Today’s readings: Acts 26:9-18 | 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 | Matthew 5:13-16
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Trying to figure out what to say to all of you on this, your graduation day, in the midst of a stay-at-home order due to a global pandemic is quite an overwhelming task. Obviously, this isn’t the year we intended you to have, or would ever have wanted you to have. You haven’t been able to have any of the traditional end-of-year activities, and here you are, sitting in the parking lot, while we are celebrating here in church. What a crazy, mixed-up, bonkers way to end your time here at Saint Mary Immaculate School!
But, in some ways, this all serves to highlight the fact that you are graduating from your school, and not your Church. Saint Mary’s will always be your spiritual home, and that remains true whether there is a pandemic or not. Now more than ever, when things are all crazy, there needs to be something that you can count on, and that is your faith. If there’s anything that you ever learn about our God, it should be that he loves you beyond belief, and nothing can ever change that. So in normal times, your God is there for you. In crazy, hard, sad times, your God is there too. That’s the rock you should lean on, now more than ever.
So today, I would imagine you are experiencing a great many emotions. You may be feeling happy, even relieved, as you come to this milestone. Many of you have been at Saint Mary Immaculate School for as many as ten years, and so this accomplishment has been a long time coming. You might also be feeling sad that you’re leaving behind some friends as they go to other high schools, especially since it’s hard now to say a proper goodbye, or even uneasy because you’ll be heading into unknown territory. I’m sure you’re also feeling proud of the success you’ve had here at Saint Mary Immaculate, particularly proud of the success that has led you to graduation this evening, as well you should be.
Your parents and teachers and all of us who have been part of your lives have a lot of mixed emotions on this occasion as well. It’s hard to see children move to the next phase of life sometimes, but it’s also exhilarating seeing their accomplishments and celebrating the young men and women they have become. But however we all feel about you moving on, move on you must. That is what life is all about: growing and learning and becoming and going forward. We all want that for you, and hopefully that is what you want for yourselves.
So on this graduation day, I want to take a moment to talk to you about where you should go next. Having come through all these years at our Catholic School, you have open to you a wide range of paths and opportunities. Many of them are good ones, some will be incredibly great. You will have to make some hard decisions in the days and years ahead as you carve out your niche in life and continue to become the people God created you to be. Now I’d never presume to tell you each what to do and to become and what path to follow. But I do want to leave you tonight with some principles for making these hard decisions. And nothing I will tell you is my own invention; these principles of discernment have long been part of the teaching of the Church and the living of our faith.
The first principle is to pray a lot. God has a plan for each of us in our lives. Maybe we are meant to become priests, or sisters or brothers in a religious order, or parents. Perhaps we are to become teachers or doctors or lawyers or public safety first-responders. God wants us to use the gifts he has given us to glorify him. But we have to figure out exactly how to do that. And the only way we can do that is to pray. We have to ask God, every day, to reveal the part of the plan that he wants us to see. We have to trust that God will give us what we need to do what he wants us to do. We have to know God well enough to recognize the answer to our prayers and the call that he is giving us. That’s prayer. Some days, we will have a crystal clear answer, but the truth is, most days, we will have more questions than answers. But being people of constant prayer will serve us well over the long haul and teach us what we need to know to keep growing.
The second principle is to learn everything we can. Follow your passions and absorb everything that good people are showing you. Never stop learning about the world, and never stop learning about your faith. Whether you go to Catholic high school or public, whether you attend a Catholic university or not, you still have so much to learn about your faith. If Pope Francis stopped growing in his faith, the Church would be irrelevant. If you want to become the best you that you can be, then you have to continue to learn who Christ is. You have to continue to understand what living the Gospel means. Because it is only by faith that we can truly makes sense of everything we learn about the world. If we want to know Truth, then we have to constantly evaluate everything we learn in terms of what we know about God and who he is and what he gives us and what he wants for us and the world. Learn everything you can and grow in your faith.
The third principle is to love before you do anything else. Whatever we think we have to do in any situation, it’s important that we first love the other people involved. To truly become the people we are meant to be, we have to love others in the same way that God has loved us. Pope Francis once said, “To live according to the Gospel is to fight against selfishness. The Gospel is forgiveness and peace; it is love that comes from God.” The world wants us to live for ourselves, to take care of ourselves first, to live according to what we think. But that only leaves us unhappy and alone and unfulfilled. If we want to become great people, we have to love unconditionally and sacrificially, just like Jesus loved us when he took our place on the Cross. Because it’s only in laying down our lives for our brothers and sisters – as he did – that we can rise to new and glorious life.
Finally, we have the advice, really the commission that we receive in tonight’s Gospel reading: be salt and light! Any cook will tell you that, without salt, any recipe will be bland – salt helps things to taste like what they are. And we all know that, without the light, we will stumble over every obstacle. We need salt and light in our lives, they are things we almost take for granted because they are so necessary. Jesus tells us tonight that we have to be just like that. We have to season the world with the love and wisdom we have received from Jesus. We have to take the light of Christ and shine that on every dark corner of our world. We may be the only Jesus that someone ever sees, and that really should be enough. If they see Jesus in you and me, they will be with us forever in heaven one day.
When you look at the cross, that’s what success looks like for us believers in Christ. It looks like love beyond our wildest dreams. It looks like giving everything, trusting all the while that God will give us what we need in return. That’s how Jesus loves us, and that’s how we’re supposed to love one another too. That’s how we bring salt and light into our bland and darkened world. We are probably not going to get nailed to a cross, but we are definitely called upon to give of ourselves, to lay down our lives for each other. That’s what Jesus calls us to do.
For all these years, we have tried to give you the tools to grow into the people you were meant to become. If you remember these things and use them and grow in them, you will be successful, happy and blessed. The goal of all our lives is to get to heaven one day, and for the time you’ve been in our Catholic school, we have done our best to give you what you need to get there, because getting to heaven is the ultimate badge of success; it’s the greatest measure of our having become who we were meant to be. I hope that you will be reasonably happy in this life, but I really want you to be eternally happy with Christ in heaven one day. I look forward to seeing the great people you will surely become as you continue to be involved here at Saint Mary Immaculate in the years to come. May God bless you in every moment of your lives.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!