Gaffigans to grads: ‘Life is nothing without love’

Married since 2003 and the parents of five children, stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, and his wife, Jeannie, are devout Catholics and writing partners. They teamed up for their commencement address, bouncing off each other with wise and witty advice.

To begin, Jeannie recounted their reaction when they were first asked to speak at Catholic University's 127th annual commencement ceremony.

Though the couple was honored, they thought it would be impossible because of their work and familial obligations.

"This initial response of 'it's impossible' has come up many times over the course of our relationship," Jeannie said.

They shared that at times, they thought it would be impossible to get married, to have more children, to write a book, or - Jim joked - to open a mail-order guacamole business. With the exception of the guacamole, the couple said they have accomplished all of their goals because of the support of God and their loved ones.

"In spite of our self-doubts and our flaws, the impossible became possible," Jeannie said. "But neither of us could have accomplished much of anything by ourselves," added Jim, the author of two books, a grammy nominee for his successful comedy specials, and the star of a TV Land series, "The Jim Gaffigan Show."

Looking back on their own college graduations, Jeannie recalled that she was a motivated young actress who thought she could reach her Hollywood goals completely on her own. Jim, on the other hand, was adrift for four years until realizing he wanted to pursue comedy.

When the couple met and began dating, they both changed for the better. Jeannie realized how difficult, but rewarding it can be to help those you love fulfill their dreams. "Sharing your life with someone is not easy because it involves sacrificing control," she said. "And something beautiful can happen."

Jim, on the other hand, realized there was more to life than simply seeking fame and worldly accomplishments. He noted that before he met Jeannie, he lived across the street from a Catholic church for 15 years that he had never entered. Because of his wife, he was married in that church, his children were baptized there, and "once a week I'm reminded to keep focused on priorities. God, family, then work," Jim said.

"Beliefs I had doubted, I opened my mind to," he said. "Maybe marriage wasn't giving up freedom. Maybe faith in something wasn't naïve. Maybe putting others first wasn't weakness."

Speaking from the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Jim and Jeannie advised graduates to value their families and place their trust in God so that impossible things will become possible.

"The love you are given and the love you give will be the most important force driving you through life," Jeannie said. "Life is nothing without love."

The couple also told graduates to look beyond worldly success to what is truly important.

"Remember happiness is not found in accomplishments, income or the number of Twitter followers you have," Jim said. "True happiness is found in family. Living for each other, sacrificing together, and enjoying the blessing of fresh guacamole delivered promptly to your door."

Catholic University President John Garvey addressed the new graduates by speaking about an often-neglected virtue that can bring about a true sense of peace: the virtue of repentance.

"Repentance, unlike mercy, is not a divine attribute," Garvey said. "It's a virtue for sinners and stumblers. Maybe that's why we're so bad at it."

Repentance is often avoided, Garvey said, because people don't like to admit when they're at fault. To avoid shame, people will shift the blame or neglect to apologize at all. To make a good apology, Garvey suggested a formula: "name the offense, say you're sorry, ask forgiveness."

Acknowledging that repentance might be "a strange message for a commencement address," Garvey talked about the importance of the virtue in his own life.

"I have been married for 40 years and I have five children, all now grown up," he said. "I have had a lot of opportunities to apologize. I have learned that repentance is the duct tape of family life. It can fix anything."

Garvey suggested that graduates should cultivate the virtue of repentance by making a habit of apologizing and going to confession. He also suggested that graduates and their families walk through the Basilica's Holy Door, which was opened as part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

"We think of penitents wearing sackcloth and ashes," he said. "But when you apologize, you open the door for mercy. And mercy brings peace."

The university conferred approximately 1,750 bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees during the ceremony. The Columbus School of Law will confer more than 125 degrees at its commencement ceremony May 27.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016