Jim Gardner 2016 Commencement Address


President Reed, Provost Brady, members of the faculty and members of the Board of Trustees, thank you for inviting me here today.

And I especially want to thank the extraordinary men and women who are marking this profoundly important milestone in your lives, and it is my honor to share this occasion with you.

I have enormous respect for you, bordering on awe.

As for the graduate and professional students among you, as soon as you attended your first graduate or professional school class, you took your education farther than I did, and the fact that virtually all of you have been working either part time, or full time while you have pursued these degrees, well, you are among the most highly motivated students one could know.

And I want to especially acknowledge the adult learners who are getting their undergraduate degrees today.

Each one of you undoubtedly has an inspiring story to tell, and I suspect that each one of you has relied on not only your intelligence to get here today, but also on a deep reservoir of grit.

There’s a psychologist at Penn, her name is Angela Duckworth, who has made a career out of studying grit.

She defines grit this way: “grit means sticking with things over the long term until you master them.” “The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”

Perhaps she could add to that “having an unshakeable commitment to accomplishing your goals, and seeing challenges as motivators, not as barriers.

And can I acknowledge the parents who are here today to show their support, and yes, to do a little basking in the achievements of their children?

I know what it feels like to attend your son or daughter’s graduation, and to see before you a young man or woman, but to let your mind wander back to the first few seconds of your child’s life.

How could this transformation have happened so quickly, 25 or 30 years in a heartbeat?

There are many occasions for a parent to feel that, but none more than an occasion like this.

And at the moment when our children feel so much pride and gratification, how can we make them understand how much we love them?

And lest we forget, many of our graduates today have their own children who are here, and we should tell them that yes, your moms and dads have done great things to be here this afternoon.

They often tell you how proud they are of you, on this day, you can say how proud you are of them.

They will love to hear it coming from you.

I think you should all take this opportunity to stand up and without inhibition, cheer for each other, graduates and their loved ones, for what HAS BEEN accomplished, and what you WILL ACCOMPLISH in the future. (cheering)


So let me talk about the future for a second, but to do so, I have to remember my past as something of a guide.

I went off to college as a pre-med. My father was a doctor, and there was always this assumption in my family that I would be a doctor when I grew up.  I can remember that as a kid, every birthday meant a toy doctor’s bag and a plastic stethoscope.  And I absolutely shared in that assumption….until I took organic chemistry in college.

End of assumption!

Organic chemistry at Columbia University back in the 1960’s was taught by a very famous guy by the name of Ronald Breslau. His was the weeding out course for generations of pre-meds, and no weed was ever easier to pull out of the ground than me. Truth is I didn’t see very much of Professor Breslau in 1968, but I did see enough of him so I could ask him to sign a request for withdrawal from his class. I felt enormous relief when he did, I also felt this overwhelming sense of failure, really for the first time in what had, up to then, been a relatively failure-free life.

And it rocked me, and sent me adrift.

What had happened to THE assumption that was supposed to guide me into young adulthood?

What to do now?

Of course, this sort of thing has happened to so many of us, and I’d venture to say a large percentage of the older adults here today, that it is very much a cliché.

Within a year of that personal crisis, I found myself being a witness to violent political protest, the occupation of academic buildings by radicalized students, the shutdown of a university and a police action that would end in almost a thousand arrests and dozens of injuries.

That may sound like something out of a third world country, but it happened at my university and I was in the right place at the right time as a student journalist for the college’s radio station, and suddenly, I was no longer adrift.

I had found it, something I really loved, being a raw but relentlessly inquisitive witness to something that really meant something to my community.

And my past failure?

What failure?

No longer mattered, it was no longer relevant.

And of course, with the benefit of a little perspective, my little personal crisis was the best thing that could ever have happened to me.

So what’s my point?

It’s not terribly subtle.

Most of you have had time to intelligently, and rationally, and even methodically think about your future, and to chart a course that will be a direct line to your ultimate destination, right?

Maybe. Only maybe.

I implore you to understand that the more you all plan, the more you have it all figured out, the more it’s likely that life will present you with alternatives, both welcome and unwelcome, both by your choice, and by the choice of someone, or something else.

Those alternatives might present themselves to you professionally, personally, intellectually and spiritually.

Please don’t see them as failures; but rather, see them as opportunities, opportunities to be seized, even if you feel unsure and unprepared.

I get it that there is often brutal pressure out there to be the best, and have great success, and at all costs, make sure you never lose a step, to stay on track, to make sure you find that direct line to your ultimate goal.

Being terrific according to someone else’s definition is hard work.

But creating your own definition of “terrific,” a definition that permits you to occasionally fail a little, and turn it into a positive, that permits you to explore a little, that permits you to play a little, that’s hard work too.

All I’m trying to say is that sometimes, the best road traveled isn’t necessarily that direct line, and that one of our most important assets is being able to step back and be open to the unexpected, and to recognize that how we feel about ourselves shouldn’t exclusively be tied to the success or failure of a master plan, and finally to realize that whom we love, how we love them, and how we allow them to love us is more important than the words written on your diplomas today.

I figure I drive past St. Joe’s about 4 times a week, sometimes less, sometimes more, but on a average of 4 times a week.

Over 40 years, that’s about 10 thousand, 400 times.

That’s 10 thousand, 400 times I have seen the word magis displayed on banners.

Do you know how difficult it is to find a clear-cut definition of magis?

I know it’s a really important word, otherwise it wouldn’t be the only word you see when you drive past or approach this university.

But the difficulty that a non-jesuit encounters when we confront the word magis is pretty well described by Father Barton Geger, a professor of religious studies at Regis University in Denver.

In a Paper called: What Magis Really Means and Why It Matters, he says, and I quote: No term appears more popular in the parlance of Jesuit institutions today than the magis. Originally a Latin adverb that meant “more” or “to a greater degree,” it is now commonly used as a proper noun to denote a key element of Ignatian spirituality. Especially in Jesuit schools, “Magis Student Groups,” “Magis Classes,” “Magis Retreats,” “Magis Scholarships,” “Magis Auctions,” “Magis Institutes” and “Magis Committees” are ubiquitous. The term appears in official decrees of General Congregations of the Society of Jesus, and also in the writings and allocutions of Jesuit Superiors General..

For all its popularity, however, the magis has a problem. No one seems quite sure what it means. Some say “excellence,” others “generosity.” These are two quite different ideas, both of which appear harmless enough at first glance. Others say “the more universal good,” that is, discerning choices based on what will make the widest positive impact on people. Other definitions include “magnanimity,” “greater efficiency,” “creative fidelity,” “choosing the harder option,” and even “choosing that which no one else will do.”

Interesting, but clearly not the definitive words.

Then I found it, not buried in some Jesuit text, but right on this University’s web site.

Magis: Soar Higher, Matter More. Live greater.

Funny, it doesn’t say anything about Make More Money, Finish First, Meet Everyone else’s Expectations of You.

Magis means Matter More, and isn’t it largely up to you to figure out what that really means?

Today wouldn’t be a bad time to start that exploration, if you haven’t already, and say to yourself, now that’s a pretty good guidepost.

Without question, one of the highlights of my 40 years at Channel 6 was last September’s visit by Pope Francis.

Not only was it a unique opportunity for Philadelphia to command international attention, but I relished the chance to learn about this man and the current issues, and yes the controversies facing the Catholic Church.

For me, one of the most riveting moments of the visit came when the Pope stopped on this campus in what appeared to be the only spontaneous, or nearly spontaneous events on his itinerary, because he wanted to see the statue, “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time.”

The reaction of the students on this campus, undergraduate and graduate students alike, to suddenly finding Francis walking the paths of Hawk Hill, was breathtaking, and made for some of the best television of the weekend.

But the excitement and thrill of that moment shouldn’t obscure the fact that Pope Francis wanted to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the 2nd Vatican Council, and its historic call for friendship and dialogue between Catholics and Jews.

It was an especially poignant moment for me because I was in Jerusalem for Channel 6 in March of 2000, and witnessed Pope John Paul II making history by visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial.

When you learn about Pope Francis, you learn that one of his priorities is the need for dialogue among all faiths in search for peace.

It wasn’t always so in the Church, but Francis has made it clear that people need to respect each other, to validate each other, to learn from each other, and that this isn’t just a matter of doing good, because it benefits us, and it benefits our world.

So it isn’t a stretch to imagine Pope Francis shaking his head in dismay when he sees and hears some of the things that are being said, and how they’re being said in our Presidential campaign.

No doubt politics are supposed to be tough, and our history is replete with nasty, hurtful and destructive campaign behavior, but in 2016, some candidates, some of their political operatives, and some portion of the media need to confront the fact that they have embarrassed themselves, and the political process.

We need to restore a couple of elements into our national conversation: namely respect and civility.

I’m not exactly sure when we began to lose sight of those two traits, but it seems pretty apparent we have.

And in Washington and Harrisburg, it seems that doing good for the benefit of people sometimes doesn’t even rise to the level of afterthought.

The sole motivating factor for too many of our elected representatives today is simply to see the other side fail.

Amy Gutman, who’s the president of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a book several years ago called the Spirit of Compromise, and in it, she said, “compromise is difficult, but governing a democracy without compromise is impossible.”

She makes the point that compromise during a campaign isn’t necessary, or even appropriate, but when it’s time to govern, compromise is essential.

But this formula doesn’t work very well when we have what’s referred to as the permanent campaign, when winning becomes ever so much more important than serving.

I often think that my generation has really messed up governance.

Your generation, through your concern, your engagement, the demands you put on your public servants, is going to have to fix it.

That is no small task and no small responsibility.

And it shouldn’t be lost on us that the substance and tone of our national discourse right now is a far cry from the two most important words in Pope Francis’ vocabulary.

Mercy and service. Mercy and service.


Everybody here knows that Francis is the only Jesuit to become Pope, and that fact has profound implications for this and the other great Jesuit universities in the U.S.

I had a chance to reflect upon the significance of that when I visited the Collegio Maximo outside Buenos Aires last summer.

We spent a week in Argentina, trying to learn about this man, Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio before his visit to Philadelphia.

The Collegio Maximo is the Jesuit seminary for Buenos Aires, and I actually sat at the desk in Bergoglio’s tiny suite where he lived when he was rector in 1980.

This is where I began to learn, with the help of an 88-year-old former professor who had actually been Bergoglio’s teacher, that Bergoglio committed himself to those who lived life at the margins, at the periphery, the poorest of the poor.

As a priest, as a Jesuit, he made his focus not the sanctuary, but the street.

And when he was Archbishop, he recruited priests who felt the same way.

For Francis, the whole point is for the Church to pursue those in need in their neighborhoods, the poor, the troubled, the addicted, and the disaffected, not to passively wait for them to come to the church.

So is there a lesson there for us, for you?

I would think so.

St. Ignatius committed himself as early as 1534 to work for the good of souls, and as I understand it, being a Jesuit means you’re supposed to know what it feels like to do something for someone else, and you know importance behind it.

Jesuits know what it means to live to serve others before themselves.

For some of you, that might be a tough pill to swallow after all the work and all the sacrifices you have made, but I don’t think it means you’re expected to neglect yourself.

But never should you neglect what you can do for others, or how you can use your St. Joe’s education to make your community a better place.

This university has done everything it can do to equip you with the tools you need to move on and begin, or continue, satisfying careers, and make a good living.

But I bet your teachers and mentors would say that if you’re the only one who benefits from that education, then your time and sacrifice, and St. Joe’s resources and commitment have been largely wasted.

I have read that when Jesuits talk about love, it is a love that shows itself more by deeds than by words.

Action is what counts, not talk and promises. This is why Jesuit education is incomplete unless it produces men and women who will do something with their gifts.

Do something with your gifts because at no time have our communities, has our society, needed your gifts more than it does now.

And I guarantee you that as long as you’re the hardest working person in the room, and you’re a good citizen, and every once in awhile, you give your boss the impression that you’re grateful to be there, you will experience professional success.

That is a flat out guarantee, I’m so glad you asked me here today, and congratulations to all of you.