Vice President Pence, Cardinal Farrell, Father Jenkins, Father Boyle, honored guests, parents, siblings, extended family, friends and fellow graduates:
Valedictorian Caleb Pine delivers his address at the 2017 Commencement ceremony in Notre Dame Stadium.
Welcome! In Arabic: Ahlan wa sahlan. In the words of Confucius: 有朋自远方来不亦乐乎 – Is it not a joy to have friends come from afar? We especially welcome everyone who traveled a long way to be here.
Four years ago, I also traveled a long way to come to Notre Dame. I grew up for 18 years in China. When I was 4 months old, my parents moved to China inspired by their faith to work in education. When the time came to leave home, I waved goodbye to my mom in the airport of Lanzhou and I traveled to Notre Dame with two suitcases and a backpack. I wondered what I was getting myself into.In “The Chronicles of Narnia,” C.S. Lewis tells the story of a girl named Lucy who wondered what was in the back of the wardrobe and stumbled into a world with deeper magic. Lucy encountered the deeper magic through the sacrifice of King Aslan, the lion. Aslan knew the deeper magic that was established at the foundations of the world in Narnia which gave him the power to offer his life in the place of a traitor.
The deeper magic for us is the transformation that happens when we give ourselves in service to others.
Just as Lucy arrived at a new world through the wardrobe, my flight from China to Notre Dame brought me to an entirely new place. Northern Indiana was very different from Tianjin, a city of 11 million people, or Gaoli village, a Muslim village in central China, two places where I had grown up. I went from homeschooling to the busy serenades of first-year orientation. I was far away from my family, while they were in the process of adopting my two younger brothers. Throughout that first semester, I often listened to the song “One Thing Remains.” These lyrics played in my head: “Your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me.” That deeper love was a foundation for me through the midst of transition across borders.
Now all of us are moving again. We may fear the deeper magic of transformation. We may fear that if we travel too far or open ourselves up too much, we will lose ourselves in the process. In the face of unknowns, I often fear that who I am is not enough. My fear today is the same it was on the flight from China to Notre Dame: What if I am not strong enough? A list of accomplishments does not account for the needs of the heart. But in the face of that fear, the foundation of love that we have experienced at Notre Dame empowers and compels us to go forth and care for others in vulnerable, everyday and consistent ways.
We all have our story, the unique place and family that we come from. And during our time at Notre Dame, our stories have become interwoven and linked. We have lived and studied alongside people very different from ourselves, who have become our friends and family. I want to tell you about two of my friends who have shaped my vision for life while being here.
Walking into Jordan Hall for international orientation four years ago, I could not have anticipated that I would meet one of my best friends at school – Majak from South Sudan. This past semester, Majak has been in his home community, Bor-town, pioneering a school for 240 students, through his organization Education Bridge. I have learned deeper magic, the power of sacrifice, from Majak as he gives his life to service in the context of conflict and famine.
Coming to Siegfried Hall, a proud all-men’s residence, little did I know how much our time as Siegfried boys would be shaped by the songs and joy of Ms. Ellen, the champion housekeeper of Siegfried. Ms. Ellen is working in the hall today, serving all the families and visitors during this commencement weekend. She embodies a deeper magic that arises each day and shares God’s love with the world. To Ms. Ellen, I hope you are watching, and to every employee of the University of Notre Dame, in every department, every building, every function – when we say “We are ND” we mean you.
The deeper magic of Notre Dame, its transformative power, can be found in Majak, in Ms. Ellen and in our mission statement, which calls on us to pursue “learning that becomes service to justice.” Through our classes in theology and philosophy, through social concerns seminars in Appalachia, through studying abroad around the world, through inter-hall sports, life in the dorms and responsibilities as R.A.s, we have learned to care for the dignity of our friends.
Dignity is not theoretical or heroic, but extremely practical and embodied. I learned that lesson while volunteering in Jordan, in the Middle East, the summer after freshman year. I was living in a Catholic church and joining in their supply distribution to Syrian refugees. Every day, I saw lines of Syrian families waiting to receive mattresses, sheets and pillows. A woman who stopped me one day refused to take the mattress I handed her. She wanted another one – one with a color of her choosing. My immediate reaction was to feel annoyed. But then I realized my hypocrisy. I cannot claim to love if I do not open my heart. If I were in the shoes of this Syrian woman, of course, I would strive for the right to choose.
In the words of this nation’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” Class of 2017, we would not let our rights be taken from us or our futures dictated to us. Therefore, as you and I leave this stadium, we must fight for others, for their unalienable rights, so that their future becomes their own. Our generation must stand against the scapegoating of Muslims. Our concern for freedom of religion must mean freedom for all religions, not just our own, otherwise none of us is free. We must commit ourselves to make certain that all of our friends and classmates at Notre Dame receive equal rights and respect when they leave this stadium with us.
Our futures are inter-connected. We may recognize one another in airports around the world by our ND attire. And as we journey, we must continue to live out everyday acts of love. Our hearts cannot be contained by one place, by South Bend, Indiana, or Amman, Jordan, or Tianjin, China. If we are going to build walls between American students and international students, then I am skewered on the fence.
I had the opportunity to study at Notre Dame’s program in Israel and Palestine for a semester. During that time, our class routinely encountered a number of security checkpoints. And in the midst of those checkpoints that divide the physical landscape in a show of strength, our mission calls us to act on behalf of justice. It is precisely in response to the suffering of Syrian refugees, fleeing war, that the arms of Jesus outstretched on God Quad call for a courageous response.
The deeper magic of Narnia allowed Aslan to transform a kingdom of oppression through a kingdom of sacrifice. We believe that greatness is found in humility. It is in giving of ourselves — as we leave today — that we find ourselves. Our time at Notre Dame has taken place within a tradition that explicitly follows the deeper love of Jesus that crosses borders. His is a love that asks: “What good is it to gain the world and lose our souls?” What good is it to have a physical security patrolled by barbed wire? His is a love that says: I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give my life for the freedom of others. His is a love that questions promises of strength with an unbending commitment to character.
When we tell the powerful stories of our Notre Dame cultural traditions whether they concern quarter dogs, or Ryan Hall wheelchair basketball, or the Keough chariots, we also proclaim the deeper values symbolized by the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus. We are part of something bigger. We stand on the shoulders of giants, as we carry on the love of our families and the legacy of Father Hesburgh.
As we receive our degrees in recognition of the last four years and as we establish patterns for the rest of our lives, we must be clear about what is meaningful to us. At Notre Dame, we have learned the values of giving of ourselves for others, whether in the halls or in the biology labs or on the sports fields. And we are not naïve. While we have lived here together, we have also processed the realities of pain and death. We honor the lives of our friends who are not with us, but whose love has left a beautiful, unforgettable mark on our hearts: Jake Scanlan . . . Daniel Kim . . . and Theresa Sagartz. As a class, we commit ourselves to living the rest of our lives to make them proud.
Suffering always has human form. Whether in response to international conflict or domestic suffering from poverty and incarceration, we must be steadfastly attentive to the human faces behind the headlines. How do politics and rhetoric affect our fellow classmates here, those sitting right around us? We must also look beyond the surface of individual events to examine structures of injustice. When we sing the words “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,” we must remember that this was written in response to the horror of slave ships.
Our calling as we leave this stadium is to get these gowns dirty together, as we wade into muddy waters, as our learning becomes service to justice. When we follow the deeper callings of justice and proclaim the deeper magic of love and sacrifice that connect all of us – no matter which corner of the world we come from, then we will be true to what we have learned at Notre Dame. Then we will be true to our humanity, to the person that God has called each of us to be.
Who are we? We are the University of Notre Dame Class of 2017. We are bound together by a deeper magic, a transformation that has happened because we have given ourselves to each other. Now we must ask: Will each one of us keep that magic alive? Will we trust in a love that compels us to connect ourselves to others, and to remain committed to the transformation of injustice? As members of the Class of 2017, we must ask ourselves – how will I give my everyday life to others?