic saint was canonized on American soil.
St. Junípero Serra never saw Washington, D.C. He was a Hispanic missionary who had come up from Mexico to preach and build in California. And he never left there. The United States of America was not even established as a nation until the final years of his ministry. But the pope decided to canonize Padre Serra in our nation’s capital, because he believes we should remember Serra as one of our nation’s “founding fathers.”
Every people has a story about where they came from and how they got here. The story we Americans tell usually begins with figures like Washington and Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. We talk about the founding fathers and their declaration that all of us are created equal. But the American story started long before that. At least two hundred years earlier, migrant missionaries were greeting the native peoples of the Southwest as brothers and sisters—from Florida to California, sharing with them the most precious gift they could imagine: the gift of knowing the living God. It is worth remembering that the first nonindigenous language spoken in this country was not English but Spanish.
America’s founders, including Padre Serra, dreamed of a nation in which men and women from every race, religion, and national background could live in equality as brothers and sisters, children of the same God. Their vision helped make this a great nation, exceptional in human history—blessed with freedom and committed to sharing our blessings with the whole human race. Our history has not been pure. It has been filled with tragedy and violent betrayals of our deepest values. But always this vision of the human person has guided us to repentance and amendment.
But my friends, I know that many of you feel the way I do—that our great nation is losing her way. Dear graduates, you are entering an American society that is more anxious and more bitterly divided than I have ever seen in my lifetime. But the biggest challenges we face do not concern globalization, technology, or demographics. I believe our biggest challenge is a crisis of identity. America has lost her way because we have lost the threads of our national story. We no longer know who we are as a people or what our national purpose is.
Dear graduates, this is your calling at this hour of our history: to tell a new story for a new America. The stories we are telling ourselves today are too small, too fearful. We need a new narrative that will define us as one people with a common purpose. A new narrative that will help us to see beyond our narrow individualisms and the mentality of our “group.”
We need to talk about American holiness and heroism. America is alive in her saints—and we have so many! Mystics and missionaries, martyrs and immigrants, refugees and exiles. They came from everywhere to share their gifts and make this country what she was meant to be, a light to the nations.
The litany of American saints includes indigenous saints, like Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux mystic and Catholic catechist. There are freed slaves, like Fr. Augustus Tolton, our country’s first black priest. There are Mother Marianne Cope and the Creole saint Henriette Delille, who served the lepers. There are artists and activists, like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
The saints I know best are in my Catholic tradition. But there are American saints in every faith tradition, and in every family and every neighborhood. You know them. They are the hidden saints, saints of the everyday—holy wives and holy husbands, working hard to do what is right, sacrificing for their children, being good friends and good neighbors, serving the poor and working to make their communities stronger. We need to hold these people up as examples. We need to try to be like them in our own lives.
One American saint who means a great deal to me came to this country as a refugee. They called her Mother Luisita. The Church calls her Venerable Maria Luisa Josefa of the Blessed Sacrament. She was a servant of the poor, a teacher and a healer, a wife and a widow. Later she became a religious sister. Mother Luisita sought refuge in Los Angeles during the anti-Catholic persecutions in Mexico in the 1920s. America welcomed her and the Catholic Church took care of her. And she established a religious community that is still thriving in Los Angeles. Mother Luisita used to tell everyone, “For greater things we were born.” My friends, this is the meaning of our lives. This is the meaning of America.
America’s founders, the missionaries and statesmen, knew this truth. They knew that we belong to a story that began long before us: the story of our Creator. They knew that we are born with a dignity and a destiny that can never be denied, no matter who we are, or where we came from, or how we got here.
The new America is a story we are writing with our lives. Dear graduates, my prayer for you is that you will write a story that is filled with goodness, love, and service, with prayer and thanksgiving for simple gifts. I pray that you will always seek to know what is right, and have the courage to do it.
The American story is not over yet. We can still rely on the protection of divine providence. We can still open our door with confidence to people who are yearning to breathe free. We can strive on, with malice toward none and charity for all. We are made for greater things.
José H. Gomez is archbishop of Los Angeles.