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Vatican Official Speaks At USF Commencement

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It isn’t every day that Fort Wayne hosts a close advisor of the pope. But on Saturday, May 1, the University of Saint Francis welcomed an advisor of the last three popes.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, a native of Ghana, gave the address at the University of Saint Francis’ commencement. He spoke early on about the impact of the thirteenth century friar who inspired the names of both the university and the serving worldwide head of the Catholic Church. 

“In his poverty, Francis found the means to impact all things, to pursue and to live a life of relationship with all,” Turkson said.

Honoring the classes of 2021 and 2020 because last year’s commencement was cancelled, this year’s festivities were the first major event held by the university since the pandemic. In his address, Cardinal Turkson encouraged graduates to make an impact with their lives.

“Impacts are change-makers," Turkson said. "Impact provokes change and makes beneficiaries of this change full of hope for the future. And it changes the situations of people.” Be sowers of hope.

For the last dozen years, Cardinal Turkson has served as the head of the Vatican’s peace and justice efforts. Elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II in 2003, he’s had a vote in the election of the last two popes, and he was considered a possible successor to Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.

At age 72, Cardinal Turkson would remain eligible to participate in a Conclave, or Papal election, until he turns 80. 

Franciscan Sister Jacinta Krecek, chair of philosophy and theology at the University of Saint Francis, prepared for the cardinal’s visit by inviting students to explore the cardinal's background and the issues his office advocates for.
“I told my students in the Catholic social teaching course that he was coming," Krecek said. "And three of the class are graduating today, so they were ready for his arrival. What he does ties in very much with our mission.”
Cardinal Turkson is credited as the drafter of the pope’s 2015 encyclical letter “Laudato Si,” on care for the environment and the moral urgency of climate change. According to theology professor Adam A.J. DeVille, that made the cardinal’s presence apt.

“It’s nice that we have such an obvious Franciscan connection," DeVille said. "And on such a crucial issue.”

But environmental justice isn’t the only justice issue for the Catholic Church.

Before the commencement ceremony, Cardinal Turkson, a Black African who studied in the United States, spoke to WBOI about what the George Floyd murder meant for the wider prospects of racial justice in the US.

“Justice is a relational term," Turkson said. "Justice is when I respect the demands of the relationship in which I live with you.

"It means that we as a society failed in our job," he said. "Then it’s a call to take a look at how we take care of our citizens. This wrongdoing “is a call to society and its members to see where we went wrong.”

Cardinal Turkson’s office also leads the Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission, which has coordinated with local churches and national governments all over the world to provide aid and to advocate for inclusive vaccine distribution that doesn’t leave poor countries behind. Cardinal Turkson addressed vaccine hesitancy as well.

“We recognize there’s a lot of hesitation about taking the vaccine, supported by a lot of conspiracy theories and all of that," he said. "We’re saying that, unless, you know, unless we’re all out of this, we’re never going to be all out of this.

“A health care decision is a personal decision, but we still say although this is a personal decision, recognize the well-being and the good of the other. OK, so your personal decision, but it has an impact and a responsibility towards your neighbor and those you live with. So yes, you don’t want to take it, but for the health of those live with, maybe you need to consider,” Turkson said.

The backdrop of the pandemic loomed over the event, which Cardinal Turkson acknowledged to graduates, saying he wasn’t naive about the troubled state of the world. Again, he urged them to make an impact on it with their lives.

“You are called to have a concrete impact on cities, on universities, workplaces, unions, businesses, and movements, public and private office, and to work with intelligence, with commitment, and with conviction, in order to reach the centers where ideas and paradigms are formulated and shared.

"So do not be afraid to get involved and to touch the soul of your cities with impact,” Turkson said.

“For every social state and every economic life needs a kind of spirituality, something that the University of Saint Francis has sought to bestow and imbue you with.”

And it’s this sense of bringing a moral compass to problems out in the world that Cardinal Turkson drove home with graduates.