NEWPORT — One of the oldest fragments of a New Testament text, a papyrus dating to about the mid-second century B.C., is from John 18:31-33, where Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?”
It’s a question that came to mind as Roger Mandle, former chief curator of the National Gallery of Art and current board president of the Newport Restoration Foundation, challenged Salve Regina University graduates to defend truth in his commencement address on Sunday, May 20.
Noting that Oxford Dictionaries distinguished the term “post-truth” as the International Word of the Year for 2016, Mandle warned that “post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Mandle stood in for this year’s commencement speaker Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., the anti-death penalty advocate who was made famous by Susan Sarandon’s portrayal in the 1996 film “Dead Man Walking.” Prejean was prevented from traveling due to illness, but Salve still intends to grant her an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree when she can visit the university.
Mandle invoked the university mission as envisioned by the Sisters of Mercy to work toward a more just and merciful world.
The liberal arts can restore “the sanctity of truth” even as facts come under assault by social and cultural movements creating truths out of emotion and personal belief, Mandle said.
“I see the arts as vehicles of truth,” said Mandle, “Even in the most oppressive regimes, the arts have always found ways to tell the truth about their circumstances.”
He challenged the graduates to “counter manipulation of the truth and combat willful ignorance” in quoting Jan Baker, a Rhode Island School of Design professor who died on April 28. “These are her truths,” Mandle said: “Create something with your hands, but make meaning with your mind. Put passion and spirit into your work with your heart. Live your life with devotion and integrity. Recycle resources that we’ve already had. Connect creatively with others in collaborations. Be in love – in love with life, and in love with someone else.”
Mandle concluded these thoughts by quoting Dr. Elizabeth McAuliffe, RSM, Salve’s dean of students, “Be true to your deepest self.”
Mandle received an honorary Ph.D. in humane letters, as did Hope H. van Beuren, founder of the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, who was recognized for her service to Aquidneck Island communities in general and to the city of Newport and Salve in particular.
Mandle and van Beuren, along with 560 undergraduates, were handed their degrees by university president Sister Jane Gerety, R.S.M., who recently announced plans to retire in 2019, which will be her 10th year as Salve’s president.
Combined with the 212 master’s degree recipients and 13 Ph.D.s, the class of 2018 boasted the largest number of graduates in Salve’s 68-year history.
In the statement announcing her retirement, Sister Gerety said, “This has been the best job in the world. I’ve cherished my work, together with our faculty, of ensuring that every Salve graduate enters the ‘real world’ with the best chance to succeed — both personally and professionally.”
Sister Gerety was slated to deliver a “Message to the Graduates” at the end of the commencement program, but left the ceremony early due to illness. However, she didn’t allow the occasion to pass without expressing her congratulations to the graduates in an email following the event.
Titled “The Last Word,” Sister Gerety’s written message expressed her pride in the graduates and a hope that they would not “leave it all behind.”
“My greatest hope is that you will take the most important things with you,” Sister Gerety said. “I want you to take the best of the Salve community with you — into the new communities you will belong to. That is the heart of my message of you today — that what you have participated in here — with all its imperfections and flaws — is a real community — full of diversity but united in its ideals.”
Sister Gerety quoted St. Teresa of Calcutta, who said “The trouble with the world today is that we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
“She, an Albanian nun, knew that she belonged to the lowest caste people in India who were dying on the streets,” Sister Gerety said. “And because she knew she belonged to them, she took care of them.”
“Class of 2018, I’ve watched you remember that you belong to each other. I’ve observed all the ways you have cared for each other and for those in the wider — even the world-wide community,” Sister Gerety continued.
Resuming the theme of truth, she advised the new graduates to “be true to your own moral compass.”
“Don’t let failing and stumbling get the last word,” Sister Gerety continued. “I’ve seen you get discouraged, screw up, be wrong, go up blind alleys. But stumbling and failing have not had the last word. I’ve watched you brush yourselves off and keep going. Don’t leave that resilience, that grit behind — take it with you. I believe it’s the heart of success.”
But the most important thing Sister Gerety hoped graduates took with them, she said, was the spirit of Mercy that characterizes our community.”
“Mercy seems to be in the air we breathe,” said Sister Gerety. “It is Mercy that I want you to take into all the corners of the world in which you find yourselves. Ours is a world that needs you, Salve Regina University, Class of 2018.”