At Notre Dame’s 174th University Commencement Ceremony on May 19, Dr. Norman C. Francis, the longtime president of Xavier University of Louisiana, will receive the 2019 Laetare Medal. This premier symbol annually honoring American Catholics will celebrate Francis’ “leadership in the fight for social justice through educational empowerment,” as University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, recently put it in a news release.
We can join the commencement attendees in gaining insight not only from Francis’ remarks at the event but from the one simple word, “Laetare.” Meaning “rejoice” in Latin, it will be juxtaposed with the inspiring story of Xavier University and the man who served as its humble but bold president for 47 years.
Xavier University and the mission of St. Katharine Drexel
Xavier was founded in 1915 by Sister Katharine Drexel. It is the only Catholic institution among this country’s historically Black colleges and universities. Drexel, canonized as a saint in 2000, lived a life dedicated to lifting up the marginalized, particularly Native Americans and African-Americans.
“I was part of Katharine Drexel’s mission to provide a quality education for all,” Francis is quoted as saying in the news release. “All the people I have worked with were part of this plan and mission, which was not only honorable, but was totally necessary when you look back at what the United States was at the time.”
He accepted the offer to be Xavier’s president on April 4, 1968, the day Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Under Francis’ extraordinary leadership, Xavier rose to be the nation’s top university “in the number of African-American students earning undergraduate degrees in biology and life sciences, chemistry, physics and pharmacy."
The Laetare Medal, an occasion to rejoice
All of this circles back to the medal and its call to “rejoice,” along with its inscription, which is Latin for “Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.” Paul’s epistles tell the Philippians and Thessalonians to rejoice always, not in ways dependent on earthly circumstances but in ways connected to the Lord, beyond themselves. Notre Dame’s use of “Laetare” comes from the Entrance Antiphon used in the Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, in the middle of that penitential season.
Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in her joy, all you who mourn over her—so that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast … For thus says the Lord: I will spread prosperity over her like a river. - Isaiah 66:10-12
I’m no etymologist, but I picture “rejoicing” as a gift one receives and shares, even during tough times. We acknowledge God has proven his love in the past and he offers Easter joy at the end of our difficult journey.
This was a gift incarnated by St. Katharine Drexel, utilizing education to bring hope to the marginalized. She and the religious order she established started many schools, blessing all Americans.
Francis acknowledges he was following in Drexel’s mission. His long period of balanced leadership was marked by great successes but also required resilience and prudence during challenging times of racial turmoil, as well as the devastation wrought in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
A model of leadership in the Church
The mantle of leadership, sometimes a personal benefit promised through college educations and graduations, is not proper to accept carelessly or to wield as autonomous mastery correcting society’s injustices.
Instead, as Francis’ career symbolizes, leading can require following in the footsteps of the Church and her saints, relying on inclusiveness and shared responsibility among champions for the common good, and persistently planting seeds of education and truth that will empower others over time.Xavier’s legendary president will personify the Laetare Medal’s distinctly Catholic identity. We can, too, if our leadership hinges on rejoicing together in the Lord more than pursuing self-centered, quick-fix joy. As one online article from the Knights of Columbus puts it, honoring the “Laetare Sunday” message means seeing God’s trustworthiness in the past and embracing it as enduring hope. That pilgrimage perspective can make education—and Commencement—more meaningful.