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The Commencement Season

In the final weeks of May, on campuses across the nation, tens of thousands of newly minted graduates gratefully clutched their diplomas and patiently listened to the exhortation of the commencement speaker. In future years, few of the graduates will remember the content of the speaker’s message, but most will remember the speaker’s identity. A few institutions maintain the practice of having the school’s president give the commencement address on the assumption (not always vindicated) that the president is likely to understand the achievements and the aspirations of both the graduates and their alma mater. Most U.S. colleges and universities, however, yield to the desire of the graduates to have a celebrity speak.

Should the celebrity commencement speaker be paid? The University of Oklahoma paid Katie Couric $115,000 for her commencement address. The university’s president insisted that the funds for the fee had been raised privately. When Miss Couric announced that she was donating her fee to her alma mater, the University of Virginia, those supporters of the University of Oklahoma may have had second thoughts.


Controversy over the war in Iraq accompanied several commencement speakers this year, notably Senator John McCain at the New School and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice at Boston College. Perhaps the wisest word on such commencement controversies was spoken by the president of the New School, former Senator Bob Kerrey, who praised both Senator McCain and the student speaker who departed from her prepared text to protest the Senator’s address. Both speeches were acts of bravery, Mr. Kerrey said; universities should not be afraid of disagreement or embarrassed by its expression.

Christian Refugees

The general assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People received some troubling information from Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo of the Vatican Secretariat of State during its meeting early in May in Rome. Archbishop Lajolo outlined for the group the increasingly difficult situation Christians face in the countries of the Near East. It is well known that in many countries, Christians are denied freedom of religion, are subjected to death threats and suffer the bombing or burning of their churches, sometimes with fatal consequences.

It is no surprise that the number of Christians in the Near East continues to decline. In Iran, Catholics constituted 0.1 percent of the population in 1973. That had fallen to 0.01 percent by last year. In Iraq, where they had been 2.6 percent of the population in 1973, they are a mere 1 percent today. In Syria, during the same time period, numbers dropped by a third. In Israel-Palestine, the Christian population has dropped by half.

Emigration is both a problem and a solutiona problem because Christians are cut off from their historical roots, a solution because it offers the chance for survival. For our part, we look to the thriving Armenian, Chaldean, Maronite and Melkite Catholic communities in our country and note how they have enriched the fabric of American society. This is especially true in states like California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, where Arab Christians make significant contributions. If emigration from their homelands is proven necessary because of untenable situations there, we hope that they find here the same, or better, welcome that our ancestors found.

Eyes Wide Shut

On the set of War of the Worlds he put up a Scientology tent with a volunteer minister and free literature. After his fiancée became pregnant he bought a portable ultrasound machine so that the two of them could monitor their child’s progress at home. He joked to reporters in Britain that after the delivery he planned to eat the placenta and umbilical cord. All of this was covered in the mainstream press.

Tom Cruise’s life over the last year has been a non-stop fusillade of wacko exploits the likes of which would make Michael Jackson proud. When he is not jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch, he’s espousing the prenatal philosophy of Scientology and dissing postpartum depression. At this rate it won’t be too long until his career is a mission impossible.

At the same time, last we saw there was still real news to be reported. After Sept. 11, 2001, media of every stripefrom The New York Times and the major networks to the glib, simplistic, mean-spirited ragssaid their coverage would be forever changed. Five years later, turn on the television or pick up a magazine, and what do you find? Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Charlie Sheen, Jessica Simpson, American Idol and Tom Cruise.

We may wonder at Cruise for his recent mania, but let’s not miss the real issue. In the midst of important national and international situations, our media continue to steer us toward the simplest possible stories and presentations, and still delight in taking people out at the knees.

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