2015 Graduation Address
Dear friends and family and graduates,
I poked my head into the wrong room at the wrong moment and there I discovered Mr. Van Hecke and the seniors in a secret meeting. They were plotting and scheming, as usual, and told me that I was needed as victim in this, their rite of passage. Not one to hoard the graces I receive, I accepted the honor and now share with you a sort of victimhood as you get to listen to the speech of a teacher who loves these same plotting and scheming graduates.
I could attempt embarrassing them. For instance, I could ask them when they are going to start loving God as St. Philip Neri would do with his students. But they have become callous due to the constant barrage of witty insults and perfectly crafted ad hominems hurled at them over their years in class. I would rather remind them of those things they might have heard in those classes if they had listened, and which may even serve to give them confidence in facing the future.
In the mass for Pentecost, tomorrow’s mass, the readings tell us of a sending forth. You have all the disciples praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit and then he descends on them and they go out into the world with a new courage and fervent zeal. There is something like that going on here at our beloved St. Augustine Academy today. You, like the apostles, will go out into a world with minds touched by the flame of wisdom and hearts warmed by the love of the one true teacher, Jesus Christ. Some of you got fairly scorched with wisdom and others were nicely toasted.
On that day, some 2000 years ago, those who listened to the apostles heard them, each in his own native tongue. Think about that for a moment. It means at least this much: that the message was meant for the whole world. The Old Testament Covenant was geared for just the Jewish people. It set them apart as the chosen tribe. They shared with God a certain intimacy because he took up his dwelling, he pitched his tent, with them in their camp. With Pentecost, people of every language are invited to be chosen by God.
That first Pentecost also reveals to us another truth. Because each heard the message in his first language, the language of his childhood, we can understand that the message is meant for all of us in that intimate part of our soul where we are still childlike before God, where we speak to him as beloved children do to a most loving Father. We have an opportunity for intimacy with God that the people of the Old Testament did not even know about. The New Testament offers this greater intimacy since God has moved into the tent of our hearts, transforming them through baptism into his temples where he dwells as sanctifying grace. He raises us up by adopting us into his family, grafting us as branches onto his Son, the vine. We are made the very members of his Mystical Body. His Spirit is the animating principle of this body which is the Church. We are supernaturalized by this indwelling. We are supermen and superwomen.
This doesn’t make us capable of defying gravity or turning back time by orbiting the earth at super high speed, or of getting perfect scores on math finals when we haven’t really acquired mathematical habits. It does something much better.
It does make us capable of believing with the firmness of faith what Christ revealed and what the Church teaches. If we don’t put up obstacles to grace, we can believe that Christ was incarnate and walked on earth as the God-man, that he suffered and died on the cross and rose from the dead and ascended into heaven as he promised he would. It makes it possible for us to affirm that God is one-in-three and that he will judge the living and the dead. It affirms our conviction that he has prepared a place there for us and wills with a Father’s love that we arrive there to be with him forever.
This indwelling of God also gives us the ability to trust that God will not cheat us and that our sacrifices made in doing his will won’t make us miserable and wretched… but will, on the contrary, make us into the very vessels he will fill with his glory and joy. It makes our prayers confident in him.
It also makes us capable of loving one another and all God’s creatures in the way each ought to be loved, to the extent each should be loved, and for as long as each should be loved. It makes us able to defy the temptations that would turn our creaturely loves into idols. It makes us free to love rightly, to love fully, to live full of love.
So, faith, hope, and love are our new capacities and become our second nature, our supernature – our new default way of life… thanks to God’s Pentecostal gift of sanctifying grace.
But wait. There’s more. That isn’t his only gift.
When Jesus opened his heart to his apostles at the Last Supper, he promised the Paraclete – the Person “called to the side”, the Advocate (a legal advisor, defender in court), and he said, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.” We are not to worry, then, about what we are to say or do, for the Holy Spirit will tell us how to act.
And on Easter, when Jesus appeared to the apostles in the same upper room despite the locked doors, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” Gift after gift he gives them…and us. We have in the Holy Spirit, therefore, our defender before the accuser, our teacher, and our merciful and forgiving God who is always “at our side.”
Is it any wonder, then, why we often start classes here at St. Augustine Academy with the prayer to the Holy Spirit?
What do we do with these gifts? The apostles were trained three years by Christ. How many years have your parents and your priests and your teachers been training you? You may be wondering if you are ready to be sent out. Some of you may be not as sure as others. But, in fact, you all know those truths that are the most important in life: The 10 Commandments, the 8 Beatitudes (just try to get them in the right order, eh), the overarching moral principles: do good, avoid evil, you must not do evil so that good may result, some acts are intrinsically evil and no amount of good intentions can alter their moral quality…
And don’t forget: external order aids in establishing and maintaining internal order. (nod to MVH).
You have been taught the faith here and at home and in your parish church. You have been exposed to great literature and many of the wonders of science. You have been tried in the furnace of math and caressed by beautiful melodies lofting your spirits into the transcendent. You have heard the histories of man, ancient and modern. You were sharpened by logic and made fluent with grammar and persuasive with rhetoric.
All these, with time and experience, you will fashion into the tools and techniques necessary for the mission God has in store for you. They are the tools with which, tempered by the fire of the Holy Spirit, you will build up in yoursleves and in society, God’s Kingdom. Like so many strands, woven with the diligence of sacrificial love, they will constitute the nets with which you become, like the apostles, fishers of men. The fuel is there, the wood has been prepared for the offering.
Stay close to the Holy Spirit, dear graduates. He wants to be known by you. He wants your confidence. Let him whisper to you in prayer. He will remind you of what you need to know and of how you are to act. Recognize his voice. Do whatever he tells you.
On the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles as tongues of fire. Today, and every day, he wants to fill you with the fire of his love.
I remember telling you once of two desert fathers, Abba Lot and Abba Joseph. Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and he said to him “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”
Then the old man, Abba Joseph, stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven; his fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
So, dear graduates, say to the Holy Spirit: “Enkindle in us the fire of your love, O Lord, make us all flame!”
Godspeed, beloved class of 2015. May you set the world ablaze.