Commencement Address to the John Paul II Preparatory Class of 2020

     Good afternoon, I want to begin by thanking the class of 2020 for inviting me to be here with you this afternoon. I am greatly honored to have this opportunity to offer one final lecture on behalf of the entire faculty, before you formally become graduates of John Paul II. Back in early May, when I was reading your 12-page term papers, frantically trying to submit your final grades, I opened one of your papers to discover that it was 26 pages long. So, I did what most millennials would do: I posted a picture of the word count to my Instagram account with the caption, “when a high school senior turns in a thesis instead of a term paper.” Not long after that a professional colleague, whom I had previously turned down an opportunity to collaborate with because I had too much on my plate, emailed me to ask why I was spending my time teaching high school students. I usually answer this question by saying I need time off purgatory. While that is certainly true, the deeper answer is because I can’t stand to watch our world hold another innocent person hostage. Day in and day out, in the various ministries of my priesthood, I see people held back because they have bought into the many lies that are prevalent in our society. Since so much of my ministry is curative, it only seems logical that I should spend some time doing proactive ministry as well.

     Jesus clearly teaches us that “the truth will set you free.”[1] So, as you look back at all you have accomplished here, I hope you can acknowledge that you have been set free. I pray you now realize that “true freedom means obeying the truth of who we are, the truth of our being,”[2] and “liberty without truth is deceitful; the absence of a moral connection between liberty and truth can only produce a form of anarchy.”[3] All you have to do is turn on the local news and you quickly discover how this supposed freedom, that is rooted in emotionalism, rather than truth, quickly leads to anarchy and utter chaos.

     Friends, this is why, we, the faculty, have labored, to offer you an education that looks different from the education of so many of your contemporaries. Unlike so many other schools we strove to go beyond simply teaching you facts, preparing you for a job, or making you jump through academic hoops. No, we know that pseudo education only leads to slavery and so we have labored to show you that, in the words of our patron, Pope St. John Paul II, “God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to know the fullness of truth about themselves.”[4]

     We have attempted to show you that your education is a sacred pursuit which reveals to you who you really are while giving you a glimpse of the divine, in the hope that you will “desire to love what is true … to love who is the truth: Jesus Christ.”[5] This afternoon, then, as we gather one last time as the class of 2020 my prayer is that each of you have been set free and that you will fully integrate everything this school has taught you so that you will remain free while showing our enslaved world that freedom is truly possible.

     Since “freedom then, is obedience to the truth of who we are,”[6] the greatest threat to our freedom is not doctrine or rules. Rather, it is error, a failure to know the truth, and sin, the refusal to do what is true that are the greatest threats to our freedom. Ultimately, since Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,”[7] “the truth is not grasped as a thing; the truth is encountered. It is not a possession; it is an encounter with a person.”[8] So it makes sense that “whenever God disappears man falls into the slavery of idolatry.”[9] This is why Jesus’ apparent paradox that we heard earlier in today’s Gospel “whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”[10] is not really a paradox. After all “among men nothing great is ever accomplished without the enthusiasm of faith.”[11]

     Since “the truth will set you free”[12] and Jesus is the Truth,[13] faith and reason are the true path to greatness. A simple look at history verifies this. Arguably two of the greatest philosophers of all times, Augustine and Aquinas were saints. Many saintly people were also great scientists. Blessed Nicolas Steno, a Danish convert bishop was not only the father of geology but also the one who discovered how the circulatory system works, how muscles contract and where saliva comes from. Servant of God Jerome Lejune discovered that Down Syndrome is the result of an extra copy of the 21st chromosome and was a recipient of the world’s highest honor for genetics, the William Allen Award. Don’t forget it was the Belgian priest George Lemaitre who discovered the big bang theory, Gregor Mendal, the Augustinian friar who is the father of modern genetics, and the priest Giuseppe Mercalli who discovered the Mercalli scale for measuring earthquakes which is still used today. Many of the greatest artists in history were also inspired by the truths of faith. One can’t imagine Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo without the inspiration of faith. The works of Shakespeare or the more modern works of Evalyn Waugh, Walker Percy, or Flannery O’Connor simply wouldn’t exist without the insights of faith.

     In the words of Fr. Paul Scalia, “the point here is not that these great minds also happened to believe. Rather, it is that such men made such great advances in the intellectual life not despite their faith, but precisely because of it. Their faith was not some strange appendage to an otherwise reasonable life. Catholic doctrine provided the worldview and structure of reality that enabled their reason to take flight an in turn assist their faith.”[14]

     Friends, “among men nothing great is ever accomplished without the enthusiasm of faith.”[15] Yet “without reason, faith would not be truly human; without faith reason has neither a path or a guiding light.”[16] In your time here at JP II we have labored to shape your mind to view the world through the Christian lens, a lens that acknowledge the complementarity of our faith and the reason. As you leave here I pray you have the humility to also acknowledge that “if reason is to be exercised properly it must undergo constant purification since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interest.”[17] All we have taught you is worthless if we have not shown you that while “faith is open to the effort of understanding by reason”[18] “reason itself is a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all,”[19] and thus before all else we must be people of true faith.

     I pray we have taught you that “the believer should be driven by a restlessness of a discoverer who must make his epochal finding know, win acceptance for it, and develop a practical application.”[20] Our world is in desperate need of men and women who have come to know Jesus, the way the truth and the life,[21] and are committed to using their God given abilities to share Him with the world. We live in a world in great need of development, but “development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirement of the common good.”[22]

     Jesus is clear “you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[23] Since “love without truth would be blind; truth without love would be like a clanging of symbol,”[24] your time here at JP II, where you have grown in faith and reason, has prepared you to go out into the world and carry out these two great commandments.

     We live in an enslaved world that is in desperate need for you to jump into action to lead them to Jesus Christ who alone can set them free. But what ultimately “calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason.”[25] I, like the rest of the faculty, have sacrificed our time to teach here because we know that “the proper education and instruction of children will do much toward making them (students) more free and habituated to the practice of virtue, since thus they will be accustomed to follow the sure and safe guiding star of reason from its first dawn.”[26] We have done our part, now it is up to you to take what we have offered to you and do your part.

     “Gratitude should always be our first response for all of the blessings in our lives. Our second response should be to live a life worth of the blessing we have received.”[27] So let me close our final lesson by saying we, the faculty, have done our part. We have set you free and given you the skills to go out and set others free. Now it’s up to you. Since truth, like charity, is multiplied when it is shared, we say goodbye and send you off into the world in the hopes that you will repay our sacrifices by using the truth we have given you to set others free.

 

[1] Jn 8:32

[2] Paul Scalia. That Nothing May Be Lost. San Francisco: Ignatius Press (2017) Pg 64

[3] Robert Cardinal Sarah. God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith with Nicolas Dias San Francisco: Ignatius (2015) pg 184

[4] John Paul. 1998. Encyclical letter, Fides et ratio, of the supreme pontiff John Paul II: to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the relationship between faith and reason. Boston: Pauline Books and media. Introduction.

[5] James Keating. Listening for Truth. Praying Our Way to Virtue. Liguori: Liguori Press. (2002). Pg 95

[6] Paul Scalia. That Nothing May Be Lost. San Francisco: Ignatius Press (2017) Pg 62

[7] John 14:16

[8] Jorge Cardinal Bergorglio. The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church. Chicago: Loyola Press. (2014). Pg 43

[9] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Prayer. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor (2013) Pg. 44

[10] Mt 10:39

[11] Cardinal Albert Vanhoe. Our Priest is Christ. (1969). Pg 49.

[12] John 8:32

[13] John 14:6

[14] Paul Scalia. That Nothing May Be Lost. San Francisco: Ignatius Press (2017) Pg 60.

[15] Cardinal Albert Vanhoe. Our Priest is Christ. (1969). Pg 49.

[16] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Behold The Pierced One. San Francisco: Ignatius. (1986). Pg 43.

[17] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The Virtues. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor (2010). Pg 26.

[18] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Church Fathers and Teachers. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010. Pg. 167

[19] GK. Chesterton. Orthodoxy 1905 Reprint in Lexington, KY April 2013. Pg. 30

[20] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,.Dogma and Preaching Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life. San Francisco: Ignatius Press (2011). Pg 218.

[21] John 14:6

[22] Pope Benedict XVI. Caritas in Veritate. Washington DC: US Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2009) Par 74.

[23] Matthew 22:37-39

[24] Robert Cardinal Sarah. God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith with Nicolas Dias San Francisco: Ignatius (2015) pg 181.

[25] Pope Francis. Evangelii Gaudium. Washington DC: USCCB. (2014) Par 232.

[26] Mary Agreda. The Mystical City of God Vol 1. Tan Books and Publishers Inc: Rockford, 2006. Pg 323

[27] Matthew Kelly. Resisting Happiness. Erlanger: Beacon Publishing. (2016) Pg 184.

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