2013 Baccalaureate Sermon

Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President of Fordham University

Saturday, May 25, 2013

"What does it matter? All is grace. Grace is everywhere." Bernanos

I wonder if I might begin with an acknowledgement, a confession and a story. First, the acknowledgement. I would like to thank President Stewart for inviting me to deliver this year's Baccalaureate Sermon. I assure you that it is a grace beyond measure, a grace that I will always remember and cherish. Second, the confession. Since I was so flattered by President Stewart's kind invitation, I accepted her invitation on the spot. It was only after I hung up the phone that I found myself wrestling with the question of what I could possibly say to you at the graced moment in your lives that would resonate with you since I did not have the benefit of a Hamilton education. You may, of course, think that I am kidding when I say that. I am not kidding at all. In fact, I have been nervous since the moment that I accepted the invitation. (If the truth were told, I would have to admit to all of you that I have tossed and turned for most of the past week as I worked on what I would say this afternoon.) And so, I stand before you this afternoon wrestling with two very different emotions: awestruck (and surprised) gratitude and runaway nervousness. Good Lord! Third, the story. Some years ago, after graduation had ended at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, as I was making my rounds saying good-bye to the students whom I had taught, I came upon a group of students who were (how can I put it) simply overcome with grief. Locked in a group hug, they were weeping inconsolably. Deeply concerned with their emotional display, I walked over to them and tried both to calm them down and to find out why they were so grief-stricken. One of them finally stopped crying long enough to tell me that they had just realized that college was over, that things would never be the same, and that they would never see one another again. I assumed my most pastoral stance and tried to reassure them that they would be fine, and that they would indeed see one another again. My soothing words only served to set them off again. By this time, a crowd had gathered, and their parents were becoming nervous. "You don't understand," one of them said, "this is the end of everything: college, friendships, road trips, shared secrets. We will never see one another again. Can't you understand anything?" Once again, I reached out to them and tried to soothe them and to reassure them by telling them that they would indeed see one another--at reunions and weddings. To no avail. By this time, they were really wailing. And once again, I was told that I really didn't understand anything. Then, something struck me: all of them lived within ten miles of one another, and two of them lived on the same street in a town in Rockland County. I was sure that they would calm down when I pointed that out to them. Wrong. One of them just glared at me and with a firm voice that elicited more heart-wrenching cries from the others said, " Father, you really are clueless. We may see one another again, but things will be different. The life we have had here will be completely gone." I wandered away a broken man. Far worse, I wandered away a marked man, revealed to all the world as a clueless wonder. God help me.

Against that background, it is with some apprehension that I would like to congratulate the members of the Class of 2013. You've made it. Savor this moment, a moment of triumph in which you are surrounded with the pure and unadulterated love of your families and friends. Savor it. As a result of the experience that I had with my students in 1984, I am sure that that exhortation has fallen on more than a few deaf ears. And with good reason. This, after all, is a moment that you have been looking forward to with a mixture of longing and dread for years. Both reactions are understandable, and (strangely enough) for the same reason. This, after all, is the moment that marks the end of your college careers. It is, therefore, not surprising that you find yourself wrestling with such strong emotions. Longing and dread. To make matters even more interesting, I would be willing to bet that since this is such an emotionally charged moment for you, you are having a strange out-of-body experience right now. That is to say, although your bodies are here, your minds are elsewhere.

What do I mean? Well, I would be willing to bet that for most of the past few weeks you have been running through the images contained in two mental photo albums that you have compiled over the past four years. One album contains images of the major world events that occurred while you were at Hamilton. The other contains images of the events that punctuated your lives at Hamilton. Each set of images is rich in itself. When the images rub up against one another, however, they produce a dizzying collage that captures the lives you have led for the past four years pretty well. The first image comes, fittingly enough, from Opening Day, a blur of hugs, tears and whispered advice. Then, life settled into a comfortable pattern. Classes were dutifully taken. Long nights set in. The Citrus Bowl added spice to your life. The effects of the Great Recession set in. Simon Cowell left American Idol. Your first college exams came and went, with mixed results. Ominously, the money that was supposed to last the whole year disappeared before first-semester midterms. You promised your parents you'd be more careful in the future. The Sopranos ended their run on HBO and slunk off to the Jersey Shore. You fell in love. It ended too soon. Your heart was broken. Apple introduced the iPhone. FebFest fought gave you a respite from the gray, grayer and grayest weather of Central New York. Therefore, your life began to be dominated by serious study, long road trips, endless nights, and afternoon naps. The Arab Spring began and the winds of democracy swept through the Middle East. (The world rejoiced--and held its breath.) The Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded, fouling the Gulf of Mexico. A second romance blossomed. She dumped you. Your heart was broken (again). In your despair, you forgot to eat regularly. Strangely, however, you still gained the sophomore twenty. The Giants won Super Bowl 46. (Eat your hearts out, Patriot fans.) You landed a spot in Carnegie. Life was good. You made friends with Descartes--and really got him. Wall Street laid more eggs. Lady Gaga appeared on stage in an egg. More exams intruded. General Motors reinvented itself--with government help. The Great Recession shifted into high gear. The Mideast became more and more tense by the day. You discovered that at the end of the semester, it is always three in the morning and you are still on page two of a ten-page paper that is due at eleven. You resolved to be more organized. Then, the following night, The Village Tavern beckoned, and you gave in to temptation. (You hated yourself for it.) Barack Obama overhauled health care in the United States. Lindsey Lohan. (Words fail me.) The Yankees celebrated the opening of their new stadium by winning their 27th world championship. The European economy continued to struggle and sputter along. You landed your first internship and discovered that there really was life after college. Hamilton climbed to #16 in US News. James Bond took Queen Elizabeth on a date during the London Olympics. Haiti was devastated by a deadly earthquake. (You wept and dug deep into your pockets to donate to the recovery effort.) You got an A in your toughest course and celebrated with dinner at Altieri's. Snooki and The Situation. (Speechless again.) You volunteered to do community service. Your heart was strangely warmed. Japan reeled from the effects of an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear emergency. Osama Bin Laden was located and killed. The Kardashians. (What can I say?) Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast. The massacre at Sandy Creek broke our hearts. Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected the first Jesuit and the first Pope from the Americas. Efforts to pass gun control legislation failed. The Boston Marathon was disrupted by a senseless act of terrorism. Class and Charter Day set your spirits soaring. You took your last Hamilton exam, danced your last dance as a Hamilton student. Finally, you slid into Senior Week and began to review the photo albums of your Hamilton careers.

And so, my friends, we come to this moment, a moment that you have looked forward to with a mixture of longing and dread for your whole time at Hamilton. On the surface of it, it might appear that the images that you are playing with in your minds and hearts are merely colliding with one another. I would suggest to you, however, that they are not really colliding with one another. Rather, they enrich one another, and they invite you to develop three habits that will make your lives far richer and far more meaningful than if you just endure life. To what do I refer? Hmmm. I would urge you to be and to become men and women whose lives are marked by reflection, gratitude and generosity. Be true to the motto of Hamilton. Know yourself--and know yourself in the real context of your lives. If you are serious about being men and women devoted to knowing yourselves, you will develop and deepen the capacity for reflection (something that you have, I would be willing to bet, been engaging in quite a bit for the last few months, and especially for the past few days). Indeed, I would encourage you to devote at least a part of every day to reflection on the people and events that you have encountered in the course of the day. If you do so, I would imagine that you will come to the same realization with which I began my remarks this afternoon. That is to say, you will come to realization that (as the hero of Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest put it), "All is grace. Grace is everywhere." For it really is. You know that--and you know that from your own life--as that life has been experienced at home and here at Hamilton. You have received graces beyond number and beyond imagining: the gifts of love, friendship, a peerless education, opportunities, service, adventures. You have, moreover, come to the realization that all of these graces are simply that: graces. You did not earn them. They have come to you (as they come to all of us) through pure, unmerited love: God's love. And let us be honest here: God has showered you with simply astounding graces. Live your lives with a rich, warm knowledge of those graces. The wise person, however, does not merely reflect on and luxuriate in the possession of many graces. Far from it. Fully aware of the many graces that they have been given, wise people react with gratitude. Therefore, develop and perfect an attitude of gratitude. And let your gratitude begin with gratitude to God, the giver of all good gifts. Then, let it embrace all those through whom God has flooded your life with so many graces: parents, friends, mentors alike. (You have heard it said, "Do not let the sun go down on your anger." I would take it further and encourage you never to let the sun go down on your love. What do I mean? Never let a day pass that you don't thank God and those who have filled your life with grace. And begin to exercise this ministry of gratitude this weekend. Thank your parents for all that they have done for you. Thank the teacher who opened your eyes. Thank the mentor who gave you confidence.) Finally, Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the religious family to which I belong, would say that "Love is shown more in deeds than in words". Therefore, develop a habit of generosity. That is to say, let your gratitude be shown not merely in words, but in acts of saving and redeeming love.

As you prepare to develop these three habits, and especially the capstone habit of generosity, always remember that love is the only human treasure that can only grow when it is given away--and given away with a generous heart. (In other words, in the strange calculus of love, selfishness impoverishes but generosity enriches the heart.) Therefore, always choose people over things, service over power, and wisdom over cleverness. Be conspicuous in compassion rather than in consumption. Remembering that you can learn more from a confounding failure than you can from an easy achievement, don't hedge your bets in life. Rather, put your hearts on the line every day and live lives of bold and daring love. Celebrate God's grace in action in your lives, but be forever touched by the world events, and always be bothered by injustice. Embrace the suffering. Champion the poor. If you do, you will be men and women who can and will transform the world with wisdom, learning and love. And may God, the giver of all good gifts, be with you throughout your journey, and may He continue to surprise you with the great, life-changing realization that that captured the heart of George Bernanos: "All is grace. Grace is everywhere."