Msgr. Hyland, members of the Board of Trustees, Sister Joan, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, family, friends, and most of all, graduates. Welcome all to the celebration of this very special and happy day.
As you've just heard, I'm a chemist. Now chemists are a very fun-loving species. In fact, at cocktail parties the person under the table is most likely to be a chemist - if he's not a theologian.
And chemists love to tell jokes on themselves. For example: what should you do for a sick chemist? Well, if you can't curium or helium, you might as well barium.
If water is H2O, what is H2O4? Well, for drinking, for bathing, for cooking!
What did the chemist say upon discovering a second form of the element helium? HeHe! (I've always dreamed about saying HeHe in front of a large crowd like this.) Sorry for making bad chemistry jokes, but all the good ones Argon.
In a more serious vein, chemistry is the study of the transformations that substances undergo. Ice melts, water boils, sugar solutions deposit exquisitely intricate white crystals upon standing and, did you know, the colorless fluid in the gland of a Mediterranean Sea snail turns yellow, green and finally blue when exposed to air and sunlight. It was the image of a transformation like these that first attracted me to the study of chemistry. I was in grade school and happened to read a science book which suggested an activity involving the heating of the element iodine in a test tube and observing the result. Being naturally curious, I asked my science teacher if we could try it, and we did. A beautiful deep purple vapor filled the test tube - I will never forget my amazement and the way it captured my imagination. One of my favorite poets, Kahlil Gibran said it well: Beauty is "a heart inflamed and a soul enchanted." My life-long adventure as a chemist had begun.
Chemical transformations remind us of how ubiquitous change is throughout nature, throughout society, within ourselves. A common saying among the ancient Greeks was that "we never step into the same river twice." I often tell my students that change is the only true universal constant.
Nowhere has change in people been more wonderfully apparent than in the transformation from the freshmen you once were to the graduates you are today. The discipline of chemistry provides many rich images through which this freshman-to-graduate transformation can be viewed and appreciated. As examples I have selected three: bonding, catalysis, and persistence.
Bonding - Like atoms of elements strongly uniting to make molecules of compounds, you have bonded with your fellow students in lasting friendships, with initially intimidating professors who challenged your complacency and opened your minds to new ideas, and, in many cases, with a new area of study never before imagined that became your college major and will, hopefully, become your career and life's passion.
Catalysts -agents of change that cause chemical transformations to occur that otherwise might not - have also affected most of you. Perhaps it was a book that you read, a work of art you experienced, a lecture you attended, a study-abroad experience, a social action project, which had the same profound influence on your worldview and aspirations as did that purple gaseous iodine on mine. Yes, in ways that you may not fully understand until later in your lives, St. Ambrose University has caused changes in you that might not have occurred otherwise.
Persistence - this is a trait I know you're successfully developing because you've made it here today and, as soon as I shut up and sit down, you will receive your degree. Through your hard work and dedication you've shown that persistence overcomes resistance and that, as Robert Frost said, the best way out is always through.
However, let me tell you a story about persistence in chemistry. When I was a graduate student, one of the chemicals I worked with was butyric acid–a most evil and nasty smelling liquid which I always thought should be renamed "putric acid." I had some in a beaker with a watch glass over it, but so many molecules were getting out anyway that people from other labs were coming in to complain. So I put it into a bottle with a screw cap on top, but still it was getting out and I was continuing to lose friends. In desperation, I sealed the bottle with wax, but my colleagues could still notice it. Those molecules were not going to give up: they were bound and determined to get out, no matter what.
To me, the persistence of these molecules seeking to free themselves offers an important life lesson. Never give up; never give up; never, never, never give up! If the goal be worthy, advance towards that goal with all the passion you possess. If the cause be just, work for that cause with full energy and determination. Never forget that all things are possible for those who persist in striving to achieve them.
In summary, chemistry is about change; it always was, and always will be. And chemical changes create that which is new–a new life-saving medicine, a new source of clean energy, but also it can create a new pollutant or a new chemical weapon. Likewise, life is about change, it always was and always will be. If you are alive, you are sentenced to create and to transform. The challenge before you is to create a world in line with the best rather than the worst that is in you - a world of hope, a world of justice, a world of beauty. William Jennings Bryan once said, "Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved."
To work for change, bond with others who share your vision of that wonderful future world. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." And remember the Latin saying, Lux mentis lux orbis - the light of the mind is the light of the world. I know that within your mind and spirit are the tools - the catalysts - for positive transformation. They are the light of knowledge and reason and the heat of passionate dedication. I know that you will find them if you persist in seeking them.
May God bless and be with you in that search.
Good going, graduates!