This is the season of graduations! College, high school, eighth grade . . . Even my nephew Patrick has invited me to his kindergarten graduation!
Congratulations to our graduates and to the folks who sacrificed to get them to this exciting stage in life.
Over the weekend, I had the privilege of receiving an honorary degree, and offering the commencement address, at Iona College, one of our excellent Catholic colleges here in the archdiocese.
Let me share with you my remarks, hoping that all of our graduates might find them somewhat helpful . . .
May 17, 2014
Thank you, Dr. Nyre, faculty, Mr. Hynes, and members of the board, for the distinction of this honorary doctorate. Since I not long ago just finished paying off my tuition for the degree I earned way back, I particularly savor this one which cost me nothing! Thanks for the joy of being recognized by a splendid Catholic institution of higher learning, and thanks to the leadership and support of generous people who keep Iona strong.
Congratulations, my now new classmates, beloved class of 2014! You’ve strained and struggled for this bright day of accomplishment, and, I trust, along the way had a good time with friends you will cherish forever. With you and for you I say alleluia!, the Hebrew word for “praise God.”
I have the satisfaction of attending quite a few commencements, where I’m not, as usual, the only one wearing a funny costume! I always have a box seat for the lengthy but significant ritual as your names are called and degrees are granted. From this box seat I will see not only you, class of 2014, as you process up for your diploma; I can see the beaming faces of your moms and dads, your grandparents, family, and friends whose smile is expansive, eyes a bit moist and throat somewhat lumped as they stretch to see you of whom they are so rightly proud.
My congratulations go to all of you as well, you who today are hardly spectators, but who have been loving, supporting hands, hearts, shoulders, and wallets for the graduates we applaud today.
Usually, the long-awaited event of graduation is a celebration of what we can now do as college is completed, and a celebration of something we now have, namely, a diploma representing new skills and competence.
Yes, let’s toast indeed what we can do and what we now have . . . but might I propose that the wisdom presumed in a college graduate prompts us as well to celebrate what we cannot do and what we still do not have?
For as the Bible reminds us, the wise person is he or she who is aware of what he does not know, of how much there is yet to learn; and the blessed person is she who realizes her value comes in who she is, not what she can do.
As the Christian Brothers who founded our alma mater would put it, our identity , who we are as a child of God, made in His image, is a lot more important than what we can do; or, as Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us, “being is more important than having and doing.”
So, you bet, today we bask in what you can now do: teach history, for instance – – although, good luck, that’s what my degree is in and I could never get a job! – – or marketing design, auditing, nursing, advertising, physically rehabilitation – – wonderful things you can now do, thank God . . . but we today humbly admit what we can’t do by ourselves: alone, we cannot find love; alone, without God, we cannot achieve salvation; alone we cannot communicate or construct; alone, we cannot bring peace, advance goodness, virtue and justice; alone, we are useless.
So, yes, Iona has given us new knowledge and skills that will help us do things; but Iona has also imparted a wisdom which reminds us of what we can’t do alone, as we detect that longing within that seeks God, love, family, friends, community, and a culture that sustains us as together we count on one another to achieve what we can’t do by ourselves.
That’s why the most important item on your parchment is not the title of this esteemed college; not “B.A.,” “M.S.,” or even “Ph.D”; not “science,” “arts,” “education,” or “business” – – as significant as all of those tags are, what is most essential on your diploma is … your name.
. . . the name given you at birth or baptism;
. . . the name cooed by your mom and dad when they held you as babies;
. . . the name known by God, your Creator, who, as the psalmist tells us, already knew you as He knit you in the womb;
. . . the name enrolled in this college;
. . . the name which brings smiles to your friends and classmates;
. . . the name that will be toasted today and appear on cakes;
. . . the name which God calls you in prayer, whispers in times of crisis and, yes, a the moment of death.
You . . . your name . . . for who you are, dear new classmates, who you are – – a child of God, made in His very image, the apple of His eye, redeemed by His Son, Jesus, destined for love and joy and purpose and meaning in this life; intended to live forever with Him – – who you are is far more important than what you have or can do.
The degree to which you are loved or can love hardly depends on the degree you’ll happily receive in a moment;
For God and the folks who share His eternal penetrating vision do not so much care about the letters after your name as much as the name before the letters;
For the Lord and the people who look at life as He does do not only care about what you can do, but about what you acknowledge you can’t do without them;
Because, when all is said and done, when the cap and gown is returned, the diploma framed, the tuition paid, the careers and jobs embarked upon, we don’t really care what you know, but sure want to know that you care!