A Man of Courage

Ben Kessler “It takes a tough person to play football. Well, what kind of priests do we want to have? We want someone who is internally strong and externally strong. That’s the kind of priest who can change society.” These words were spoken by Ben Kessler, who recently graduated from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. Ben was a defensive tackle on the St. Thomas football team and completed his double major in philosophy and business with a 4.0 grade-point average. He was an undergraduate seminarian and plans to become a Catholic priest. Ben Kessler is my new hero. I had never heard of him until this morning, but I now know enough about him to know that he embodies the virtues of courage, holiness, and humility–the stuff of saints. Ben exhibited these virtues at his school’s commencement when, after being named “Tommie of the Year,” he testified to the truth of the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexual morality, and railed against selfishness–a fault he admitted he himself is guilty of. Ben’s remarks made not a few people uncomfortable:

A spring term that began with controversy at the University of St. Thomas ended the same way Saturday when a student used part of his commencement address to admonish people he considered “selfish,” including women who use birth control.

Pandemonium ensued in short order:

The remarks by Ben Kessler, a well-known student recently honored by peers and faculty as Tommie of the Year, led to catcalls and boos during commencement at the Catholic university in St. Paul. Others booed those who were booing. Buzz about the incident dominated post-graduation parties, spread throughout the community and sparked a flurry of e-mails. By Monday, there were scattered requests to strip Kessler of his Tommie of the Year award and questions about why St. Thomas officials didn’t try to pull the plug on Kessler’s speech as the crowd’s unhappiness intensified.

Now that would have been a sight to see: a Catholic university silencing a Catholic student for upholding the Catholic Church’s teachings.

Kessler’s speech was the latest in a series of controversies that has divided the campus. It began with university decisions last year that kept a lesbian choral director from traveling with her partner and kept an unmarried heterosexual couple from sharing a room on a student trip.

And these decisions were controversial…why?

Those decisions, affirmed last month in a new university travel code, led to a fear among some staff and students that those who aren’t Catholic or whose lives don’t reflect Catholic doctrine aren’t welcome. St. Thomas officials said that wasn’t true but defended the travel policy position vigorously as consistent with Catholic values.

I still fail to see the controversy.

Commencement offered the chance to put all the divisive issues aside. As is the custom, the student-selected Tommie of the Year speaks at graduation. “The speech started out pretty normal,” [Darin] Aus [a 2006 UST graduate] said. Then, he said, Kessler began talking about his disappointment at fellow students after a spring dance when a food fight became intense enough that security was summoned. “His disappointment kind of snowballed,” Aus said. Kessler also alluded to the unmarried professors caught up in the travel policy battles, calling them selfish. And he then called women who use birth control selfish. He also called himself selfish and said he needed to be a better person, said university spokesman Doug Hennes.

Two days later, St. Thomas President Rev. Dennis Dease threw Kessler under the bus in a statement that could not possibly have been more lame:

I have shared my sentiments with Mr. Kessler that it was not appropriate for him to use the commencement exercise as a venue to express his opinions on several issues.

Kessler, for his part, apologized:

I first would like to apologize to all offended by my words. As I stated in the opening line of my address, graduation is a time to look back and a time to look ahead. On Saturday, I looked back at some issues our university and our society have faced. I then looked ahead and tried to provide hope to all in attendance. Instead of providing hope to all, I offended some by my words and by my decision to speak those words at commencement. I sincerely apologize to each person I offended.

At first, I was disheartened to learn that he had apologized, as it seems painfully obvious that no apology was needed. But this Fumare blogger’s comment puts the apology in perspective:

While I would rather he not have apologized, it reflects that he is a class act and his motivation was not to inflame the audience, though apparently it doesn’t require much to do that.

Decide for yourself what to think about Ben’s commencement address remarks by watching this video excerpt of his speech, in which you’ll also hear several profanity-laced insults hurled at him while he spoke.

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