Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the graduation from St. Joseph High School in Toms River, New Jersey, on September 22, 2018, the vigil of the Twentieth-fifth Sunday of the Year (B).
In biblical studies, St. John the Baptist is often referred to as an “intertestamental” figure, by which is meant that he straddles the Old and New Testaments: he closes out the Old and ushers in the New. In some way, I think the same can be said about our class: We began our Catholic education in ways that differed only slightly from our parents and even grandparents. By the time we got to high school, it appeared that an entirely new ball game was in play. Indeed, our graduation year of 1968 has been called the annus horribilis. In society, we were confronted with riots and assassinations; in the Church, we beheld the mass exodus of clergy and Religious, as well as a full-blown rebellion against a Pope’s encyclical. The stability of our grammar school years gave way to confused and confusing religion classes, disrespect and challenging of teachers (whether justified or not), three Sister-Principals in four years. The changes were so frequent, so unexpected, and so disruptive that it is a minor miracle that the suction didn’t take all of us down that vortex.
Anniversaries are important milestones, but they can devolve into little more than empty exercises of recalling silly or shallow events. At their best, anniversaries are opportunities for gratitude, regret, and renewal. I would suggest that the response of today’s psalm could be a good guide for our reflections: “The Lord upholds my life.”
Gratitude. Those of us who made it to third year Latin will recall Cicero’s insight: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all others.” For what ought we to be grateful? Most of us had the inestimable gift of thirteen years of a Catholic education. The foundations given us in elementary school were solid. We knew the Faith (who among us could not still answer questions like, “Who is God?” “Why did God make me?” “What is a sacrament?”). We lived the Faith – and had excellent models in our teachers. Even when things got shaky in the late sixties, the sure foundations kept many of us from going over the cliff and brought back not a few of those who had gone over the cliff.
We had a superb secular education, which positioned us for success in any field we chose. This grandson of four immigrants ended up with two doctorates. We learned how to read and write. We learned grammar and spelling (I was quite impressed that in the hundreds of emails we have exchanged in recent weeks, I found only one grammatical error and not a single spelling error!). We learned history and math and languages, to be sure, but most importantly, we learned how to think and to think critically.
And we got all this for a pittance. Do you remember that our freshman tuition was $150, which then “escalated” to $300 by senior year? That was possible because of the immense sacrifices made by clergy, Religious and laity, who loved God enough to love even, oftentimes, hard-to-love teenagers.
The Lord upholds my life.
Regret. Only the most arrogant or obtuse would say that they have no regrets. Some of the things we regret – or should regret – were merely the usual failings of the immature. Others, however, were mistakes – sometimes major and life-changing – that were foisted on us by a culture or anti-culture that lured us into a web of what St. James today speaks of as “disorder and every foul practice.” We were told that if we jettisoned laws, rules and regulations, we would come to know true freedom. Most particularly, we were encouraged to rid ourselves of the sexual hang-ups of previous generations.
Many political commentators observe that Ronald Reagan won the election of 1980 with a simple question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The electorate probably voted against Carter more than they voted for Reagan. Similarly, I believe we can and should ask: “Are we, Class of ‘68, – or anybody else, for that matter – any better off as a result of casting off the seeming yoke of repression?” The carnage resulting from experimentation with and addiction to drugs, sex and alcohol suggests otherwise. Fifty years into it all, we find the only beneficiaries of the revolution are psychiatrists, whose couches and pockets have been filled by the victims of the disastrous rebellion. Surely, the unprecedented suicide rate, especially among the young, should give any reasonable person pause.
And then, there are the personal regrets: estrangement from the Church; failed relationships and marriages; children and grandchildren never given the benefit of a Catholic education and thus unevangelized, uncatechized, and wandering aimlessly through life, identifying, perhaps, as “spiritual but not religious.”
I suspect that not a few of us fed into that stream of thought known as Existentialism, about which Father Murphy warned us in freshman year. Its American theme song was taken from a French number and adapted by Paul Anka for Frank Sinatra, yes, in 1968, “My Way.” Old Blue Eyes could have dedicated it to our generation – his rendition certainly inspired many of our contemporaries. As he notes that “the end is near,” “fac[ing] the final curtain,” he woefully admits: “Regrets, I’ve had a few,” although he protests that he “planned each charted course, each careful step along the highway,” one would ask why the “regrets”? The answer should be clear: “I did it my way!” In a hubris that would make any Greek tragic figure blush or find Sartre or Camus gloating, he declares that his are “not the words of one who kneels” – although he does acknowledge that this posture made him “[take] the blows.”
In spite of these regrets, The Lord upholds my life.
Renewal. Regrets are not all bad. In fact, regrets can be a sign of growth and maturity. The Gospels offer us examples of two Apostles who sinned grievously against their loving Master: Judas and Peter. Both men betrayed Christ. Both realized the gravity of their offense. Judas’ acknowledgment of his sin led him to despair; Peter’s led him to repentance and renewal. On Holy Thursday night, in the very moment of Peter’s threefold denials of Our Lord, St. Luke tells us that Peter beheld the converting glance of Jesus, moving him to tears of repentance. That scene is etched on the Holy Year door of St. Peter’s Basilica, through which penitents have passed for centuries. Our God delights in the return of sinners, so much so that the Risen Lord rehabilitates Peter by enabling him to reverse his triple denial with a triple affirmation of love: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” (Jn 21:17).
“The end is near,” to be sure, surely nearer than it was in 1968. At our age, we should be able to realize that doing things “my way” hasn’t been a formula for success, happiness or genuine fulfillment. Any good psychologist will say that every human being must choose some person or value outside himself to serve. Choosing oneself is choosing the cruelest, most demanding master. Choosing to serve Christ is submitting to the gentlest Master of all, who urges us: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:29). Admitting false moves and bad roads taken; sincere sorrow for such sins; a good confession; and a firm purpose of amendment can return us to the joy and innocence we all knew when our Catholic education began at the age of four or five, re-capturing that spiritual childhood extolled by Jesus in today’s Gospel, a spiritual childhood which may have been derailed by an era of confusion within the Church and in society-at-large.
Ten years after our high school graduation, God surprised the Church and the world with the accession to the Chair of Peter of St. John Paul II. Perhaps if he had been Pope when we were coming of age, we may have been spared some of the wrong turns. On the day of Pope Benedict XVI’s inauguration of his Petrine ministry in 2005, he rhapsodized thus:
At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society. The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.
The Lord upholds my life.
In sophomore year, Sr. Stella Grace introduced us to Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” and made us memorize it – for which I am eternally grateful as I have had recourse to its beautiful lines on more occasions than I can mention. God, the relentless Lover, is faithful, even when we are unfaithful:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
Do you recall how Thompson narrates his wanderings and meanderings “from those strong Feet that followed”? A hundred lines later, seeing with all the clarity of hindsight, he ends with a magnificent flourish:
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Arguably, the greatest intellect of the nineteenth century and surely the most important convert to the Catholic Faith in England of the era was John Henry Cardinal Newman. He often reflected that the older he got, the more convinced was he of the omnipresence of Divine Providence. That conviction led him to pen this consoling meditation, which I would commend to your daily prayer and reflection:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.
Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.
Yes, The Lord upholds my life.