When the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into lockdown in spring 2020, Catholic University honored the Class of 2020 with a virtual Commencement ceremony and a promise to hold an in-person celebration at a later time.
On Friday, Oct. 15, nearly 300 members of the Class of 2020 gathered in caps and gowns at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception adjacent to the University’s campus. The ceremony was held in conjunction with Cardinal Weekend, the University’s annual homecoming and reunion weekend. The Basilica’s Great Upper Church was filled with the graduates’ family and friends, and a spirit of joy and gratitude. Following the reading of their names by the deans of each school, they were showered with a standing ovation.
This was their moment to shine.
In his invocation, Rev. John P. Beal, J.C.D., Stephan Kuttner Distinguished Professor of Canon Law, noted the class was “deprived of the pomp and circumstance of a real graduation. We are grateful, Lord, that you brought them back for a more fitting closure. We are grateful for the benefits and blessings you showered on them during their time here. Our lives are richer because they sojourned here.”
As she performed the National Anthem, and later the Alma Mater, Marissa Liotta, B.M. 2020, said she realized it was the first time she had sung in public since before the pandemic. “It was emotional seeing all my classmates gathered in the Basilica and it was a bit nerve-racking, and amazing at the same time, to be in front of an audience again,” said the musical theatre major, now teaching drama in Rockville, Md.
The graduation address was delivered by Kevin Ryan, B.A. 1989, president and CEO of Covenant House International, one of the largest charities in North and Central America serving homeless, trafficked, and sexually exploited youth. Ryan was scheduled to deliver the address at the May 16, 2020, Commencement that was canceled.
He garnered laughs with an opening joke. “Back in January 2020, I received a phone call from President Garvey. He asked me how I felt about free speech. I told him I support free speech. And he said ‘Good, you’re giving one in May.’ A few months later he said ‘No, you’re not.’”
The pandemic that cut short the class's last few weeks of senior year was the theme of Ryan’s address. At a midpoint in his speech when he acknowledged graduates of the Conway School of Nursing and all doctors and nurses with an expression of gratitude, he was met with resounding applause.
He told graduates, “The pandemic taught us everything we need to know about life.”
“First, we need each other,” he said. “The absence of social connection may be why so many of us struggled with anxiety and malaise these past 20 months.”
The second lesson, he said, “is that heroes are ordinary people who love with courage.”
“The heroes of our lives inspire us because they love courageously and in so doing, they reveal the scale of love’s power: potential to move us beyond our comfort and position and privilege.”
The third lesson of the pandemic, he said, is that “heroes are everywhere.” When the story of the pandemic is told 100 years from now, it will include “helpers and healers and advocates and activists and first responders [who] loved heroically and became humanity’s arc in the flood,” he said.
This brought him to his fourth and last lesson. “Now more than ever, the world needs heroes. And here you are, Class of 2020. You are already heroes to me.
“You lost a season of joy, a place you called home, your community. Some of you, I know, lost loved ones and your own health. But you have returned today and you rise this afternoon to reveal at this University that a resurrection people will always insist on joy, on celebration, on overcoming, on hopefulness, and on life.”
Catholic University President John Garvey also addressed the Class of 2020, following his tradition of choosing a virtue for each one of his addresses to graduates. This year, he chose meekness, which he said is related to serenity.
“The meek shall ‘delight in abundance of peace,’ Psalm 36 says. They shall ‘inherit the earth,’ according to the Sermon on the Mount. St. Agustine says the meek have a special kind of stability: they draw their peace from God, and nothing can rob them of that.”
Garvey shared with graduates three ways in which meekness matters.
Friendships. “It will keep your friendships intact when opinions diverge. You will probably learn something. You will grow in wisdom. And you’ll keep your friends.
Marriage. “You need to listen to your spouse with an open mind. If you approach it with meekness, marriage is a sacrament of growth.”
Employment. “The virtue of meekness helps you take criticism constructively. It will make you a better employee, and eventually, a better boss.”
Cavan Hagarty, B.A. 2020, provided remarks to his fellow graduates.
“We’ve all heard it before, the comparison between the journey and the destination,” he said.
“When we arrived on campus in 2016, the journey was uncertain, but the destination was certain. Today is not that day,” he said. “Today is our new graduation day.”
He noted he was looking at so many faces that started the journey with him.
“Calling it a family was more than a figure of speech,” he said. “A family is always there for you. Families are tested. This family has had ups and downs. We have been tested. Through it all, we pushed through and accomplished this journey together.” He said it is not the end of the shared journey for the Class of 2020. “This family will continue to support each other.”
During the ceremony, historian Robert Louis Wilken, professor emeritus, University of Virginia, was awarded an honorary doctor of history degree. Ryan was awarded an honorary doctor of social work degree. Scott Flesch, outgoing Alumni Association president, offered congratulations and a welcome to the alumni family.
Rev. Jude DeAngelo, O.F.M. Conv., M.Div., University Chaplain and director of Campus Ministry, provided the benediction and blessing.
Graduates then exited the ceremony by the east doors of the Basilica, leading them into Cardinal Fest, the kick-off event for Cardinal Weekend, where they crossed a stage and were cheered by the University community.
“I was really emotional sitting there in the Basilica,” said Elizabeth Seablom, B.M. 2020. “I originally didn’t think I needed this. We missed out on so much, but I moved on. I’m so glad I came. This was more than I could have hoped for.”