This Keynote Address was given at the Baccalaureate Mass and Commencement for St. John Bosco High School (Silverton, Oregon), held at Mount Angel Abbey on Friday, June 1, 2012.
Thank you, Rolando. And thank you, faculty and teachers of Saint John Bosco High School for your gracious invitation to speak at this graduation. It is an honor to be here.
Good evening, graduates, and congratulations!
Twenty-five years ago this very week, I graduated from high school in Plains, Montana, a small town with a dozen churches, three restaurants, two grocery stores, one police officer, and no stop lights.
High school graduations were a big deal in that small town, and I can still remember the emotions of the moment, of being happy and excited, as well as a little nervous about the future.
At that moment, I thought I had my life planned out. And I knew I had plenty of time to accomplish all of the things I wanted to do.
But over the past twenty-five years I’ve learned that time moves very quickly. It actually speeds up as you get older! And I’ve learned that many of the things I wanted to accomplish were not what God wanted for me.
And I would tell you more about my life and all of the mistakes I made and lessons I’ve learned, but I was told we do not have the necessary ten hours for that particular talk.
So, instead, I want to talk about you, the graduates. Not that I know you well at all, of course. Tonight is the first time we’ve met. But I do know one important, essential thing about each one of you: you are a Catholic, a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ.
You have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and have been regenerated in the waters of baptism, united with Christ, incorporated into the Church, renewed by the Holy Spirit, and filled with the divine life of God.
One of my favorite passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the very first sentence of the first paragraph: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” Each of you was created by God out of the overflowing abundance of his perfect love. It is impossible to fully comprehend that truth, but I think we sometimes take it for granted and don’t contemplate it enough.
Before I became Catholic, I spent two years at an Evangelical Bible college. In one of my very first classes, a professor made this rather shocking statement: “God does not need you.” He repeated it several times, pointing to us, staring at us. He actually yelled it! And then he said, “But God created you out of love and he loves you so much he came and died for you.” God is indeed good, despite vicious rumors to the contrary!
However, there are a lot of people, including many Christians, who think God owes them something. I know that I have sometimes fallen into that trap. I’ve learned that if we live as if God owes us something, we are implicitly saying that we, in some way, know more than God! “If only God would realize what I have already figured out!”
Being a Catholic means being completely honest about the distance between God, the Creator of all things, and myself, a creature who is limited and, frankly, doesn’t know as much as I think I do. The famous 20th-century preacher Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote “A Catholic may be defined as one who made the startling discovery that God knows more than he does.”
Here is my first bit of advice: the path to true humility and real holiness does not come through thinking that God owes you something, but through recognizing and embracing the fact that God loves you so much he became man, suffered and died, rose from the grave, and then gifted you with his own divine life.
Which is why the last sentence of the first paragraph of the Catechism says, “In his Son and through him, [God] invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.”
My second piece of advice, then, is this: Remember Who created you! And never forget or forsake the reason you were created: to know, love, and serve God. To borrow a short phrase from Blessed John Paul II, “Become what you are!”
What are you? The Apostle John tells us, very clearly, in his first epistle, saying, “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called the children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn. 3:1).
Last Sunday (May 27th) was the Feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples in the Upper Room. After St. Peter delivered his sermon that day, the people asked him, “What shall we do?” And Peter instructed them to repent and to be baptized. And Peter said, as they prepared to be baptized, “Save yourself from this crooked generation!” That is good advice, as good in this generation as it was in his.
I think we can agree that Peter was not interested in being politically correct or shying away from direct talk. He was, as they say, a straight shooter in the midst of a crooked generation.
He knew how easily souls can be destroyed; he understood that Satan is not only real, he has a certain genius for distracting us from pursuing lives of holiness. Which is why he wrote, in first epistle: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.”
How does the devil go about his work of seeking to devour and destroy? Since he is the father of lies, he often uses counterfeits to fool people into thinking they have the “real thing”, when all they actually have is a destructive fake.
And I think the devil is especially adept at counterfeiting the three theological virtues.
You know the three theological virtues, don’t you? Faith, hope, and love. They are called “theological” because they are gifts of God, imparted to us at baptism. They are given to us so we can live as real children of God and enter into eternal life when our time on earth is done.
In the fall of 1987, the year I graduated from high school, a pop singer by the name of George Michael came out with his first solo album, “Faith”, which is one of the biggest selling albums of all time. (Is the term “album” even used any more?) The title song, “Faith”, which was a love song, had a chorus that stated, “Because I’ve got to have faith/I’ve got to have faith”.
Faith in what? It’s not clear. And yet that is so common, isn’t it? People will say, with complete seriousness: “Just have faith”. Well, in what? In who? Why? For what reason?
The other variation, which I suspect is being heard at some graduations around the country, is “Have faith in yourself! Believe in yourself! Trust your heart!”
Now, there is nothing wrong at all with having self-confidence and possessing a realistic perspective about your gifts, talents, and strengths. But the exhortation to “Believe in yourself” is quite often presented as an actual philosophy of life, as an end in itself. It is, to put it simply, a form of self-worship and idolatry.
It is a form of the ancient temptation, sold to Adam and Eve in the Garden, to believe that you can “be like God” (Gen 3:5). I doubt I need to remind you how things turned out for Adam and Eve.
It is one thing to believe in my abilities to hammer a nail, or drive a car, or sing in an opera (I can do two of those three!). It is quite another to believe or to act as if I can save myself. Even worse, perhaps, is the belief held by many that faith in myself means rejecting the very notion that I need to be saved, to be made right with God, to admit my need for Someone greater than myself.
One lie you will encounter in the world, among those of the “crooked generation”, is that faith in God is for the weak, the frightened, and the losers. You will told that “Faith is a crutch!”
But faith is actually for those humble enough to recognize that they are mortally wounded and in need of the Divine Physician’s sure and saving hand.
Another lie is that man must put his faith, not in God, but in science, in “progress”, in evolution, in technology, in “mankind”, in the government. Keep in mind, however, the words of St. Thomas More, who chose death over heresy: “A faint faith is better than a strong heresy”.
True faith is not superstition, but supernatural. It is not a projection of our desires, but a possession of God’s promises.
But faith must be exercised and practiced, or it will wither. So there is another bit of advice: guard your faith, grow in faith, and be guided by faith.
What about hope, the second theological virtue? As you might know, in recent times there have been political campaigns built upon an image and single word: “Hope”. Again, hope in what? In whom? And for what end?
The great deception here is to prefer the hopes and dreams of this life and world over and above the hope and reality of the world to come.
For many people, hope is simply about feelings and emotions that are projected into the future. “The virtue of Hope,” wrote Sheen, “lies not in the future of time, but beyond the tomb in eternity; its object is not the abundant life of earth, but the eternal love of God.”
One of the biggest falsehoods of our time is that man’s hopes can be fulfilled and realized in this world. This misplaced hope in building a heaven on earth is one reason that some 100 million people were murdered in the twentieth century by their own governments.
Putting our full and final hope in things that are incomplete and temporary leads to ruin, insanity, and worse. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Spe Salvi, his encyclical on hope, “Man’s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God—God who has loved us and who continues to love us ‘to the end,’ until all ‘is accomplished’ (cf. Jn 13:1 and 19:30).”
Finally, the theological virtue of love, or charity. There aren’t many words that have been abused, misused, and misunderstood as the word “love”. The problem is that there are different forms of real love: love for family, for friends, for a spouse, for one’s country, for our school and our parish.
We know we are made for love. John Paul II said, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love….” But as the old country song goes, many people spend their lives “looking for love in all the wrong places”.
It is a peculiar truth that many of those who are especially obsessed with love—I’m thinking of pop stars and Hollywood celebrities—seem to possess only love for themselves, which isn’t love at all, but a form of pride.
One mistake the crooked generation makes is to confused possession with love, as if having something or someone in one’s control is the essential feature of love. That, however, is not love, but lust.
There is an even deeper problem: the belief that love—especially romantic love—will free you from difficulties, save you from boredom, rid you of pain, and liberate you from the daily grind of ordinary existence. But true love is found in dying to yourself. It is an act of the will; it is a choice to serve others, to put them before ourselves.
“We can never love our neighbor too much”, wrote St. Francis de Sales. But we cannot love our neighbor completely until we love God. All real love has its origin in the Trinity, for God is love.
When asked to define the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”, and then said, “And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Which brings us full circle, to this beautiful truth, from the pen of St. John, the Beloved Disciple: “Let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.”
You see, God not only knows more than us, he knows us better than we know ourselves.
He wants you to live life to the full, to know joy and happiness, to be a straight shooter in the midst of the crooked generation. As I said at the start, time moves quickly. Remember the words of St. John Bosco, who said, “Do good while you still have time!”
So, as you turn your gaze toward life after high school, I urge you, in the words of John Paul II, “Become what you are!”—children of God, united to Jesus Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.
May God richly bless you as you seek his face each day and pursue his love in every way.