[The following is a commencement address given to the Northeastern Indiana Catholic Home Educators.]
This ceremony in which you are participating is not merely a graduation. Yes, we are here to celebrate your many accomplishments, for which you have many reasons to be proud. But more importantly, this is a ceremony of sending forth. It is reminiscent of the conclusion of each Holy Mass, when the priest or deacon proclaims, “Ite missa est – Go forth, the Mass is ended.” This line is probably the hardest to translate in the entire Mass. It literally means, “Go, it is the dismissal,” or, “Go, it has been sent.” It is from that word, “missa,” meaning “sent,” that we get the name of the Mass. The origin of this phrase is lost in the mystery of past centuries. Perhaps it was a standard Roman formula for concluding a meeting, something like, “This court is now adjourned” in modern English parlance. Whatever the origin, this mysterious phrase has come to represent the entirety of our most important act as Catholics – the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
I bring up this seemingly obscure point to illustrate the fact that endings are always somewhat mysterious. Yes, we are sent, but whither? Where is our destination? What is our task upon being sent? This is the great mystery of your lives at present as you graduate: What is my mission in the world? What is my vocation? What is my calling from the Lord?
Today, graduates, especially those of you graduating from high school, you are being sent into the world. As you know well from the Catholic education and formation that you have received, the world into which you are being sent is not one that is always happy to receive you, especially in light of your Catholic faith. In many ages before, the Church has faced hostility and even persecution. There are even places in the world, of a number that seems to grow at a rapid pace, where such persecution is again the case. Even in our own country, religious discourse is being crowded out of the public square. However, for most of us, on most days, the challenge that we face is subtler. Today, we face what I believe is an even greater enemy than hostility: indifference. It is the same indifference shown by the people of Athens when St. Paul preached there. The people of Athens listened to the interesting things that St. Paul had to say, but when he arrived at the Resurrection of Christ, they politely informed him, “We would like to hear about this another time.” This is to say, they were politely indifferent.
The task for you, graduates, is to overcome the polite indifference present in our world. I want, then, to offer you three pieces of advice as to how you will be able to do so: Critique rather than criticize; Transform the world rather than be isolated from it; and be witnesses of joy.
Firstly, critique rather than criticize: Faced with the many problems we can see in our world, it is easy for us to fall into the trap of criticism. It would be easy for our response to the hostility towards and indifference to Christ that we see in the world to be merely a lament. Catholic education, though, does not exist to create premature curmudgeons, people who merely complain about the world around them without doing anything to transform it. Rather than resorting to criticism and complaint, use the Catholic education and formation you have received to critique the world around you.
What is the difference, you might ask, between criticism and critique? Criticism seeks merely to tear down the other, but critique, while it does point out the flaws in the other, identifies ways that the other is able to grow. Criticism of the world focuses us on what is wrong, but genuine critique focuses us on what you are able to do to change and transform this deeply fallen world. Critique also opens us to working together with others to change the world in which we live and helps us to find common ground with those who might not be followers of Christ or His Church, but nevertheless desire to work for the common good, thus giving us an opening to introduce them to Christ and His saving truth.
Secondly, transform the world from within rather than taking refuge in isolation. An example of what this means can be found in the extraordinary early Christian text known as The Letter to Diognetus. The unknown author of this text writes that, “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. … And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.” Here we see two seemingly opposite things being said about the early Christians at the same time: Christians are truly people of the world. They do not adopt a distinctive way of dressing, and they play an active role in the governance of their countries as citizens. But yet there is something decidedly different about them. They do all this with a spirit of detachment because they know that their true home is not here on earth, but in Heaven. Any earthly country, to the Christian, is a foreign land.
Christians, the letter says, are to the world as the soul is to the body. It is the soul that gives life to the body, that animates it. And while the body wars against the soul, being a source of temptation and limitation to the spiritual soul, that same soul continues to give life to the body; it continues to love the body. The letter says, “Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together.”
It is here that we find the answer to how you, dear graduates, can be just such Christians, young men and women who passionately love a fallen world, despite its cold indifference. You are called to imitate Christ, to lay down your life in sacrifice for the God who loved you so much that He stretched out His arms and died for you on the Cross, in the many different ways in which God calls each of you to follow Him – in your own vocations. We read in the 3rd chapter of St. John’s Gospel, “When God sent his Son into the world, it was not to reject the world, but so that the world might find salvation through him” (Jn 3:17). If Christ did not come to reject the world, then how much less ought we not to reject the world that He has made and has loved with such a passion as to lay down His life for us while we were still sinners? (Rom 5:8). Christ came not to reject but to give life to the world, and this must be our mission as well.
Dear graduates, do not give in to the temptation to “survive” the world through isolation. God did not place us on this earth merely to survive until the end of our lives or Christ’s second coming. Quite to the contrary, He wants us to be the instruments of His transformation of a world that is fallen but called to return to Him.
To do this, thirdly, it is necessary that you be witnesses of joy. It is a life lived with joy and passion that has the power to attract others to the Gospel, to faith in Christ. The world, dear graduates, is convinced that Christ’s Holy Church does not love them, but rather condemns them. Unbelief, then, for many in the world, becomes easier than dealing with condemnation. It is you who have the power to convince them otherwise. Your witness of joy has the power to show that while the Church will not shirk from its role of proclaiming the truth in and out of season, She remains a merciful and compassionate mother, who teaches and disciplines out of Her love for Her children, in imitation of God Himself, as explained in the letter to the Hebrews (12:6). It is through joy that you can become the light of Christ to a world that has preferred darkness to the light (Jn 3:20). You must shine the light of Christ’s truth with Christ’s joy, one never apart from the other.
The response of a Christian to a fallen world is critique rather than criticism, transformation rather than isolation, and joy instead of bitter accusation. God made the world and loves it until the end. Today He summons you to participate in that same task as His sons and daughters, sent out to love passionately a fallen world.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson, S.T.L.
St. Mary, Mother of God, Church, Fort Wayne, Ind.
June 2, MMXVII