Most Reverend George H. Niederauer is the eighth bishop of the
Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, where he is the spiritual
shepherd of more than 200,000 Catholics throughout the state of
Utah. Prior to his appointment in Utah, Niederauer served as spiritual
director, faculty member and rector of St. John's Seminary in
Camarillo, Calif. He also co-directed the Cardinal Manning House
of Prayer in Los Angeles. Niederauer has served and continues
to serve on a variety of committees for the United States Conference
of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He is currently the chair of the
Utah Coalition Against Pornography. Last year he received the
Gandhi Peace Award.
THIRD-CLASS TICKET ON THE COACH
First, I must express again my thanks to President
Young and the Trustees of the University of Utah, indeed, to the
entire University community, for this great honor.
Back when our Western states were being settled,
a major means of transportation was the stagecoach. You’ve
seen people riding in stagecoaches in many a western movie. However,
you might not know that the stagecoach had three different kinds
of tickets: first-class, second class and third-class. If you had
a first-class ticket, that meant you could remain seated during
the entire trip no matter what happened. If the stagecoach got stuck
in the mud, or had trouble making it up a steep hill, or even if
a wheel fell off, you could remain seated because you had a first
you had a second-class ticket you could remain seated—until
there was a problem. In case of a problem, second-class ticket holders
would have to get off until the problem was resolved. You could
stand off to one side and watch as other people worked. You didn’t
have to get your hands dirty. But second-class ticket holders were
not allowed to stay on board. When the stagecoach was unstuck, you
could get back on and take your seat.
If you had a third-class ticket, you would definitely
have to get off if there was a problem. Why? Because, it was your
responsibility to help solve the problem. You had to get out and
push uphill, or help to fix the broken wheel, or whatever was needed
because you only had a third-class ticket.
does all that have to do with all of us here at this commencement?
I want to offer the stagecoach and its three classes of tickets
as a metaphor, or image, for the community—indeed the various
communities—in which we live, and into which you graduates
will move after today. This is what I mean: You have received a
first-class education here at the University of Utah. Many people,
including your family, friends, and fellow citizens, have supported
you in reaching your goals. You will now take your place as an educated,
skilled and resourceful member of the community—many communities,
actually: your neighborhood, your profession, your city, your church
or synagogue or mosque, your state, your country, your blue planet.
you need to know that life in these different communities will be
much like a trip on one of those stagecoaches. You will find yourself
among lots of other people, many of them strangers to you, from
backgrounds that are different from, as well as similar to, your
own. And it is most important that you remember this: Your first-class
education here at the University entitles you to only a third-class
ticket on any community’s stagecoach. And because yours is
a third-class ticket, whenever there’s a problem, you are
expected to get out, get down and help solve it.
Why is that? Because on any community’s stagecoach
there are only third-class tickets. There are no first- or second-class
tickets; there are only some people who behave as though they have
first- or second-class tickets. In more contemporary terms, a community
has no first-class or business class; in community, everyone travels
Why do so many of us in modern society often behave
as if we think we have first- or second-class tickets in life? As
if we can sit or stand around while others fix things? Some people
who observe social behavior will suggest concepts like entitlement
and victimhood. Other suggestions are more old-fashioned, like selfishness,
or its popular subdivision, laziness.
The danger, at any rate, is that we, who have had
so many advantages, will get locked up in ourselves, weakening our
ability to see the heaven-sent possibilities, the good we can do
in cooperation with others. If it’s at least partly true,
as Robert Hughes has observed, that the self has become the sacred
cow in our culture, then it helps a bit to remind ourselves that
the smallest package in the world is the human being wrapped up
in himself or herself.
reluctance of some to get involved is deepened by the negativity
of so many media images, news flashes, and political posturing these
days. We hear of violations of trust, abandoning of responsibilities
and turf battles. It’s tempting to say, “What’s
the use? Why get involved?”
challenge to our sense of responsibility and interconnectedness
is our increasing reliance on technology to meet our needs, to fill
our moments, and to fulfill our responsibilities. Nearly seventy
years ago the poet T.S. Eliot warned us about becoming a people
“dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will have to be
good.” Technology doesn’t relieve us of individual responsibility
to others; indeed, it often increases it. A small, everyday case
in point: Cell phone technology improves almost weekly, but, truth
to tell, our behavior in using those phones still needs lots of
then should we respond? With, as Abraham Lincoln said, “the
better angels of our nature,” but updated for 21st century
use. Educated women and men stand on the shoulders of so many others:
family, teachers, artists, researchers, writers, moral guides. From
that greater vantage point, we need to see the possibilities laid
out before us with hope, and to respond with generous hearts and
lively minds. If we are riding this stagecoach of community together—and
we are—then our question cannot always be “What’s
in this for me?” Our question must regularly be, “Where
will this lead all of us together?”
I realize what I say is highly idealistic. I also
realize that we Americans are a very realistic people; we often
prefer realism to idealism. But our roots are in idealism. The gospels
or sacred books of every religion hold up ideals to strive for.
For instance, the Law of Moses protected strangers and aliens in
the land, and the New Testament spoke of Samaritans to people who
wanted to pretend Samaritans didn’t exist.
The fundamental documents of our country are highly
idealistic: the Declaration of Independence and some of the most
crucial provisions of our Constitution. The speeches and writings
that generations of Americans have committed to memory are profoundly
idealistic: “The Gettysburg Address” or “The Letter
from the Birmingham Jail.” The assumption undergirding all
those statements is the inexpressible value of each human life,
the indispensable dignity of each human person.
We need to trust our deeper instincts for ideals,
and tap into our potentiality for them. Whatever our specialty,
we can examine its potential for good; we can map out ways to make
things better for a world we share with others. We can overcome
failure, disappointment, suffering, and broken promises through
hard work, healing, reconciliation, harmony, and efforts to unite
rather than divide.
me single out just one aspect of riding along together in the stagecoach
of community—the challenge of diversity. In those movies about
the old West, the stagecoaches held all sorts of people: young and
old, rich and poor, folks at all levels of education, reflecting
many social, ethnic and religious differences. That kind of diversity
has been a feature of our country for over two hundred years, producing
tensions even as it made for a rich cultural mix and great fruitfulness.
The advantages of speaking other languages, visiting
other countries, knowing about other times, understanding another
religion and experiencing a different discipline help determine
the goals and values of education in this or any university.
Alongside this fascination with diversity, however,
there runs a yearning within us to create a separate enclave of
people who look like us, talk like us, act like us, and think like
us, an urge to be with, and perhaps to be only with, our own kind.
In some ways this yearning has produced the gated community. Now
I’m not attacking a certain kind of real estate development;
rather, I’m urging that we not end up with gated minds, gated
hearts and gated lives. That would limit the potential within each
of us, as well as the potential for all of us together.
We need to avoid the ease of associating only with
our own familiar kinds, to seek instead the challenge and even the
struggle of knowing and understanding those who are different from
ourselves. It’s just healthier and richer to look at life
through windows instead of mirrors.
What I’m suggesting isn’t easy. We need
to cultivate a willingness to appreciate and seek the well-being
of people who are very different from ourselves, including people
who disagree with us on important matters. As Richard Mouw has said,
civility and openness to those who differ with us, or who are different
from us, does not commit us to a relativistic approach. Respecting
people and their right to express their basic convictions is not
the same as saying they are always right, nor is it the same as
saying that their visions of the truth are interchangeable in value
with our own visions.
of the work I do I am especially aware of one particular kind of
diversity we deal with in our communities, a feature of our ride
on the stagecoach together: the diversity of religious belief, the
differences among believers, and the differences between those who
are believers and those who are not. All across the country, and
here in our own state, the atmosphere of civil discourse about religious
beliefs is more toxic than it was in the past. Across a widening
and deepening divide, factions shout at each other: We seem more
and more intent on labels, and more and more content with despising
and dismissively writing off those with beliefs that differ from
First I want to challenge myself and my fellow believers.
Whatever our beliefs, arrogance has no place in authentic religious
faith and practice. Just as surgery is dangerous in all but skilled
hands, and public funds are in danger in all but honest hands, so
religion is dangerous in the hands of proud, manipulative, judgmental,
and selfish people. Indeed, religion is a wondrous value only in
sacred texts of the world’s religions, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism,
and Hinduism among them, teach that principle in one way or another.
Drawing on my own faith tradition I want to point out the lesson
Jesus Christ taught clearly in his parable of the Pharisee and the
tax-collector in Luke’s Gospel. As you may recall, the humble
tax-collector prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Meanwhile, the proud Pharisee “with his head unbowed prayed
in this fashion: ‘I give you thanks, O God, that I am not
like the rest of men—grasping, crooked, adulterous—or
even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes
on all I possess.’” The Pharisee’s prayer has
an obvious “I” problem—it’s all about himself.
I’m convinced that Christ is giving us a sentence completion
test here. He is asking us, “How would you finish this sentence:
‘I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like . . . ?’”
The only correct answer is not to finish the sentence at all.
And now a word to those who are not believers. You
deserve my respect when expressing your convictions, and I deserve
your respect when expressing mine. I should not try to keep you
silent in public discourse on issues in the community, nor should
you try to keep me silent. Let me be more specific: I should not
claim that your non-belief disqualifies you from active citizenship,
nor should you claim that I must keep my religious convictions to
myself, behind closed doors, at home where they belong, and certainly
out of the public square.
Also, let’s honestly admit the value of some
of the “faith-based initiatives” that have mattered
greatly in our country’s political history. In the nineteenth
century, long before it was a matter for civil war or a constitutional
amendment, the abolition of slavery was a faith-based initiative.
In the twentieth century, long before it was a matter of federal
legislation, the civil rights movement was a faith-based initiative,
with deep roots in the churches and religious convictions of our
passengers together on the stagecoach of community all of us have
many more common interests and convictions than we are often willing
to admit. We know that without a shared commitment to the common
good we are all the poorer, and in real danger as well. We need
to work together to make a civil world where wisdom, learning, the
arts, and a healthy environment are valued. Schools, libraries,
parks and open spaces, as well as commitment to community services
and outreach to our most vulnerable neighbors, are not the exclusive
concerns of one group or another, but the common concern of all.
Constantly we need to remember that, on the stagecoach
of community, we all have third-class tickets. All of us are obliged
to pitch in to solve problems and difficulties together. When necessary
we need to get out of our seats and get to work. Moreover, throughout
our journey we owe each other respect, and a conversation that involves
genuine listening, not merely adjacent monologues.
Again, my congratulations to you graduates on completing
your first-class education here at the University of Utah, and earning
yourself your third class ticket to community. Welcome aboard the