Reverend Fathers, Faculty and Staff, Ladies and Gentlemen, Students and Alumni,
So. Graduation. Today, these fine fellows graduate from high school. Now what? What has it all been for? What does it all mean? These are big questions. What are all of you looking at me for? You don’t expect me to answer them, I hope. I’m sorry, it’s just the way you’re all watching me like that. I don’t have the answers. If I had answers to big questions like that, let me tell you, life would not be very interesting.
But here’s an interesting story for you. Last week we were honored to welcome Bishop Nicholas Samra here for a visit. For those of you who do not know him, he is the bishop of the Melkite Diocese of Newton, which encompasses the entire United States—and Mexico, too, for the time being—and Venezuela. His Excellency is not fooling around, but he did tell us a funny story that struck me and, though our boys have heard it, I will retell it for you.
A man died and went to heaven. St. Joseph met him at the door and, as the man had never been there before, St. Joseph gave him a tour of the Father’s House with its many rooms. On and on they went, passing wonder after wonder, until St. Joseph admitted him into a room that was full of ears. “What is the meaning of this?” the man asked. “These ears,” St. Joseph said, “belong to those who heard the Gospel but did nothing with it. Their ears are saved. The rest of them, well…”
That’s a good story, a strange story. And one that I believe has something to do with what this graduation is all about—and this is not your typical graduation.
Seniors, my captains: the time has come for you to depart. And depart you will, but do not leave your hearts here. Take them with you. They have been pierced with a love that must pour itself out beyond this haven. Take your hearts with you and let them beat and burn wherever you go, because if you leave your heart here at St. Gregory’s, your hearts may be all of you that get to heaven—which is better than just your ears, but it’s still not enough.
We have given you an earful and a heartful, so that your heart can do something with what your ears have heard. Here at Gregory the Great Academy you have received a singular education. You have been immersed in a rich and joyful culture. You have learned to read good books and to love them, to sing hearty songs with your brothers. You have gone to battle on the rugby field, and of course, you have prayed and given all to God. Here you have heard the Gospel, and—we hope—you have laid a foundation for the rest of your life.
So, here’s another round of big questions—how do you take all that you have gained here and then share it? How does one hear the Gospel and then live it? How can you be sure that more than just your ears will make it to heaven? At most graduation ceremonies, the speeches are often laden with fist-pumping encouragements to go seek greatness, duc in altum, and set the world on fire, pomp and circumstance. While these are good and worthy things to strive for, most will fall short, and find that they are not meant for greatness. They will find that they are ordinary folks with ordinary capabilities, called to live an ordinary life.
And so today, I set before you graduates a challenge; one that might surprise you with how seemingly unambitious it is; it is a challenge, however, and if rightly received will help you to hear the gospel and live it. I challenge you graduates not to seek greatness, not to strive to set the world aflame, but to embrace the ordinary. Some of you may very well leave here and achieve great things, but most of you will leave here and go on to live very ordinary lives. There are precious few who are called to greatness. Do not hesitate to find your holiness in the ordinary. God Himself became the most ordinary thing in the world, a little child.
One of my children once told me, in tears, that he was afraid he wouldn’t go to heaven because he didn’t want to die a martyr’s death. I told him, son, go big or go home. No, I didn’t. He was happy to learn that there are other ways of getting the job done. It takes a tremendous gift of grace for a martyr to say “yes” to dying a painful and violent death for Christ. The thought of it is daunting, even terrifying. But seeking sainthood in the ordinary realm of life is, in some ways, much more difficult. Only those who have attained sainthood this way can really attest to how much it costs.
The martyr must respond in a heroic moment to the call of the Holy Spirit and die in glory for Christ. The ordinary saint must respond to the call of the Holy Spirit and die to himself for Christ many times every single day. To live your life in whatever vocation you are called, you must die a martyr’s death continually. And when you fail to respond to the call, you must have the fortitude to face the everyday crosses the next day brings and try again. There is no outward show of greatness in this. It is not what you would call an impressive sainthood. My kid can tell you the stories of those saints aren’t in his books. Theirs is a hidden triumph. It is between you and God. It is the sainthood of most good men: to be ordinary and saintly—and it is no less glorious.
And what kind of men have you become? Back to big questions. Let’s keep our answers small. You have become normal, well-rounded men. Good men. And that is enough. A good man is getting harder to find, and as ordinary, good men, that does make you somewhat extraordinary in society, but remember that you are of humble stock. You didn’t come to this school to become high-voltage Ivy-League messiahs, and neither was that our hope for you. You just need to be a man who is determined to do good, and you have become such men. In the words of the little saint, Teresa of Calcutta, “In this life we cannot always do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Be good men, then, in your corners of the vineyard and make them better.
What is it all for? You came here to learn how to become saints. And so you must. Become saints—ordinary saints. Make the little way your way. If you wish to become saints, put aside any desire for greatness. It is Christ in us that accomplishes all good things. It is when we put aside all worldly ambition, and allow ourselves to become very small indeed, that Christ has room to dwell in us. Then we are able to go into the world with our littleness, and let Christ do good things with us. Consider how small our Lord consented to be in order to save mankind. If he is bold enough to become so little, so ordinary, to accomplish great things, we must dare to do the same. That is the way of good men like you. You have no powers save those that every ordinary man has at his disposal. They are enough. Use them and them alone to touch the lives of those you meet. We have taught you to live a life that reflects the sturdy and hidden life of Christ the laborer and Christ the lover. Live it. Get up in the morning. Make your bed. Go to work and to class. Sing Compline. Pray the Rosary. Wear your tie. Be merry, but not flashy. Be joyful, but not wild. Be polite, but not prudish. Enjoy your gifts, but not all alone. Put your lamps on lampstands. And lights out at 10:15.
What does it all mean? The heart of your education that must inflame the hearts you take with you today is that people should look after one another—should love their neighbors as themselves—and that each person should shoulder this responsibility willingly and resolutely. Though hardship will inevitably try your patience and even your resolve, let it become the foundation of your humility, your home, your heart, and your heavenly reward. Mr. George made mention of the hardships your class endured here which made this school beloved to you. By these hardships, you learned how to be men—good, solid, ordinary men.
Today is the feast of St. Philip Neri—a man, I think, who would get along pretty well in our company—and I would like to offer you these words of his:
“We are not saints yet, but we, too, should beware. Uprightness and virtue do have their rewards, in self-respect and in respect from others, and it is easy to find ourselves aiming for the result rather than the cause. Let us aim for joy, rather than respectability. Let us make fools of ourselves from time to time, and thus see ourselves, for a moment, as the all-wise God sees us.”
You are not saints yet. Lift up your hearts. Work hard and work well. Enjoy the journey. And know that your everyday efforts to be good in a wicked world, to go to college, to make friends, to fall in love, to find a job, to get married, to raise a family, to be the head of a Christian household, to do any such ordinary things, may make you another St. Benedict, or St. Gregory, or St. Francis, or St. John Bosco, because they require striking out into the wilderness and wasteland to build in the chaff and ruin of the times, daring to be normal when all is abnormal, unafraid to be good when it is dangerous to be so, and proud to be and do what God intended us to be and do. And that is what it is all about. Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.