|An exercise in hospitality
By Susan Allen, Editor
Radical hospitality is hospitality that is meant to be tested and, as at any gathering, sometimes your Commencement guests can surprise you – and, perhaps, themselves also.
After Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago – who had already accepted our invitation to speak at Commencement 2012 – found himself in national headlines last December, questions naturally arose about St. Norbert College’s choice of speaker.
Traditionally, Commencement speakers at St. Norbert have been recipients of honorary degrees and, because it is the role of the college’s board of trustees to confer degrees, the board has also decided whom to invite as Commencement speaker. Their intent is to identify some notable person whom it would be an honor to bring to campus, says President Tom Kunkel; a person of true accomplishment, someone who has a compelling message to deliver and who can do so succinctly; and, ideally, someone who means something to the community they will address. George, one of the most influential prelates in the American Church, stands in a long tradition of religious who have spoken at our Commencements.
The college’s own faculty handbook speaks to the range of opinions among the speakers we bring to campus, and to why we do not eschew, or “disinvite,” those with whom we might not agree. The handbook states: “The objective of St. Norbert College is education. Included in that objective is the encouragement of free and fearless inquiry and freedom of expression.
“The criterion of acceptability for a campus speaker or any other program officially sponsored by the college is that it helps to achieve such an objective. The views may, indeed should, frequently run counter to opinions of some students, faculty members and administrative personnel – perhaps in extreme cases, all of them. The college cannot avoid controversy, nor does it desire to do so. No educational institution preparing men and women to live, work, and hold responsible positions in the 21st century could possibly live up to its responsibilities if it avoided intensive study of all points of view on significant issues. … We hope that our friends will understand our obligations as educators to present as varied – to some extent, as controversial – a program as possible.”
The controversy surrounding Cardinal George arose when he was asked about an upcoming gay pride parade in Chicago that had the potential of disrupting Sunday church services. The cardinal replied that he hoped gay activists would not adopt protest tactics akin to those used by the Ku Klux Klan against the Church in the 1930s. The cardinal later apologized for any hurt his remarks had caused, but the incident caused many to question St. Norbert’s invitation, and also the process by which the college selects its Commencement speaker.
Among formal communications addressing George’s stance, President Kunkel received many from current students, from faculty members, from parents and from alumni. He says: “Regardless of their position or perspective – and they ran the gamut – these notes were heartfelt, articulate and respectful. Please know that I read every one of them and was gratified by the caliber and integrity of the dialogue.”
The dialogue continues. As this magazine went to press, Kunkel set aside a large portion of his mid-year address to explain how the college invited its Commencement speakers, and to open discussion on how that process might evolve.
Radical hospitality – that espoused by the Norbertines since their founding in 1120 – is hospitality from the roots up: the word “radical” itself stems from the Latin radix, a root. Yes, the guests you invite to your table can sometimes surprise you – but that does not release their hosts of their obligations. Yes, the conversation continues. And, at the end of the day, what is a Commencement? As Kunkel reminded us, it is a wonderful day for our seniors: an occasion to mark the culmination of all that they have become on their journey so far, and the contributions of all those who are traveling it with them. Without the opportunity for ongoing conversation with others encountered on that road, the journey would be infinitely less rich.
March 22, 2012