In my syndicated column today, I highlight one of the better commencement speeches this year, from Rev. Robert McTeigue, S.J. at Ave Maria University in Florida.
Class of 2011 — what did you do? What were you thinking? Why would you let yourself come to this point, where you have no choice but to pack up and go away? Why would you leave the swamps and the snakes and the mosquitoes and the pedestrian alligators and the crowded laundry rooms and the blue plastic trays? And you might answer, “Because we’re not crazy, Father.” And then I might say, “Maybe…”
So I ask you again: Class of 2011 — what did you do? What were you thinking? Why would you let yourself come to this point, where you have no choice but to pack up and go away? Why would you leave a place where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are celebrated daily? Why would you leave a place where the professors practice their faith as devotedly as they practice their craft? Why would you agree to go now, after you have worked so hard to form bonds and happy memories and a litany of inside jokes that only you and your best pals can laugh at? Why have you agreed to leave now, when your departure will force you to know and live the wisdom and the pain that come from discovering the difference between those who are forever friends of the heart and those who are simply friends of the road? After all we have been through together, why leave now? And perhaps a small voice inside of you might answer, “Because we are crazy?” And then I might say, “Maybe…”
You are leaving undergraduate life here at Ave Maria University today because it is the right thing to do. It’s time. You’re ready. We faculty know you are ready because we made sure of it. You have to leave your undergraduate vocation behind now so that you can go on to what God has prepared for you next. And, as much as we faculty will miss you — and we will — we want you to go on, because the Church and the world need you.
Please understand my meaning here. I am not suggesting that you go out into the world, as some have done in recent times, yelling triumphantly, “We are the change we have been waiting for!” and “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” Oh, good grief — I certainly don’t mean that!” What I mean is this: We faculty know you. We know you as our students, as our apprentices, as our research assistants, and even as our friends. We faculty also know the curriculum that has formed you and informed you and transformed you. We know the capacity for truth, goodness and beauty which our Heavenly Father inscribed in you at the moment of your creation has been well cultivated here. And we faculty are so confident that what has grown within you here is ready to bear fruit in the Church and in the world, that we now ask you to go from here with our blessing. What you have received as a gift here, by nature and grace and by your own heroic efforts, you are now ready to hand on to those who need what you can give them, which includes all that you have received here at Ave Maria University.
But, before you go out into the world, that great landscape of the sacred and the profane, I want you to do one thing first. Take some time this summer, to explain to your family, and especially to your parents, what has happened to you and within you over the last four years. They need you to do that for them because they still remember you primarily at the 18-year old kid going off to college, wondering why you would agree to be a pioneer at a fledgling university like Ave Maria. They know, at least vaguely, that you have been very busy and that so much has been happening in your world here, but they don’t know the details, and they don’t know what the past four years have meant to you. Explain to them that you are still you — only more so. Tell them about how the good in you has gotten better, and tell them about how the not-so-good in you has gotten better too. Tell them about the friendships you made and the retreats you went on. Tell them about the jokes and songs and struggles and triumphs and setbacks and victories. Above all, let them get to know the educated adult Ave Maria University has made of you.
Sit down with your family, and tell them the story, semester by semester, of the education you received here, both in and out of the class room. Tell them that your fondest memory of biology is the time that you played “Pin the Flagellum on the Euglena,” and then tell them that your lasting memory of biology is the wonder you felt at seeing the staggering complexity of even the smallest component of life.
Tell them that you learned that Chaucer was hard to read because he wrote without a spellchecker, and then tell them that you continued to read him nonetheless because he helped you to understand the Christians of his day and of yours.
Tell them that you take it to be an invitation when someone says, “It’s all Greek to me!” and then tell them of time standing still as you discovered that you can read the very words that Saint Augustine wrote.
Tell them why you roll your eyes when some poor modern sneers, “That’s just rhetoric!” and then tell them that the Trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric is never trivial, never a matter of “just words,” but rather a matter of truth and moral action.
Tell them about the sore feet and sore throats you endured while standing and singing in our countless choirs at our countless concerts, and then tell them of the soaring of your heart when you helped great music to be performed well.
Tell them that you were forced to learn more historical dates and names than you ever thought that you could remember, and then tell them about the heroes and villains of history you will never be able to forget.
Tell them why you think that some dead poets should stay dead, and then read aloud for them the poems that you wish to remain always alive in you and in our culture.
Tell them why it is that those who speak of “the spirit of Vatican Two” should be invited to actually read the texts of Vatican Two, and then tell them that you already have. And you might also mention why Gaudium et Spes, 24:3 is best read with a German accent.
Tell them with vivid examples how it is that philosophers let theories get in the way of what they and everyone else know, and then tell them that real philosophy for real people is achievable, and that you have already done some real philosophy yourself.
Tell them that because of the curriculum here at Ave Maria University, you have learned how to be a learner, you have learned how to be a friend, and that you have learned how to find God in all things.
And, if you still have some time, tell them that four years ago, you met some guy from New Jersey, whom some called, “the priest with the beard,” and whom some called, “the other good Jesuit,” and tell them that you helped to confirm his vocation. Tell them that when you first met him, he thought he already knew how much he could love being a Jesuit, a priest, a professor, a scholar, a friend, and a spiritual father, and then tell them that he learned that he was wrong. Tell them that after four years of your kindness and challenge and love and friendship and affirmation and aggravation and provocation and invitation, now, now that you are leaving your undergraduate life behind, now this guy from New Jersey knows, deep in his bones, deep in his heart, to the roots of his soul, now he knows, thanks to you, how much he can love his vocation.
So, now what? Well, I am a teacher, and we are at a school, so it is fitting that I give you some homework — one last assignment for your undergraduate career. Today, I ask you to pray for three graces, three special blessings. I will you to pray today for the graces of being close-minded, judgmental, and intolerant. Just in case you thought you did not hear me correctly, I will say it again: I ask you to pray for the graces of being close-minded, judgmental, and intolerant.
To be close-minded: G.K. Chesterton said that the human mind is like the human mouth — both are meant to close down on something solid. And nothing is more solid than the Word of God, as it comes to us through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as both are handed on to us by the authentic magisterium of the Church. Close your mind down hard on the solid food of the life-giving and liberating truth that is the Church’s gift to the world.
To be judgmental: We are faithful to our human vocation when judge what is truth and what is error; when we judge what is good and what is evil; when we judge what is beautiful and what is ugly. It is only in making such judgments, as individuals, as communities and as a culture that we can have any hope of fulfilling the purposes for which God has made us. Yes, prejudice is wrong; but a well-honed and hard-won habit of good judgment is a hallmark of moral and intellectual maturity. Don’t apologize for being judgmental, once you have truly achieved good judgment.
To be intolerant: Popular culture and secular academia, and some not-so-secular-academia, alas, all in thrall to the dictatorship of relativism, tell us that the greatest sin, perhaps the only sin, is to be intolerant. Intolerance, it seems, is the only thing that is intolerable. But is intolerance really so bad? Let’s see.
Socrates was intolerant of the Sophists. Moses was intolerant of Pharaoh. Jesus was intolerant of the Pharisees. Fredrick Douglass was intolerant of slavery. Blessed Rupert Mayer was intolerant of the Nazis. Blessed Mother Teresa was intolerant of abortion. Blessed Pope John Paul was intolerant of the culture of death. Intolerance can be a beautiful thing — you just need to know how to do it properly.
Let me repeat: Close your mind upon the truth that God has revealed through the Church Christ founded; judge yourself and the world in light of that truth; and insist unceasingly that certain ideas and actions, especially lies and crimes against innocent human life, are always intolerable.
If you do that, if you pray and live as close-minded, judgmental, and intolerant, then you can be sure that you have embraced and acted upon the education that so many have labored so long and hard to give you here at Ave Maria University.
Now, as Saint Ignatius Loyola commanded Saint Francis Xavier as he embarked upon his missionary journey to Asia, I say to you: “Go! Set the world on fire!”
May God’s Holy Name be praised now and forever.