Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts, June 3, 1955

This is my first visit to Massachusetts in over nine months – my first speech in nearly a year. It is, thus, a pleasure as well as an honor to be here today at Assumption College.

I saw Assumption College for the first time on the afternoon of June 10th, twenty-four hours after disaster had struck from the West. No institution could have suffered the losses that Assumption suffered that day and survived if there was not in the minds of those in positions of responsibility an overriding sense of the function and need of such a College.

The disaster of two years ago was not in any sense a blessing in disguise, but it did give all of us an opportunity to reassess the purposes for which the school has developed. That that re-evaluation has reaffirmed the importance of this College to us all can be seen in the wide-spread support that has been given from all groups in Assumption's struggle to survive. To Bishop Wright, to Father Desautels, the Faculty, the Student Body, and the Alumni, this Community and State owes a special obligation. The ultimate result will be that Assumption will play an even larger role in the life of New England than it has in the past.

It is highly important that this should be so. Assumption College in these critical days has a threefold function. Its primary end, in the words of Pope Pius XI, is "preparing man for what he must be and do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created," the perfection of man through the proper development of all his faculties in the light of his supernatural end. In addition, the Catholic College, since it is a College, must be concerned not only with the student's spiritual development but also his intellectual development. Assumption College has recognized that its students, in the words of Jacques Maritain, "in order to reach self-determination, for which he is made, *** needs discipline and tradition, which will both weigh heavily on him and strengthen him."

Secondly, Assumption has a special responsibility imposed upon it because it represents one of the major channels connecting the United States with the great sea of France's religious, cultural, and social traditions. What is most striking in the French tradition is its extraordinary vitality. Many countries have had a brief golden age. France's has existed from before the Renaissance to the present day.

We can trace the continuity of French Art from the stained glass windows at Chartres to Rouault today. We can trace the continuity of French painting from the Avignon Pieta to Matisse's Chapel at Venice: French literature flows like a torrent from the song of Roland to Paul Claudel. We can trace the continuity of French missionary zeal from the founding of the Association for the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons in the 12th century to Assumption College in Worcester in the 20th.

Indeed, it is three Frenchmen today who have stimulated the rebirth of Catholic intellectual life: Jacques Maritain, our outstanding Catholic philosopher – Francois Mauriac, our outstanding Catholic writer – Paul Claudel, our outstanding Catholic poet. This is the matchless tradition, that it is the role of Assumption through its graduates to interpret for America.

We are fortunate in New England where Americans of French and Canadian extraction play such a major role that here at Assumption College we should have the means of maintaining such a close tie with so much that is important and so little known. As Bishop Wright said several years ago, God "has brought you here and gave you the force and grace and the vision to retain your traditions of language and culture in order that you might *** interpret to us the wisdom of French speaking christendom in a moment of history which English speaking christendom and all the English speaking world needed so badly." This College serves as a wellspring from which all of us may gather direction and inspiration: You who graduate can share with us the French speaking world's tradition and wisdom in a period of disintegration.

And lastly, Assumption has the function common to all universities, the continuing search for the truth, both for its own sake and because only if we possess it can we really be free. Never has the task of finding the truth been more difficult. In a struggle between modern states "truth" has become a weapon in the battle of power – it is bent, twisted and subverted to fit the pattern of national policy. Frequently, we in the West feel ourselves forced by this drum beat of lies and propaganda to be "discriminating" in our selection of what facets of the truth we ourselves will disclose. Thus, the responsibility of a free university to pursue its own objective studies is even more important today than ever before. Assumption College has succeeded in carrying out this mission, so that today it stands as a bulwark on the North American continent in the battle for the preservation of Christian civilization.

I say this and not because I believe Christianity is a weapon in the present world struggle, but because I believe religion itself is at the root of the struggle, not in terms of the physical organizations of Christianity versus those of Atheism, but in terms of Good versus Evil, right versus wrong, in terms of "the stern encounter" of which Cardinal Newman so prophetically wrote:

"Then will come the stern encounter when two real and living principles, simple, entire, and consistent, one in the church and the other out of it, at length rush upon one another contending nor for names and words or half views, but for elementary notions and distinctive moral characteristics."

Cardinal Newman spoke of this conflict as yet to come. Doubtless its climax is yet to come, but in essence the conflict has been going on for 2,000 years. It has not been limited to one nation or to one form of government. The issues, the slogans, the battle flags, the battlefields and the personalities have been different. But basically it has been the same encounter of opposing principles, a struggle more comprehensive, more deeprooted and even more violent than the political and military battles which go on today. It is easy to envision the struggle as being wholly physical – of men and arms – of stockpiles, strategic materials, and nuclear weapons – of air bases and bombers, of industrial potential and military achievements. This is the material struggle, and the central problem here is to be equal to the sacrifices necessary for ultimate survival and victory. But of far deeper significance is "the stern encounter," the very nearly silent struggle, with no din to be heard in the streets of the world, and with weapons far more subtle and far more damaging than cannons and shells. The encounter of which I speak makes no more noise than the inner process of disintegration which over a period of several hundred years may hollow from within some great tree of the forest, until it is left standing an empty shell, the easy victim of a winter gale.

We can barely hear the stern encounter, and thus too often we forget it. Our minds, like the headlines of our newspapers, are intent upon the present and future conflicts of armed might, and upon the brutal, physical side of that ominous war upon which we have bestowed the strange epithet "cold." We tend to forget the moral and spiritual issues which inhere in the fateful encounter of which the physical war is but one manifestation. We tend to forget those ideals and faiths and philosophical needs which drive men far more intensely than military and economic objectives.

This is not to say that we have overlooked religion. Too often we have utilized it as a weapon, broadcast it as propaganda, shouted it as a battle cry. But in "the stern encounter", in the moral struggle, religion is not simply a weapon – it is the essence of the struggle itself. The Communist rulers do not fear the phraseology of religion, or the ceremonies and churches and denomination organizations. On the contrary, they leave no stone unturned in seeking to turn these aspects of religion to their own advantage and to use the trappings of religion in order to cement the obedience of their people. What they fear is the profound consequences of a religion that is lived and not merely acknowledged. They fear especially man's response to spiritual and ethical stimuli, not merely material. A society which seeks to make the worship of the State the ultimate objective of life cannot permit a higher loyalty, a faith in God, a belief in a religion that elevates the individual, acknowledges his true value and teaches him devotion and responsibility to something beyond the here and the now. The communists fear Christianity more as a way of life than as a weapon. In short, there is room in a totalitarian system for churches – but there is no room for God. The claim of the State must be total, and no other loyalty, and no other philosophy of life can be tolerated.

Is this not simply an indication of the weakness of the communist position? If the ultimate struggle is indeed a moral encounter, then are we not certain of eventual victory?

At first glance it might seem inevitable that in a struggle where the issue is the supremacy of the moral order, we must be victorious. That it is not inevitable, is due to the steady attrition in our faith and belief, a disease from which we in the West are suffering heavily. The communists have substituted dialectical materialism for faith in God; we on our part have substituted too often cynicism, indifference and secularism. We have permitted the communists too often to choose the ground for the struggle. We point with pride to the great outpourings of our factories and assume we have therefore proved the superiority of our system. We forget that the essence of the struggle is not material, but spiritual and ethical. We forget that the purpose of life is the future and not the present.

This emphasis on the material shows itself in many elements of our political life. Too often, in our foreign policy, in order to compete with the power doctrines of the Bolcheviks, we ourselves practice what Jacques Maritain called "moderate machiavellianism". But as Maritain pointed out in the showdown, this pale and attenuated version "is inevitably destined to be vanquished by absolute and virulent machiavellianism" as practiced by the communists.

We cannot separate our lives into compartments, either as individuals or as a nation. We cannot, on the one hand, run with the tide, and on the other, hold fast to Catholic principles.

Here at Assumption we are taught that Christianity is a way of life, not a means to an end: that eternal truths and the problems of this world cannot be kept separate. You who are graduating from this College today know this to be true and it is your responsibility as well as your opportunity by your works and example to stimulate a revival of our religious faith, to renew the battle against weary indifference and inertia, against the washing away of our religious, ethical, and cultural foundations.

If our nation recognizes the spiritual and moral element of the "stern encounter", and directs our policies to emphasize this phase of the struggle – if we refuse those compromises which have cost us so heavily – which have blurred the nature of the encounter between our enemies and ourselves – we shall find our way easier, our success more certain.

As graduates of this College during the years of its greatest crisis, when the struggle for survival seemed crushing, you have found a clear example of what charity, hope and faith, especially faith, can do in overcoming all obstacles. The cause for which we struggle needs reaffirmation. Its true meaning and significance can be found at Assumption, and you who have studied here can be the vanguard in giving direction and purpose to our lives and to our time.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 894, "Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts, 3 June 1955." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.