Dr. Peter K. Kilpatrick
President, The Catholic University of America
Good morning and thank you all for being here today. Before giving my remarks, I want to first acknowledge and thank several persons. To Cardinal Gregory, my Chancellor, I appreciate your inspirational words and your pastoral and personal guidance; to Victor Smith for your service as the Chairperson of the trustees and for being a great sounding board for me; to the Cardinals and Bishops in attendance, thank you for being here; and to the college presidents, their designees, faculty, staff, and students, I greatly appreciate your attendance at this special Mass. And to my wife, Nancy, and our family and friends, thank you for all your love and support.
I want to give special recognition to two of my predecessors as presidents who both left impactful legacies at this University. Let’s recognize and thank John Garvey and Bishop David O’Connell, the Bishop of Trenton.
Thank you to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. This beautiful building gives such great glory to God and I am eternally grateful for being here today. To Monsignor Rossi and his staff, thank you for all of your support and help in making this day possible.
Thank you to everyone who is tuning in on EWTN, and to our students on our campus in Tucson, Arizona.
One hundred and thirty-five years ago, Pope Leo XIII approved the founding of The Catholic University of America with the mandate to “provide the church with worthy ministers for the salvation of souls… and to give to the [American] Republic her best citizens.” I stand here today committed to making good on that commitment.
Today I want to ask some big questions. We spend the majority of our lives asking small questions. What time is dinner? Where should we go on vacation this year? What color shoes go well with a bright banana yellow robe? (I chose black but my wife Nancy will tell me if that was the right choice!).
Universities like ours are where we are afforded the time and the resources to tackle the really big questions, the ultimate questions, in truly substantial ways. Today I want to ask two very big questions: why do we exist? And what is the purpose of our University? These are big questions but they are crucial to define who we are as human persons, and what unites us together as a university community.
The first question – why do we exist – is answered by our Faith, which tells us that we were created by God to know, to love, and to serve Him and each other. Our reason tells us that this sounds correct. We are happiest and the most fulfilled when we are giving of ourselves fully in love to each other, which in turn makes sense because God is love — St. John tells us — and we are made to be gifts to each other as St. John Paul the Great tells us.
I should also note that if you reflect carefully on the many stars that had to align for you to exist, you will discover that it is not a given. In my case, my Dad was a bomber pilot in World War II and when I learned after his death all the remarkable things that had to happen for him to survive the war, it is nothing short of a miracle that I exist at all. I think of my Dad with particular respect and affection today, Veterans Day. I am very grateful for all of our men and women who have served in the Armed Forces. If not for you, we would not be able to enjoy the freedoms that we should never take for granted. And that veteran’s wife, my Mom, had four children and two miscarriages, and I was the last, after the doctors told her to have no more children. So my existence (and I would argue yours) is not anything you should ever take for granted.
How about the second question: What is our purpose as a University? As I will unpack in the next few minutes, I would argue we have three key missions as a University.
Our mission statement declares that The Catholic University of America is “[d]edicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason…” The very core of who we are and what our mission is rests in this vital dialogue between our belief in God and what our reason and logic teach us. This dialogue is a gift the world needs, perhaps now more than ever, as we witness great confusion in our society and culture about the nature of the human person.
We live in a time of incredible achievement, one characterized by our culture’s confidence — and at times, overconfidence — in its own approach to mathematical and scientific reason. Everywhere we look, the advances of physics, medicine, engineering, and biotechnology attest to the triumphs of modern thinking and its methodologies. We live longer, healthier lives; we peer more deeply into the universe and its mysteries; and we connect more readily through the technological innovations of our day.
Here at The Catholic University of America, we need to be at the forefront of asking and answering these large scientific and societal questions. We’re doing a lot of that already. Our department of Physics was recently awarded a $64 million research award from NASA to establish a partnership with five local universities to support the scientific and technical program of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Heliophysics Science Division. Dr. Venigalla Rao, the chair of our Biology Department, has published new research on the effectiveness of a nasal T4-based vaccine for COVID-19. Dr. David Jobes is one of the nation’s preeminent psychologists specializing in preventing suicide. I should note we are also asking many important questions about the flourishing of the human person in our many institutes and centers on campus, such as the Institute for Human Ecology, The Institute for Policy Research and Studies, and The Catholic Project.
But that is not the whole story of Catholic University, not even the most important part of the story. St. John Paul II has written that, “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth….” Without faith, without belief in transcendent values, reason lacks humility. It tends to exaggerate its own capacities and overstate the completeness of its investigations. It reduces the world to fit its categories. It collapses into materialism, determinism, even selfism. But alongside faith, reason grasps its own limits. It does not exaggerate its own scope or overstate its certainty. It operates in a world that is open to the ultimate mysteries of the universe, such as “why do I exist at all?”
So our mission to cultivate this critical dialogue between faith and reason is surpassed, I would argue, by a more important mission to show love to each other, concretely through our acts of listening to each other, of serving each other and of giving ourselves to each other - even in the midst of the intellectual pursuits of a University.
When visitors come to campus, one of the first and most lasting impressions they come away with is our vibrant, joyful campus community. Our most precious value at this university is the evident joy and love of our community for each other.
Upon joining Catholic University, I began to take meetings with anyone who asked. But be careful what you ask for! I got a lot of takers. The most difficult meetings were with students who revealed to me that they did not feel welcome on campus. That was very hard for me to hear. It is painful to consider that we have students on this campus who don’t feel like they belong or are not welcomed. No matter the reason, we cannot have people come to this institution and feel like outsiders.
We must be compassionate and loving. All students, faculty, staff, and visitors to our campus - all should feel that they are welcomed and they are loved. How do we do this?
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, to love is to earnestly want what is good for others and be willing to act to enable their good. I think this begins by listening carefully and empathetically to the concerns, the pains, and the challenges of our community members who feel like outsiders. St. Paul tells us that this love must be patient and kind, and hope for all things. And that it never fails!
Loving God and loving our neighbor should be a guidepost for us here at The Catholic University of America.
Learning to love requires that we allow God to fashion new hearts in us. Humility, which is borne from gratitude, shapes how our students and faculty approach their scholarship and learning. And humility that our students and faculty be aware of the limitations of what a specific subject or discipline can know all on its own. It highlights the importance of seeing their work, their degree and their discipline in the context of all the disciplines, another major aim of our University.
As I said earlier, I am deeply grateful for my Mom and Dad, who I miss very much. I am very grateful for my siblings and my sister Kevyn is here to share this moment with me. My wife Nancy really taught me how to love by showing me the meaning of devoting her life in sacrificial service to others by, like St. Francis, “always preaching the Gospel, and only when necessary, using words.” I am very deeply grateful and appreciative for my children – Elisabeth, Zack, Charlie, and Alex - for their spouses – Jake, Natalie, and Derrick – and for their children – Lucy, Anna, and Oliver – who are all here today. Family teaches you a lot about yourself and hopefully makes you better with time. I am deeply grateful for my family who helped me understand the truth about myself, which was not always an easy lesson. Family also teaches you a lot about not taking yourself too seriously. For example, my family’s nickname for me is “Stupid Bear,” and yes, there is an interesting story around that.
I especially thank my friends, mentors, and colleagues: Ruben, Alan, Eric, Steve, Roger, Tim, Fr. Robert, Fr. John, Fr James, Fr. Mike, Fr. Peter Rocca, and Fr. Peter Armenio (ok, I like the name Peter!). Please thank all those priests in your life who make such a difference.
When you examine your life carefully, I dare say you will find many hundreds of persons who influenced your life out of love. It is worthwhile to find time, as I have here, to identify them and to thank them for making your life better, and for helping you strive to become the very best version of yourself. Don’t wait, do it today.
To summarize, I am very deeply committed to ensuring that our students, faculty, and staff understand the mission and purpose of our university well, and how we intend to advance ourselves and the lives of the persons entrusted to us moving forward.
First, we should help our students and all of our community members understand why they exist, what their purpose in this life is, and we should all try to image for them how to love others. In so doing, we help them fully understand themselves as persons.
Second, we should help our students fully integrate their faith and their reason so that both can enable them to fully contemplate and apprehend the truth – the truths they learn in our classrooms and the truths about themselves and the human person.
And finally, we should help our students learn to integrate the disciplines in order to contextualize their learning so they can be the very best citizens in the American Republic.
I should note that I only came to this University because I felt called to do so. I was not actively seeking to become a president anywhere else, but I felt impelled to come to Catholic University because of the convergence of my interest in higher education and my deep and abiding Catholic faith.
The Catholic University occupies distinctive academic territory, comprising 12 schools and a rich array of disciplines from traditional fields like nursing, engineering, and politics to long-cultivated expertise in social work, Semitic languages, and canon law. But today we are far too small to be such a comprehensive university and we must grow.
Within 10 years, we should be a university of 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students. At this size, we can be the vibrant university that we are called to be and I am committed to helping to lead us there. We will need the full support of our alumni, our trustees, our donors, and all of the friends of the Catholic University to enable us to be the accessible and consequential university of the future. Our nation and our world needs the students that we deliver to them: bright, enthusiastic, committed, and knowing themselves and how to love others.
By virtue of significant donor benefaction, today we have more students receiving scholarships than at any point in our history - and our student body is more diverse than ever before. We must work to ensure that a Catholic University education is accessible to even more students. Our donors have also made possible an increasing number of endowed chairs, the Conway School of Nursing, Garvey Hall, the Busch School, Carlini Field, and a renovated DuFour Center.
Today, the University's research expenditures are at their highest point in our history. I am confident that within the next five years we will obtain Research 1 status, an achievement that will help us to attract more high quality students.
We aren’t just about work, and many of our students’ formative experiences take place outside the classroom. Some of that is in our Division III athletics programs. With heightened investment, we can become one of the premier D3 athletics programs in the country.
To become a vibrant, nationally known, thriving University of 10,000 students, with well compensated faculty, and staff, we will all need to work closely together and align on our mission and direction. If we do this, all of these goals and achievements are well within our grasp. Working together, we will secure our destiny as the premier Catholic Research University in our country. I am certain that with your help and prayers our University's greatest days lie ahead.
I thank you all for your devotion to The Catholic University of America. May God bless her and all of us.