The American story began with the Catholic missionaries who first shaped the nation with the Gospel and proclaimed the dignity of all, a truth the class of 2018 must share to the betterment our country.
That was the message Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez imparted to more than 1,600 new graduates of The Catholic University of America May 12.
"America's founders -- including Padre (St. Junipero) Serra -- dreamed of a nation where men and women from every race, religion and national background could live in equality," the archbishop said in remarks during the university's 129th annual commencement exercises held on the east steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, university chancellor, offered the ceremony's invocation.
"Their vision helped make this a great nation, exceptional in human history -- blessed with freedom and committed to sharing our blessings with the whole human race," said Archbishop Gomez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, and a member of the university's board of trustees.
Since 2011, he has led the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the United States, where he has focused his ministry on marriage and family, vocations, immigration and end-of-life issues.
Archbishop Gomez told the graduates that American society is divided and facing challenges, not related to demographics, technology or globalization, but rather a crisis of identity.
"America has lost her way because we have lost the threads of our national story. We no longer know who we are as a people or what our national purpose is," he said. "I say this is our biggest challenge because unless we know who we are and what we are here for, we will never be able to set the right priorities or find the right solutions to the many challenges we face."
To overcome these obstacles, he urged the class of 2018 to proclaim a new American story, one of "holiness and heroism," he said. "We need a new narrative that will define us and hold us together as one people with a common purpose."
He said America is "alive in her saints -- and we have so many! Mystics and missionaries; martyrs and immigrants; refugees and exiles. They came from everywhere to share their gifts and make this country what she was meant to be, a light to nations."
Archbishop Gomez was joined by four other immigrants who were receiving honorary degrees. Those honorees included Toufic Baaklini, president and chairman of the board of the nonprofit organization In Defense of Christians; Maria (Mary) Suarez Hamm, who served as the longtime executive director of Centro Tepeyac, a pro-life pregnancy aid center in Silver Spring, Maryland, and is a staff member of the Archdiocese of Washington's Office of Worship; Dina Katabi, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Ray Mahmood, founder of the Mahmood Investment Corp.
Archbishop Gomez spoke of the "litany of American saints," such as Henriette Delille; Mother Marianne Cope; Dorothy Day; Thomas Merton; Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux mystic and Catholic catechist; and Father Augustus Tolton, a freed slave and the nation's first African-American priest.
But he went on to say, the saints he knew from his tradition came from simple neighborhoods, parishes and families. "They are the hidden saints, saints of everyday -- holy wives, holy husbands, working hard to do what is right, sacrificing for their children; being good friends and good neighbors; serving the poor and working to make their communities stronger," Archbishop Gomez said. "We need to hold these people up as examples. Tell their stories. We need to try and be like them in our own lives."
He also recalled the life of Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Blessed Sacrament, a sainthood candidate. A refugee from the anti-Catholic Mexican persecutions of the 1920s, she became a religious sister and servant of the poor in Los Angeles.
"Mother Luisita used to tell everyone, 'For greater things we were born.' My friends, this is the meaning of our lives. This is the meaning of America."
"America's founders -- the missionaries and statesmen -- they knew this truth. They knew that we belong to a story that began long before us, the story of our Creator. They knew that we are born with a dignity and destiny that can never be denied," Archbishop Gomez said. "No matter who we are. Or where we came from. Or how we got here."
The American story, he said, is neither over nor naive, but one that continues to be written in one's daily life with God's help and protection, through decisions made and treating others with the charity of Christ.
"My prayer for you is that you will write a story that is filled with goodness, love and service; with prayer and thanks for simple gifts. I pray that you will always seek to know what is right -- and have the courage to do it," he told the graduates as they embark on a new chapter in their lives.
"We can still open the door with confidence to people who are yearning to breathe free. We can still practice politics with malice toward none and charity for all. We are made for greater things," said Archbishop Gomez in closing his remarks.
Catholic University President John Garvey also addressed the class of 2018, speaking on the Christian virtue of hospitality, inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict, which states: "Let all guests be received as Christ."
Referring to biblical stories about "entertaining angels unaware," Garvey encouraged the graduates to practice hospitality in their own lives by opening their hearts to new people and looking at those who are different with friendship instead of fear.
"It's a good virtue to begin life with," he said. "You will make some friends. You will bring an open heart to the responsibilities of citizenship. You will build a loving home. And there you might some day receive Christ."