Judge Moro, Sr. Pimentel, Cardinal Cupich, Fr. Jenkins, honored guests, parents, family, friends, and classmates:
It’s an honor to be here with you to celebrate the journey of the Class of 2018. For most of us, there were surely times when we wondered if we would make it to this momentous day. But fast-forward four years from Frosh-O and we arrived at Senior Week, awash in sentimentality, rushing to finish our Notre Dame bucket lists, and reflecting on our experiences here. After all we’ve accomplished, it may be difficult to remember our first days on campus, when we were just beginning to find a new home under our brilliant golden dome.
Although we found our rhythm here in our own unique ways, I imagine each of you can recall the moment you felt connected to the Notre Dame family. I found my rhythm here quite literally. Which leads me to make a confession. (Luckily, I’m in the right place.) One of the reasons I chose this world-class university, this pinnacle of higher learning, was my hope that I could somehow be a member of the Band of the Fighting Irish. Admittedly, this was a naïve goal for a high school drummer who had never marched a step in his life. After sweating through my first night in Keenan Hall – without air conditioning – I spent my first week at band camp, learning to march to the beat of the drum major and praying for a miracle. Luckily, someone heard me. Maybe it was our Blessed Mother. Maybe it was Dr. Dye. But to my grateful surprise, I was welcomed into the drum line. As a member of this university’s band, I met some of the finest musicians, students, and family I have known.
As we found our rhythms and our footing – as we navigated the quads and made our first new friends through dorms, intramurals, clubs, and seminars, we explored what ND had to offer. We met caring professors who were experts in their fields. Dr. Brown and Dr. Parise guided us through the gauntlet of Gen Chem and Organic, and we learned that getting a B or a C on a test was not the end of the world. Theology, philosophy, and classics introduced us to works from Augustine’s Confessions to Dante’s Inferno – and we discussed topics such as what the end of the world might actually look like. We discovered the interchange, inquiry, and endless, self-critical conversation that are central to Notre Dame’s mission. And we decided to make this mission our own. After we started getting in step with Notre Dame, we began composing our futures. We decided our majors, chose our mentors, and surrounded ourselves with people who could help us articulate our goals. We began to think critically about the issues that inspired us, like sustainability, rare diseases, and international development.
Perhaps it was at this stage, where we began marching to our own beat, that we were most afraid of stumbling. There were challenges we had never encountered. We met these challenges as we engaged in dialogue and debate with our peers and professors, as we tried to push the boundaries of knowledge and expression in the lab or on stage, and as we explored places we had never seen before in service and study abroad settings.
I was afraid of stumbling last summer, when I traveled to El Salvador to participate in the university’s summer service-learning program. I worked with Libras de Amor, a Salvadoran non-profit focused on pediatric health. Our setting was rural Morazán, a province near the Honduran border still feeling the effects of a civil war that had ended almost thirty years ago. As a Spanish and pre-med major, I couldn’t wait to practice my language skills and put my education to use in a medical setting. But after a month, I was still feeling out of my element. Was I really contributing to the team? I had hoped I could acquire the language of our patients – not only the intonation and dialect of Salvadoran Spanish, but also a shared understanding of their history and identity.
But one rather symbolic moment brought me back to reality. During a house visit, after taking measurements of a squirming toddler, I tried to converse with his 12-year-old brother. How are you? What subjects do you like in school? What’s your favorite football team – Real or Barça? He said little in response; he mostly nodded as I babbled on in Spanish. Just when I thought we were getting along well, he turned to his mother and said: Casi no lo entiendo. Roughly translated: “I barely understand what this dude is saying.” Three years into my Spanish major at Notre Dame, I was saying the words correctly, but I wasn’t yet speaking his language. This wasn’t only a matter of dialect, but also an issue of engaging in the right kind of dialogue with my surroundings.
We all experience times when we struggle to speak as easily as we have before. We stumble and want to retreat. But invariably, throughout these four years someone helped us – our site directors, host moms, team members, hall staff, coaches, priests, professors, principal investigators, and parents encouraged us to persevere and to take comfort in how far we had come. We owe so much to these teachers, friends, and guides. Sometimes they were part of our normal routine, but they still made a difference. At South Dining Hall, we came to count on the pick-me-ups from John, who always greeted us with a warm, fatherly smile and reminded us they were serving Carl’s Chicken. Within our studies, our favorite professors worked closely with us as we shaped our futures and listened for our own rhythms. They pushed us as we took exams, revised essays, attended office hours, and practiced speeches. Ultimately, all of these people were our mentors; they provided us with community, connection, and opportunities for reflection. They helped us discover who we are. What moves us. They encouraged us to keep going and to take risks. They knew that this was the only way for us to keep engaging with the questions that inspire us.
One day in El Salvador, as I struggled to find my purpose, our team leader, Claudia, asked me to take a risk. She wanted me to lead Libras de Amor’s equivalent of a Mommy and Me music and movement class. I would be leading mothers and toddlers in song and dance and teaching them about the importance of music in early child development. Did she see something I didn’t see in myself at the time? I hesitated initially, afraid to disappoint her. But then, I called upon a lesson that Our Lady’s university has taught all of us – the need to have faith and take a risk. So I set about learning a childhood’s worth of Salvadoran nursery rhymes at a record pace. When I finally stood before the circle of shy mothers and their grinning babies, the songs we sang together began to unlock a deeper rhythm within me. As we shared in song, I also earned the trust of the patients we cared for. As we opened up and shared our experiences, I learned more than I could have imagined about life in Morazán – not only its stories of war, poverty, and need, but also those of resilience and hope. I began speaking the language of my surroundings. I found a new dimension of my faith – a new calling to public health and to Spanish, lifelong rhythms I wanted to keep playing. And in my studies, especially with the guidance I received from my mentors in Spanish, preprofessional studies, psychology, and theology, I was able to continue learning more about this faith.
Notre Dame has taught us to nurture and develop our faith with every risk we’ve taken. At times, it has called us to sing with a loud voice, from the triumphant hymns of Holy Week in the Basilica to the passionate chants of our activist groups. At other moments, it has called us to remain silent and to listen for the tunes that others are playing. Three years ago, when we lined Holy Cross Drive and silently accompanied Fr. Hesburgh’s funeral procession, we were listening together for the charge Hesburgh had entrusted to us. To continue the endless conversation by listening to our neighbors, grasping their hands, and extending our hearts. To imagine beyond our comfort zones and take risks. This was the song Fr. Ted was – and still is – playing on repeat. All of these experiences have strengthened our faith. We have listened more closely for purpose and direction, and we have responded by working harder to achieve our goals.
Today, we have found our own voices, attuned ourselves to our surroundings, and learned Notre Dame’s rhythms. We are ready to enter into the world with our own rhythms. But we must not consider today the end of our Notre Dame song. As the term “commencement” suggests – we are not here to pack up and abandon our instruments, tools, or books. We are only finishing the warm-up. We are the band, preparing to trot out of that tunnel for the pre-game show. The moments leading up to this trot are full of energy, but also uncertainty. Is my shako on straight? What if I miss a step? What if my trot becomes a trip and a headfirst splat onto the turf?
Graduates, are these not questions we’re asking ourselves right now? As we march on into our fields of work, study, and service, we take off these mortarboards and robes and don new uniforms that may feel unsettling. We attempt performances more challenging, but more necessary, than ever – pursuing social justice in healthcare, countering the movements to dehumanize immigrants and refugees, pushing the boundaries of our disciplines. It is easy to miss a step. As the stakes become higher, it becomes much easier to stumble than before.
But we must not be afraid to stumble if we hope to continue singing Notre Dame’s song and playing its rhythm. We must not be afraid to expose ourselves to rhythms and lyrics that may appear foreign at first, but that can transform us later. As we prepare to step off into our futures, think back to our first Mass as the Class of 2018, when we awkwardly wrapped our arms around each other and swayed to our alma mater for the very first time. What felt strange and clumsy then is now second nature to us, a natural expression of love for each other and for this extraordinary community. Today, we are charged with a mission to be ambassadors of Notre Dame’s lyrics, its song, its rhythm. Like the band members eagerly waiting to burst out of the tunnel, we have a tradition to preserve. This tradition is too valuable not to maintain and share. Are we ready to keep this pulse alive?
Graduates, it is time for us to march fearlessly to this wonderful beat. As we proceed with confidence and hope from our crossroads, let us acknowledge the words boldly inscribed above its iconic tunnel. Here come the Irish. Class of 2018, Here We Come.