Professor of the Year Commencement Address
“Reflect a Great Light”
Notre Dame Law School Diploma Ceremony Address
Anthony J. Bellia Jr.
May 18, 2008
You have heard several wonderful messages today: Be noble in this profession, lead integrated lives, pursue justice. I am not going to repeat them. Surely they resonate deeply with you. You have received one of the most rigorous legal educations offered in this nation by any standard, especially by a standard that deeply values relationships between law, faith, and reason.
I will offer a more general reflection. This day takes me back to a similarly sunny, windy May afternoon in 1994 when I sat where you are as a graduating student. You could count me among those that day who were anxious about leaving Notre Dame. As a student, I took pride and comfort in being a part of this great university. I well recall pulling out of campus after graduation on a quiet morning, before dawn, and heading toward the
Toll Road. I also recall seeing the Dome grow smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror as I drove away. As the Dome grew smaller, my anxiety about what lay ahead grew greater.
There is rich symbolism in leaving South Bend. On that morning, after the Dome disappeared from view behind me, a dark road lay ahead for a time. After a time, however, a brilliant dawn broke on the horizon toward which I was heading. When one leaves South Bend by plane, taking off to the east on a cloudy day, it is not difficult to spot the Dome as the plane ascends: the Dome always seems to give the glint of some reflected light. As the plane enters the clouds, the Dome disappears from view. But after a time in the clouds, sometimes turbulent, the plane breaks through them into a bright blue sky.
The Dome is a well conceived symbol. It is a light that promises in the dark of night or the shadow of clouds the hope of a greater light. It is like the beacon of a lighthouse that points the way at night toward the light of dawn. There is comfort in being within view of a lighthouse. It is a steadfast signal: do not drift, set a course, beware of the shoals. And there can be discomfort in the darkness that may come with passing the lighthouse by. If you want to reach your destination, though, you must pass it by, and thereby take responsibility for charting your course by other lights. Notre Dame, symbolized by the Dome, is a light that aspires and inspires others to reflect brighter lights and point the way toward them.
You will find many ways in your professional lives to reflect brightly the same light that Notre Dame aspires to reflect, pointing the way for others to do the same. Some ways are grand, and you have rightly been reminded today of the noblest aspirations of the profession. Some ways, however, are more modest, and it is worth reflecting on them as well.
When you recognize the value of doing a task right rather than valuing the need for recognition, you reflect a great light.
When you embrace the tedium that can mark aspects of this profession, rather than despairing of it, acknowledging the systemic benefits to society from the ordered processes you are performing, you reflect a great light.
When you realize that you have the power to make the work of others more fulfilling and worthwhile, and you make it so, without realizing any gain to yourself, you reflect a great light.
When you discern that you have been called to something in life other than what you are currently doing—that there is another good toward which you could more fruitfully direct your energies—and you pursue that calling, perhaps a humbler one, rather than lament complexities that keep you from doing so, you reflect a great light.
These are small things, to be sure. For many, however, these small things mark the difference between a satisfying and an unsatisfying professional life.
Of course, no matter what you do professionally, you will have multi-faceted callings, rich lives of which the law is only some measure. The physical arrangement of this very event is beautifully symbolic of this richness. You have in front of you the faculty of the Law School, symbolic of your pursuits in law that lie ahead. You have behind you people who have always been behind you—families and friends. Especially those among you who are first generation lawyers: do not ever leave behind the wisdom and goodness of those who have lived to serve your well being.
When you appreciate what many of those behind you well appreciate—that there will always be people above and below you on the ladder of career success, but that as far as your children are concerned, you (and perhaps only you) hold the very ladder of their lives—you reflect a great light.
When do you not allow your shine in the legal field and with the jury box to sanitize you from the grime of the soccer fields and the sandbox, you reflect a great light.
When you do not allow your trials as first chair to insulate you from the trials of a parent confined to a wheelchair, you reflect a great light.
When you lack the kinds of relationships that you presumed you always would have—with parents, children, spouse, other or loved ones—because of death or other all too real circumstances of life, and you replace despair with a love and commitment that enables you to live a life that transcends in value anything you initially envisioned for yourself, you reflect a great light.
And when you fail at any of this (which we all do), and you do not give up on yourself, but respect and trust yourself enough to begin anew over and over and over again, you reflect a great light. This is not my anecdote, but it is a fitting one – an airplane is off course 99% of the time; it is only because of constant adjustments that the plane eventually arrives at its proper destination.
When you abide by these things, simple though they are, you make the lights of LA or the lights of New York, the light of a candle or the light of a porch—you make them all the light of a place toward which Notre Dame aspires to show the way. You not only will always be a part of Notre Dame; today you hold it within yourselves to become its life-source and inspiration.
You will have your public legal lives. If you work on Wall Street, some may perceive you to be in it for money and fame. You will know, however, that if this kind of work is not done—with integrity, case by case, deal by deal—society will be systemically poorer and less just. If you work in Crisis Services, some may deem you to be part of the problem, not the solution. You will know, however, the lives that you quietly make better by utilizing the programs and resources at your disposal, and the sacrifices, for yourself and your family, that are necessary for you to serve in this way. Rely for your affirmation on the truth within yourself, discerned through a well formed conscience, not on the bare approval of others.
No matter what you do, the most significant things your life accomplishes may stem from humble, private acts—often sufferings—that may never see the light of day. From simple private sufferings can emerge the greatest of goods, the brightest of lights. This is the truth upon which Notre Dame is dedicated in the Catholic faith to Mary: From the humblest private suffering – bearing a child into poverty in the dark night of a strange land – did there emerge the richest blessings of the rising of the Son. The Dome does not generate the light of the sun; it merely reflects it, aspiring to show those who pass its way the true light—the light of reason, and the light of faith, hope, and love.
I hope that you achieve whatever noble aspirations in the disciple of law you hold today. But I hope even more that when you do not realize those aspirations—because you have failed to fulfill them, because they have changed, or because you have surrendered yours to the noble aspirations of someone else—you realize that you may realize far more than your first aspirations ever could hold.
Congratulations, and may God bless you all.