So, we come to the end of another school year. For me, that means the wonderful opportunity to address graduates of some fine institutions of higher learning. This year, it was my privilege to speak at the commencements at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and St. Thomas University in St. Paul. It is so inspiring to see these wonderful young women and men as they begin the next part of their journeys.
This commencement season was special to me because my son graduated from Loyola Blakefield High School in Baltimore. My wife and I are, of course, proud parents. I can only hope that, at the dinner table during his 18 years, he has absorbed all those lessons that I try to convey in my 10-minute commencement speeches.
June is also the month when we honor fathers, so I am going to indulge myself with a reflection on that important role. Although there is certainly truth in the traditional roles of the mother as the nurturer and the father as the protector and provider, there are, of course, no boundaries in the daily lives of mothers and fathers as they raise their families. We all do a bit of everything.
One of the toughest things for a father to do is not protect his child—to let him find his own way even if it’s not what we would have chosen, even if we are certain it is not the best way. Sometimes our child will falter. Sometimes she will fail. Sometimes fathers have to sit back and watch as our children fall and hurt themselves. It makes us feel that we have failed to protect them. But wise parents know that, unless we let our children stumble, they will never walk on their own.
Frankly, it is a lesson that we have to learn and relearn as we go about our development work at Catholic Relief Services. That is not to say we approach those we help as a father would his children. We don’t seek to be parents, but partners, with those we serve.
Frequently, though, we are trying to impart knowledge and experience as we seek to help our poor brothers and sisters. What we try to do is a manifestation of that traditional Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
The tough part is when you watch your student learning to fish and she doesn’t catch anything. You want to take the pole out of her hands, catch some fish and be done with it. But she won’t learn anything that way. And neither will you.
This is why in Haiti, as its people recover from the earthquake, CRS has to make sure that we allow our local partners, the Haitians, to lead the recovery efforts. For too long in that country those of us from the outside have gone in and done too much ourselves. Only if Haitians lead the redevelopment will something lasting be built.
This is why, as southern Sudan becomes the world’s newest nation next month—even as we give our support and help—we must let it grow and develop in its own way, never directing or dictating. I do urge you to pay attention to this nascent state.
CRS relies on local partners almost everywhere we work. We understand that we must build up their abilities to solve their problems long after we have gone. But we also know that learning is a two-way street. It may well be that the partner we’re trying to teach to fish knows more than we realize. He knows the river he’s fishing in, he knows where he should put his line, he knows that he must be patient. And it is not until he pulls a fish out of the water that we learn what we did not know.
And isn’t that so often true with our kids as well? As parents, we work hard to teach them what we can, to impart whatever wisdom we think we have accumulated, and then we cringe when they seem to be heading down some wayward path. But what do they often find down there? Something wonderful and unexpected. Something we would have never known about if we hadn’t let them go off on their own.
That’s what I find out every time I address a college commencement. These graduates teach me so much. As I’m sure my son will too, now that he is embarking on his college journey.
Thank you for letting us be of service to you.
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