The supportive community of The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law (Catholic Law) came together Friday, May 19, 2023, to honor the achievements of—and bid farewell to—the graduating Class of 2023. Accompanied by organ music inaugurating the Law School’s 134th commencement exercises, and flanked by pews full of family and friends, graduates of the Class of 2023 processed into the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, to receive their law degrees and celebrate the successful completion of their law school careers.
With not only students and families but also Catholic Law staff and faculty in attendance, Katherine Gamelin Crowley, Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, welcomed the Class of 2023 and called the ceremony to order. Then, surrounded by the marble columns and Byzantinesque mosaics of the Basilica, Professor Emeritus Fr. Raymond C. O’Brien provided an opening prayer, acknowledging the praise and gratitude had by all those in attendance for the accomplishments of the year’s graduating class. Immediately after—in another demonstration of Catholic Law’s tightknit community—graduating student John Sullivan sang the national anthem, the notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” echoing through the mosaicked colonnades with such force that they prompted a standing ovation from his peers.
In his address, Stephen C. Payne, Dean and Knights of Columbus Professor of Law, congratulated graduates of Class of 2023 for their steadfast commitment to beginning—or, in the case of evening students, continuing—their legal studies in the opening throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that, while the first classes of their law school experience utilized technology to meet remotely, these graduates were receiving their degrees amid the eye-catching advent of artificial intelligence. Yet Dean Payne advised that they enter the legal profession without fear of modern, fashionable systems like ChatGPT; for although it could regurgitate chiseled, unalterable facts, it could never provide the individual care that recognizes the whole person and which forms one of the good lawyer’s signature virtues. “Please remember that it makes all the difference to keep the real, whole person at the center of your life and practice,” he said in earnest. “We’ve tried to do that with you in your legal education through tough times, and we’re confident that, upon entering the legal profession, you will all continue to make us proud.”
Having been chosen by her peers to speak on behalf of the Class of 2023, Zoe Spirgel addressed Catholic Law students, family members, faculty, and staff with touching words of advice to her classmates. “Be good; be good; be good,” she told the audience during her opening sentences, emphasizing this directive with which her grandmother—or bubbe, as she lovingly referred to her using the Yiddish equivalent—ended every conversation. Spirgel exhorted her listeners to remember the goodwill with which the Catholic Law faculty pushed the Class of 2023 toward graduation, and urged that they carry with themselves a commitment to kindness and generosity. “We will walk out of this sacred basilica today and take the bar exam,” she remarked in closing. “We will start jobs at courts, firms, and companies; but, as we move on to our next endeavor, we must remember to be good.”
With Dr. Peter K. Kilpatrick, President of The Catholic University of America, standing beside her, Mary Graw Leary, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law, introduced Rachael Denhollander, recipient of The Catholic University of America’s President’s Medal. Denhollander, a lawyer and former gymnast, was the first woman to publicly denounce and pursue criminal charges against USA Gymnastics’s former team doctor Larry Nassar. Named “the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom” by trial judge Rosemarie Aquilina, Denhollander’s pursuit of justice has demonstrated to fellow survivors the unassailable force with which she has refused to let her victimization define her. Indeed, this sentiment permeated the Basilica as well, and President Kilpatrick, referencing this feat later, during his closing remarks, labeled her the representation of “moral courage in the face of adversity.” Following her acceptance of the award from President Kilpatrick, Denhollander addressed the Class of 2023, challenging its graduates to follow the charge written millennia ago in the Book of Micah and chiseled—more recently, in 1994—into the west façade of the Columbus School of Law building: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
The moment that provoked the most excitement amongst the graduates came when Dean Payne presented to President Kilpatrick the Class of 2023 for the conferral of degrees. Catholic Law’s Antonio Perez, a professor whom the Class had selected to serve as Faculty Marshal, read the names of the graduates as they received their diplomas.
Select students received awards after the general distribution of diplomas. Each award honored one day student and one evening student. Day student Nicole Wargel and evening student Alissa Chase received the the John L. Garvey Faculty Award for finishing first in their respective divisions; day student Samantha Soter and evening student Erhan Bedestani received the Michael F. Curtin Pro Bono Award for commitment to pro bono service; and day student Maria Hershey and evening student Jennifer Kaplan received the Law School Alumni Association Award for academic achievement and service to the community.
Before the conclusion of the commencement exercises, President Kilpatrick approached the podium, thanking all in attendance for facilitating an awe-inspiring sendoff for the Class of 2023. Addressing the Class of 2023, he advised these new graduates to use to the fullest all that they had learned at Catholic Law: “As a graduate of this law school, you have received the training that you need to practice law with excellence.” And, before returning to his seat among fellow members of the University leadership, he reemphasized what was perhaps the underlying theme of the day’s festivities—the transgenerational kinship that Catholic Law provides its students, alumni, faculty, and staff. With glances at the audience and a tinge of pride in voice, he declared, “This is a beautiful community dedicated to the formation of new generations of lawyers—ones who will lift up this world and shine a bright light on the many challenges that we face.”
Following a benediction given by Associate Chaplain Fr. Joseph Hagan, O.P., Dean Crowley congratulated the Class of 2023, initiating a close to Catholic Law’s 134rd commencement exercises. With organ music once again swelling from the loft beneath one of the Basilica’s many rose windows, down the center aisle marched Catholic Law’s Class of 2023—no longer a band of students, but now one of alumni.