Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Roman Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, discussed the often tenuous relationship between mystery, faith and scholarship during his address to graduates and their families at the sixth-annual Interfaith Baccalaureate Service.
As part of the ceremony, outgoing University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg awarded McCarrick the President’s Medal, the highest honor the University President can bestow on another individual. The service also included vocal performances and five personal testimonies from graduating seniors about religion and its role in their lives.
Trachtenberg described McCarrick as a man who has been “elevated to the heights of the Catholic faith, but who still remains a man of the people.” The two have known each other for 20 years, about as long as Trachtenberg’s tenure at GW.
“My reception of this prestigious medal means more than I can say,” said McCarrick, who also has a personal relationship with Father William Gurnee, chaplain at GW’s Newman Center.
McCarrick said Pope John Paul II exemplifies a devout individual with a healthy balance of mystery and reason.
“John Paul II was an eminent philosopher and a fine poet; he wrote plays and even acted in them,” McCarrick said. “(But) he really loved God and really loved his neighbor. I am lucky to have had an opportunity to know him.”
McCarrick further discussed the concept of mystery by describing a woman he met in the streets of Rome after Pope John Paul II’s death. The woman, he said, traveled to Rome from Mexico to pay homage to the Pope because she felt personally connected to him, a connection fostered by a moment of eye contact she had with the Pope as a little girl.
“It is this kind of encounter, this kind of a mystery that all students should find during their time at university,” McCarrick said. “University is a place to know the deepest truth and to answer the deepest questions, (but it) takes courage within reason to be open to mystery.”
Gurnee, who worked as McCarrick’s secretary early on in his life as a Catholic priest, said the service was “wonderful and very inspiring.” He said he and McCarrick are on the same page about the relationship between mystery and reason.
“Mystery and faith are not combative, in fact faith and reason are absolutely complimentary,” Gurnee said, adding that he was particularly pleased with the student speakers.
“Every student had different passions and backgrounds,” Gurnee said. “It’s clear that God works in many different avenues and through many different perspectives.”
Senior Jehan Riar spoke of her Muslim faith; senior James Wallace spoke of his Catholic faith; senior Lynn Pellicano spoke of her Protestant faith; senior Curtis Raye spoke of his Jewish faith and senior Mariam Faisal Alkazemi spoke of her Muslim faith.
Riar said she keeps God with her at all time. She said she found God as a home-sick freshman taking a restless walk in the rain at 3 a.m.
“I now consider myself a follower of the true essence of Islam,” Riar said.
Wallace described Catholicism as a self-defining lifestyle and how its focus on integrity, faith and virtue were a perfect fit for him.
“God already has a plan laid out and now it’s up to us to figure out what that plan is,” said Wallace, who is considering becoming a Catholic priest.
Junior year was extremely difficult for Pellicano, she said, but it was her faith in and reliance on God that helped her make it through.
“When I came to GW, I didn’t believe in Jesus. At the end of the year I did,” Pellicano said. “I wouldn’t have been able to succeed at GW without (Jesus).”
Raye said his journey at GW provided him with a revitalization of his Jewish faith that he did not expect. Raye joked that he was graduating from a school with a Jewish population in the double digits and taking a job in Iowa where the Jewish population is synonymous with a “‘Yea I’ve seen ’em, he’s right over there.'”
Alkazemi addressed the service’s attendees in poetic form. “We were only limited to two to three minutes and I couldn’t think of a speech that would fit that format, so I decided to write a poem,” she said.
Alkazemi said she felt excited about addressing the service because her parents were in attendance and had never heard her speak publicly before.
“I wanted to express to my parents how much I’ve grown over the years,” Alkazemi said. “I realize now that God works indirectly and it takes time for us to realize this.”
Senior David Ceasar, who is also a Hatchet editor, led the Litany of Remembrance, Celebration and Belief, a prayer that invited students, family members and all in attendance to respond to his statements. Before leading the prayer, Ceasar reflected on the high number of student deaths he experienced as a freshman and the importance of time management, leadership and carving out a niche for oneself at college.