- NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER - Matthew McDonald - MAY 1, 2023 -
When Free Will Baptists founded Hillsdale College in 1844, they possibly never envisioned a Catholic bishop as the school’s graduation speaker. Yet Bishop Robert Barron is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at the school on May 13 — in what is definitely one of the more unexpected choices among this year’s roster of commencement speakers.
Bishop Barron, 63, is the founder of the Catholic media ministry Word on Fire and a popular podcaster. In 2011, he hosted a 10-part video series called Catholicism. He’s also the bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in southern Minnesota.
Evangelical Protestant Hillsdale is no longer affiliated with a denomination, but supports what it calls “natural law principles” and says “the moral tenets of Christianity … have been essential to the mission of the college.”
“I’ve always admired them. They’re great defenders of the Western intellectual tradition, which I do think is under assault today,” Bishop Barron told the Register in a telephone interview.
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Last year, many rising seniors at the school said in a survey that they’d like to see a religious figure as the main speaker at their graduation ceremony, said Andrew Davidson, 22, a senior philosophy major and class president.
In March, former vice president Mike Pence spoke on campus. In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke there. Both are Republicans and baptized Catholics, and both are considered likely candidates for president in 2024.
“Hillsdale is a school that’s getting more noticed lately for the political figures it brings to campus. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But there’s a lot of interest in our class in focusing on unity, something that’s not political,” Davidson said.
Davidson, a member of the Anglican Church in North America, was one of the people who pushed for Bishop Barron to be invited.
“He is a unifying force in Christianity,” said Davidson, of Virginia, who plans to take a gap year before going to law school. “He’s Catholic, but a lot of his homilies and podcasts are about trying to tell lapsed Catholics and lapsed Christians about why they should come back to the faith.”
While not a Catholic school, Hillsdale has a strong Catholic presence. Estimates vary, but a survey by the student newspaper in 2018 found that 26% of students were Catholics. Some say the current figure is more like 35%.
Strong Catholic Presence
Mass is celebrated twice a week on campus, including once in the basilica-like nondenominational chapel. On Sundays, the local Catholic church in town, St. Anthony’s, is packed. The congregation includes many Hillsdale students.
About 20 non-Catholic students a year join the Catholic Church, said Regina Gravrok, the head of women’s outreach at the Hillsdale College Catholic Society.
About 90% of the students practice some religion.
The curriculum at the school emphasizes great thinkers and the search for truth. Conversations about religion are common.
“Even non-Catholics are relatively friendly to Catholicism. I’ve spoken to some Protestant friends, and they’re pretty excited about Bishop Barron being the commencement speaker, too,” said Gravrok, 21, a senior English major from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who plans to work for Classical Learning Test after graduation.
Other Commencement Speakers
Below is a list of spring commencement speakers at several Catholic colleges that also take part in the Register’s annual “Catholic Identity College Guide”: