As Covid-19 infection rates surged across campuses nationwide, many hurled criticism and ridiculed Generation Z as a reckless age group. Such denigrations sprung as a reaction to colleges abruptly closing in-person learning to combat the virus’ spread. I, however, always had faith that Gen-Z would meet their challenge, and more specifically believed that Notre Dame students would overcome their two-week virtual learning hiatus. It is obvious that the DNA of Gen-Z prioritizes a desire to combat such important problems as climate change, racial injustice and social equality. Easily one can conclude with confidence that their character and fortitude assures a hopeful future. This moment in history has found its generation in Gen-Z. They have been summoned to rise to the call not only for pandemic vigilance, but also for civil discourse and human equity — three difficult endeavors that are the pillars of truly making our nation great. While in real time we may not envision this era as nurturing the noble character of a generation, I submit that in 2050, scholars will bestow upon Gen-Z our nation’s next Greatest Generation title. Historians dubbed the World War II era of my father’s college-age youth as “The Greatest Generation” for instantaneously sacrificing their routine lives to fight tyranny abroad. They were taught to ignore their personal sanctity of life beliefs. They were trained to kill as a reflexive craft and then asked to forget that killer craft overnight. Then they were expected to immediately return to their pre-war lifestyles without bearing their lifetime scars to society. Certainly every generation confronts its own set of unique challenges across a spectrum ranging from wars abroad to civil unrest at home. Unquestionably, every cohort contains its share of knuckleheads. During World War II, mayors in Boston and New York City refused to enforce blackouts at night for fear that it would diminish their tourist industry. Consequently, German U-boats honed in on those city-light beacons and sunk several boats along the American eastern coastline. Yet despite such blatant incompetence, that generation’s battlefield sacrifices earned it the “Greatest” moniker we acknowledge today. Exactly a half-century ago, during my sophomore year, my Baby Boomer Generation was conscripted into military service then sent to fight and die in Vietnam. We witnessed our fellow college students at Kent State shot and killed by fellow Americans in National Guard uniform. Students nationwide felt so aggrieved, that locally my classmates boycotted classes through a campus-wide strike while others planned to burn the Dome to make a statement to the world. It was the George Floyd moment of our time with a self-proclaimed law-and-order president resisting calls for justice after enforcement authorities killed unarmed civilian Americans on our streets. Baby Boomers have not always avoided their knucklehead moments. Admittedly, I was a knucklehead during my undergraduate days at Notre Dame, except whenever a moment startled me with a sense of seriousness and purpose. For me, entering college somewhat conservative and pro Vietnam War, I became enlightened outside my hometown cocoon. Inevitably though, in each life some moment molds one’s character. The pandemic may be that time to note the severity of our time for Gen-Z to carry within their hearts the seriousness to respect the ravages of this virus. Speaking personally to each Notre Dame student, I emphasize that you are smart beyond your youth, smarter at each phase of your education than previous generations. Few of my classmates could be admitted into Notre Dame today if competing with your Gen-Z applicants.That said, while you may lack the wisdom that youth inevitably gains through a collective of yearly experiences later in life, you are today’s hope to immediately halt the life-or-death Covid-19 virus in your locality. Ironically, conquering the virus and defending life on campus today merely requires a disciplined repression of social habits for the next nine months until a vaccine is developed. That is a task that pales in comparison to past generations whose duty to save global freedom obliged them to sacrifice their slaughtered bodies on a battlefield for years. However, the pandemic is but the first of Gen-Z challenges I believe will make our nation a more perfect union. I foresee ordeals that lay upon your Gen-Z doorstep to collectively remedy. Currently the pandemic and racial systemic injustices that the Black Lives Matter movement detonated this summer await attention. Unfortunately, while our nation has steadily awakened to the urgency for equality and justice, many in my generation watch through a blind eye. Regardless of how slowly our nation heals, we need you, Gen-Z, with open eyes to mend it completely. The marathon baton we hand you will be set on a path to societal greatness that is embodied in Pope Francis’ philosophy of inclusion without judgmental litmus tests or actions to cancel and exclude others based on strict doctrinal orthodoxy. Yours is to stay on course. Our neighbors do not want to be simply tolerated. Gen-Z must give our disenfranchised neighbors their sense of belonging, a feeling of brotherhood. In the long run, I have immense faith that Gen-Z will usher a unique age of political civility and justice. I expect to pass the societal relay baton to our next greatest generation. With you, our future is bright to win the gold medal.
Class of 1973