Perhaps repentance isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of a college graduation. But at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., it has become something of a commencement theme.

Two years ago, Philip Rivers, quarterback for the San Diego Chargers, talked about the importance of being in the state of grace – meaning, going to confession regularly. This year, university president John Garvey talked about the “neglected virtue” of repentance during commencement exercises.

Graduation happened Saturday on the same grounds that Pope Francis visited earlier this year, not long before he opened the Church’s jubilee of mercy year.

Repentance, Garvey said, is “asking for it.” If we can’t give what we don’t have, it is the starting point for mercy. Garvey called it “a virtue for sinners and stumblers … maybe that’s why we’re so bad at it.”

He didn’t resist the timeliest reference one can have this year to such matters – Donald Trump, declaring during primary season: “I think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong.”

For those of us who have known ourselves to be wrong – including on things much more important than political predictions – we need to repent, and apologize.

Garvey echoed Pope Francis in his speech, who has been known to talk about three keys to a more peaceful family life: The phrases, “May I?” “Thank you,” and “Pardon me.”

As Garvey put it:

“I have been married for 41 years and I have five children, all now grown up.  I have had a lot of opportunities to apologize.  I have learned that repentance is the duct tape of family life.  It can fix anything.”

He cited that most famous visitor to campus this year in his recent post-synod document on love and family life: “The right words, spoken at the right time, daily protect and nurture love.”

Garvey offered what would be a good pointer to walking into Confession for that state of grace status, a renewing encounter with Divine Mercy: “A good apology follows a simple formula: name the offense, say you’re sorry, ask forgiveness.”

Talk about counter-cultural, not just to commencement season, but our culture of non-apologies. Garvey listed some of the most famous ones: “Sorry, but … “ Or: “Sorry if I offended you.”  Or, the famous inside-the-beltway “mistakes were made” approach.

I am reminded of the first time I saw a sign in one of the easiest places to go to confession in Manhattan, St. Francis of Assisi by Penn Station, insisting people confess their own sins, not those of others.

Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.

If people see us leading with a more penitential posture in the world as religious believers – sinners in need of our Savior – it might just make a difference in our success in communicating.

Garvey is right to emphasize repentance, and cultivating Catholic leaders who get it will bring on that so-called “Francis effect” that’s been all the buzz since we met the first pope from the Americas.

I’ll never forget being in St. Peter’s Square during Pope Francis’s first Sunday Angelus address. “Never tire of asking God for forgiveness,” he said and repeated, and again.

That’s basically been his routine, saying it again and again, to a people who profess to but don’t always truly believe and so to a world that cannot possibly see. Leading with mercy required the starting ground of repentance.

Garvey relayed a moment in The Wind in the Willows to illustrate his point he wanted to send graduates from campus with:

“Mole tips over Rat’s boat after ignoring Rat’s instruction.  The miserable and wet Mole then says: ‘Ratty, my generous friend!  I am very sorry indeed for my foolish and ungrateful conduct . . ..  Indeed, I have been a complete ass, and I know it.   Will you overlook this once and forgive me, and let things go on as before?’”

“The effect is remarkable.  Rat replies at once: ‘That’s alright, bless you!’  And they go on, closer friends than before.

Urging graduates to go through the jubilee door of mercy at the Basilica of the National Shrine to the Immaculate Conception adjacent to campus, Garvey said:

“I promise you: Your life will be happier if you cultivate the virtue of repentance.  This sounds counterintuitive.  We think of penitents wearing sackcloth and ashes.   But when you apologize, you open the door for mercy.  And mercy brings peace.  Those are the words of absolution: “May God grant you his pardon and peace.”

Being merciful like the Father, as the Bible-based banners on many a Catholic Church these days puts it, requires the humility to acknowledge weaknesses, to know baptism didn’t give us a perfection trump card but a faith that insists on seeing clearly and loving dearly.

So, yes, please go forth, grads, and everyone else, fearlessly opening doors for mercy with our own repentance.