Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Nelson Mandela

Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Dahlgren Chapel
Georgetown University
December 11, 2013

It’s truly a privilege to be with you this afternoon. I wish to thank the many members of our community who have come together to help us celebrate Mr. Mandela's life and legacy - our Campus Ministry…our students…our faculty. We are also deeply grateful to Ambassador [Ebrahim] Rasool for joining us.

On Sunday evening we celebrated our University Advent Mass and I offered a few brief reflections. I am always struck during the Advent Season of the tension that is always present between the glory—the grandeur of what is to come—and the humility of what unfolds in our preparation. The Son of God is born in a manger for there is no room in an inn.

I described this tension as one that captures the deep need to balance two different qualities—magnanimity and humility. And I shared these words of Pope Francis, offered last summer in remarks to a group of school children:

If I were to ask you the question…why do you go to school…Following that which St. Ignatius teaches us, the principle element of school is to learn to be magnanimous. Magnanimity: this virtue of the great and of the small…What does it mean to be magnanimous? It means to have a big heart, to have a great spirit; it means to have great ideals, the desire to do great things to respond to that which God asks of us, and exactly this doing of daily things well, all of the daily acts, obligations, encounters with people; doing everyday small things with a big heart open to God and to others.” (Vatican Radio)

Magnanimity—a greatness of heart, a greatness of spirit…these words of Pope Francis, a man who is teaching us all the meaning of humility.

And on Sunday evening, I shared that in these days we have a chance to reflect on the meaning of another man who lived this balance, this harmony of magnanimity and humility. Twenty-seven years in prison. No one could have expected that after such humiliation, he would emerge to lead his nation out from the scourge of a political regime that debased all of South Africa’s people, to a place of forgiveness, a place of truth and reconciliation.

This balance between magnanimity and humility was present throughout his life. One of our colleagues, the late Sam Dash, who taught for more than 40 years at Georgetown Law until his passing in 2004, had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Mandela in 1985 in Pollsmoor Prison. Sam was speaking at a conference in Cape Town and asked if he could visit and interview Nelson Mandela. In writing about the visit, Sam said:

Dressed in his own well-fitted khaki shirt and trousers, rather than a regulation blue denim prison uniform, he appeared vigorous and healthy, with a calm, confident manner and dignified bearing that seemed incongruous in our prison surroundings. Indeed, throughout our meeting, I felt that I was in the presence not of a guerilla fighter or radical ideologue, but of a head of state. (Dash)

In less than a decade, the world would in fact feel the presence of a head of state.

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela would step out from prison and we would soon see what political courage and moral leadership mean for an oppressed people. Just four years later, on April 27, 1994, with his election as President, we would witness a truly great-souled man who could forgive 27 years of prison and humbly serve his people.

In the Ignatian tradition, magnanimity is inextricably linked with humility. It is the humble that are capable of true service.

Ignatius captured this insight in the words of his prayer called the Suscipe:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.

The Lord Has Given.

We have been given a grace. We have lived our lives at the same time that Nelson Mandela walked on this earth.

The Lord Has Taken Away.

We now move forward without the presence of his witness, a witness of forgiveness and love. May we love as he loved.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

And now, we have the privilege of hearing the closing lines of Mr. Mandela's “statement from the dock,” delivered at the opening of his fateful trial in Pretoria on April 20, 1964. We will first hear a brief audio recording from that day, and then Vivian Ojo, a senior and Africa and Latin America Comparative Studies major in the School of Foreign Service, will follow with a recitation of his words.


Works Cited
Dash, Sam. "A Rare Talk with Mandela: July 7, 1985." New York Times Magazine 14 Apr 1996: 153. ProQuest. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

“Pope Tells Students: Learn to be Magnanimous.” Radiovaticana.va. Web. 7 June 2013.