(On Saturday, June 11, I was honored to be invited to deliver the commencement address at the annual graduation ceremony of the Montfort Academy. Montfort is a wonderful high school dedicated to classical Catholic education, and to fostering the intellectual and spiritual growth of their students. I’ve been pleased to visit the school on a number of occasions for debates and other presentations, and I was thrilled to participate in the festivities. Below is the text of my address.)
I would like to thank the faculty and staff of the Montfort Academy for inviting me to speak to the graduating class today. It is an honor to be able to participate in this great enterprise of Catholic education, although in such a small way.
We all know that high school graduation is a significant milestone in our lives. We tend to look at it as the dawn of adulthood. No matter how old we are, we probably remember our own graduation very clearly, and fondly. I certainly do.
But it also marks a significant milestone in another respect — in the call to be witnesses to our faith. No matter where we are heading — to college, to the work world, or wherever — one thing remains true about us throughout our lives. We are all called upon to testify to Jesus Christ. While we do this first and foremost in our family and our home, it goes far beyond that, into a world that needs to hear a message of hope and love that only the Gospel can provide.
Being a witness requires that we step out into the public square, into the struggle to define our culture and our laws, to determine what kind of people we are, and how we are to live together. This public square appears in many places — in college, the workplace, the state legislature, the voting booth, our parishes, and our own homes. It exists everywhere that we confront the world.
And there is no doubt that the world is not very welcoming to our testimony. Threats to religious liberties, open hostility and contempt towards religion in our media and entertainment, bloody persecutions abroad and not-so-bloody persecutions here at home, threats to human life at the beginning and end and every point in between, threats to the sanctity of marriage, and even threats to the very meaning of what it is to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Anyone who reads the news is well aware of this. Powerful forces in our culture would much prefer if we would sit down and shut up. Or at least wear the modern equivalent of a yellow star, to mark our status as social outcasts.
In the face of such hostility, the worst mistake we could make would be to withdraw into our own little community and write off the world and our culture. I have a friend who attended a graduation ceremony at an ostensibly Catholic college, and one of the speakers began by apologizing for bringing up religious faith. No. That’s a response of despair and defeat. We don’t apologize for our faith. That’s not who we are as Christians. This is a time for heroic efforts, great deeds, ambitious enterprises, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
So, what does this mean for us? Let me offer a few thoughts.
First, we should take seriously St. Peter’s admonition that we should “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15). As soon as you step out into the public square you will be challenged. When people find out that you are a Catholic, much less a Christian, you will be the target of questions, comments, attacks. You’ll be asked questions by your co-workers, clients, and even people on the bus or train. Be ready for this. It’s a wonderful time to “speak the truth with love”, and to offer the world the hope that it longs for.
A pearl of great price has been handed on to us, and we should never be afraid to pass it along to others. Remember, just like the early Apostles, we have a very radical goal — as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council said, our task is to “penetrate the world with a Christian spirit” and to “sanctify the world”. The early Apostles — the early witnesses — understood this very well. We will never accomplish our ultimate goal unless we stand up as Christians, and testify to the Gospel. We should never check our faith at the door, before we enter the public square.
Of course, the most important thing that we can do as witnesses to our faith is to dedicate ourselves to becoming better Christians. Before we can purify the world, we must purify ourselves. We have to remember that our lives are always part of the argument, and that the personal example of ourselves or our fellow Christians will be used to promote — or discredit — our cause. I am sure you learned in your logic classes that the “ad hominem” argument is a form of logical fallacy. That means nothing in our culture, where the ad hominem is used first, foremost, and frequently. Being reminded of our own shortcomings, and those of our fellow Christians, can be a very humbling experience. Be ready for this. Or, even better, be immune to it, by living a life of virtue.
Although the way we live this out may be very varied, depending on the field we enter, the one common theme is always love — the gift of self to others. That is the hallmark of Christians. In the third century, the theologian Tertullian noticed that the world recognized Christians by saying to themselves, “Look at these Christians, see how they love one another”. We have to be ready to conquer the world with love, even if the world rejects the very concept of authentic love. We have to be witnesses of love.
The gift of self has consequences for us. We grow as persons, we find parts of ourselves that we never knew existed, and we become the person that God intended us to be. It has life-changing consequences.
For the last twenty years, Peggy and I, together with our kids, have been going to West Virginia to do apostolic work. The primary work has been to repair homes, run activity camps and tutoring programs for kids, and visiting the homebound and elderly. The main goal is not just to patch a roof, or fix a floor. The real goal is to be with the people, to sit and share their lives, and to share their suffering. We have a chance to encounter Christ crucified, in our midst, in the suffering of the poor. It has changed us forever — we will never be the same. Love has a way of doing that. You know this from your own experiences already.
Your time of training at the Montfort Academy has prepared you well to be witnesses, and you have already shown the kind of character that is needed for this task. The classical Catholic education you received here, rooted in both faith and reason, provides an excellent foundation for witnessing to the faith. Your perseverance and loyalty to the school is admirable and, if I may say so, inspiring to me. There are many others who have been in the arena, fighting the good fight for much longer than I. We find it very encouraging that there are young people like you who are coming along, and preparing yourselves to take part in this effort.
I think it is particularly appropriate that we are gathered here today on the feast day of St. Barnabas, on the eve of Pentecost. He was one of the great early disciples, a man who gave up all that he had to serve God by spreading the Gospel. He knew what it meant to be a witness, and ultimately he paid the price for it. But he never hesitated, never faltered. He was lifted up by the Holy Spirit to a heroic mission. As the Lord said, he “set out into the deep”.
You are in now setting out on the same mission. The world is in crisis. It is always in crisis. Now is the time to be bold, and courageous, like the first Apostles, like Barnabas. Those who are weak and powerless and hopeless need somebody to stand up for them, to work with them, to serve them. The Holy Spirit is at our side, making us eager, and joyful, to step out of the safety of the upper room, stand before the world, and give witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now is the time for you to be heroes, now is the time for you to be saints. Now is the time for you to be witnesses.
Congratulations and God bless.