Renowned Catholic Scholar Robert Royal Urges Class of 2020 to Embrace the Soul of Their Liberal Arts Education
After a year of waiting due to gathering restrictions imposed by the Commonwealth, Assumption recognized the Class of 2020 during a combined Baccalaureate Mass and Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 15, at the DCU Center in downtown Worcester. The Class of 2020, who received their diplomas last year after a virtual Conferral of Degrees ceremony, is the last to graduate under the name Assumption College as the institution transitioned to a University last summer.
Robert Royal, Ph.D., founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, urged the 270 graduates in attendance (of the 450 members of the Class of 2021), to embrace, and share, the soul of their liberal arts education.
“I’ve labored in the liberal arts ever since I was an undergraduate myself and I think they’ve made me into something more than I thought they would when I started out,” said Royal. “To become a student of the liberal arts has less to do with the subject matter that you study … and more to do with matters of character and even with matters, I would argue, of the soul.”
Royal shared that to study the liberal arts means to try to understand what it means to be “liber,” which in Latin translate to “to be free.” “It may sound simple enough … but to be truly free is not a simple matter,” he explained. “It requires you to take into account the limitations of the world around you, the limitations of yourself, the different perspectives, and the different ways of understanding things that are presented to you.”
Royal shared that “we are highly fortunate” that the Founding Fathers of the United States understood the idea of “liber” profoundly, “because they themselves were students of the liberal arts. They spoke frequently about liberty and how to arrange public institutions in order to guarantee that liberty,” he said. “You’ll notice that our institutions are not that simple, they’re deliberately complicated because they understood that one of the great temptations, one of the great problems in human history, is that political regimes turn into tyrannies when people don’t understand the nature of the person and of what human institutions can be.”
Royal added that there has been much tension in the last year surrounding the Founding Fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners, but Americas should understand that the men who put this great nation together were flawed, as we all are. “The entire human past is marred by sin, by crime, by imperfection, and we understand that as Christians,” he explained. “We can’t think that we ourselves are separate from the traditions we have inherited in America, because we’re part of that fallen world, too. Therefore, we don’t simply denounce others, we engage others, we seek to move all of us together to a better world …The challenge at any age is to hold on to what is good and what we have received from others and to correct that. And your training here at Assumption has been a preparation not only to hand on that tradition, but to improve it, to correct it where it is wrong, and to implement it where it hasn’t been implemented properly.”
He explained that that this is done with humility and wisdom, and it’s where the liberal arts comes to our rescue. “All of our practical training, though intended to fit us for careers, for jobs, to be able to take care of ourselves, our families, our communities, all of those need to take their bearings from what it means to be ‘liber.’ In other words, we don’t simply do these things [for the sole sake of a job], we do it because the things that we do matter. They matter if we care about what true liberty is and how to implement it and extend it to other people as well.”
Quoting the great St. John Henry Newman, Royal emphasized the importance of infusing soul into one’s work. “We focus a lot of skills and training these days… but we fail to pay sufficient attention to the formation of character, and even the soul, in order to be worthy of the term ‘liber,’” he said, sharing that Newman said the match for the growing technical power in the world was an increment of soul. “We need a spiritual power that is equal to the technical and economic power that we’re developing in the world. You are all now part of that effort to develop that increment of soul. And never lose sight of that because that means you will never lose sight of purpose in your life.”
Assumption President Francesco C. Cesareo, Ph.D., also addressed the graduates and his hope that they were using their education for the common good during the year since they completed their studies. He first welcomed back the Class of 2020 for the first time since March 2020, when Assumption transitioned to remote learning as the pandemic began to escalate. “When we realized that we couldn’t hold your Commencement last May, I promised you that we would come together to celebrate your four years at Assumption and your accomplishments in some way,” he said. “Today we fulfill that promise.”
Because the Class of 2020 officially graduated a year ago when their degrees were conferred last May, President Cesareo recognized that they were in a way observing their first alumni reunion. “We are celebrating more than just the completion of your degree a year ago,” he said. “We are celebrating today the fruits of your Assumption education which have manifested themselves in what you have been doing the last twelve months. Therefore, I hope we are celebrating how an Assumption education prepared you for the chapter of your life that you are currently living. I hope that we are celebrating the value of Catholic liberal education that formed you during your years at Assumption. I hope we are celebrating how the enduring ideas and enduring questions at the heart of Catholic liberal education provided you with a framework not only to make sense of this past year, but set you on the path for your future.”
He shared his hope that the graduates were living meaningful, purpose-filled lives, living their vocations with passion, contributing to the common good, and advocating for society’s most vulnerable. “I hope that you are living the motto of Assumption, ‘…until Christ be formed in you’ every day of your life,” he said. “ If we are able to celebrate these fruits of the education you received at Assumption, today and throughout the rest of your life, then we can be confident that we fulfilled our mission and that you were transformed in both subtle and profound ways while you were a student at Assumption.”
Valedictorian Lauren Robichaud also shared the hope that her fellow graduates were making use of their Assumption educations. During her address, she compared their Assumption education to a lighthouse, a navigational tool that provides refuge in the darkness, “sturdy, and unwavering, the epitome of strength and an enduring symbol,” she explained. “As we continue the next stage of our lives amidst the uncertainty of the times, I ask that we not forget the foundation that Assumption helped us to forge. I ask that we begin by suspending our urge to look for a lighthouse on the horizon to provide guiding light, and instead challenge ourselves to become that light.”
She encouraged her fellow graduates to embrace the mantra of Assumption and to Light the Way for themselves and for others using the foundational elements of the Assumption Catholic liberal education: thoughtful citizenship, critical intelligence, and compassionate service.
“When it feels like all around us is uncharted sea, we can take refuge in the person that Assumption has aided each of us in becoming,” she said. “Much like the three-part composition of a lighthouse allows for the it to deliver light to all those in its path, our Assumption education has provided us with the means to become the light ourselves … May we never forget our ability to be a light for all to see, and our mission as Assumption graduates to bring light into the world, and to inspire others to attain to this same ambition.”
Royal and James T. Brett, president and chief executive officer of The New England Council, received honorary degrees at the ceremony. Royal was recognized for dedication to exploring and sharing the essential fundamentals of faith and reason, while Brett was honored for his meaningful contributions that have benefited millions of individuals throughout New England.