In a speech filled with poetic grace, Dana Gioia, USC’s Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture, told the graduating class of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., that his family and the Catholic schools he attended empowered him to seek his destiny.
Speaking at the university’s 124th commencement ceremony, Gioia described the church as “a living tradition that would nourish me if I had the courage and resolve to become an artist myself.”
Gioia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, said that as a Catholic, he was “part of a communion that went back 2,000 years to ancient Rome and Jerusalem to the Caesars and the Apostles. … I knew I stood at the center of the Western tradition — intellectually, artistically, spiritually.”
This was a tradition that included philosopher-saints, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and artists, such as Michelangelo, Mozart, Dante and El Greco, he said.
Gioia, who received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts just moments prior to his commencement speech, also noted his own life’s passages and the lessons learned from them.
“I was born among the working poor, into a family full of immigrants,” he said. “My family had little money and less education.”
No one in his family had ever gone to college, and many people in his family spoke little or no English. By the law of averages, Gioia said, he should have had an average life. But this wasn’t the case for him.
“I have enjoyed a degree of success, fame and financial security beyond anything my parents or grandparents could have imagined. When I look back on my own life to ask why I have succeeded, I see two things at the center: my family and the Catholic Church, especially the Catholic schools I attended for 12 years.”
He spoke of his education by the Sisters of Providence — how they pushed him to master skills outside the curriculum. Gioia learned how to play the piano, attended concerts, and fell in love with poetry and art through their efforts. And he received early lessons in elocution by reciting the poems he had grown to love. Later, he learned Latin and theology.
“I got a great education,” he said. “But I learned something beyond academics from these dedicated nuns, priests and brothers. They always linked what I was learning to things of the spirit.”
He told the graduates that embracing a “very Catholic” sense of human existence has guided him through life.
“A Catholic education trained me in the habit of high imagination. It gave me the long view through history into the past and into the future, and even beyond time into eternity,” Gioia said. “This habit filled me with a sense of the richness of our existence in a world where we feel the presence of things both visible and invisible. What better training could a young poet ask for?”
Gioia concluded his remarks by noting that he did nothing to deserve all the love and hard work his parents, the nuns and priests, and his teachers had shown him — it was freely given. And so he has tried to spend his life, he said, paying back at least a small portion of the blessings he had received.
For the full version of this story, visit The Catholic University of America website.