Look at us! We did it!
In 1973, theologian and author Frederick Buechner said: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet”.
It seems almost prophetic now, doesn’t it, as we move out into the world at a time when it is so uniquely vulnerable. If we have learned anything in the past fourteen months with the challenges of COVID-19 and the renewed fight for racial justice, it is that strength and new beginnings can be born out of vulnerability... we were all asked to answer the call to rise up from despair to determination... As Notre Dame students, defeat was unacceptable.
Class of 2021, we have been challenged – and, although at times we have had varying opinions on how best to deal with the complex matters before us, we have persevered with grace and humility and in the names of dignity and justice.
Unifying and persevering do not always mean we will completely agree. As our campus and the South Bend community grow and develop, what some may consider to be exciting new changes, others may feel a sense of loss for – a loss of the familiar, and a loss of those places where fond memories were made: for example, dorm changes and the addition of new campus buildings, and losing some of our favorite go-to spots, like Reckers pizza, LaFun’s candy wall, and a few of our favorite Michiana weekend entertainment options – all losses some of us are still working through. All of these places in our Notre Dame youth seemed timeless at a time when our journey here seemed like it was just beginning...despair to determination, we would begin to seek out the next “best place” for memories.
Despite all that has come and gone over these past four years, and changes that will take place in the future, and regardless of the different paths each of us has walked to make it to these seats we sit in today, we have nevertheless remained united in purpose and unified in spirit as we have moved forward together.
Much like these past fourteen months of our journey, Our Lady’s University also has a history of beauty and strength that were born from tragedy.
The story is rooted in the very heart of campus, our beloved Golden Dome itself. The same structure that sparkled in your eyes that first time you drove up Notre Dame Avenue, and that greets you now like an old friend each time you return to campus, was born from nothing less than a rather horrific event.
On April 23, 1879, a fire broke out on the east side of what then stood as the University’s main building, the current site of the Golden Dome. Later labeled “The Great Fire,” this event was the most extensive fire Notre Dame had ever experienced.
Despite efforts by students and the community to extinguish the flames, the fire nonetheless destroyed the entire main building, the structure which housed classrooms, dorms, the dining hall, library, and laboratories. Its destruction left virtually all of campus obliterated. We can only imagine, this campus must have felt like a ghost town – an eerily similar feeling to what became our own reality just fourteen months ago, as all of us, students, faculty, and staff, evacuated campus in the wake of COVID-19.
Most of us will remember forever the feeling of returning to our empty, quiet dorm, wearing a mask and dousing our hands frequently with sanitizer, such strange things we could have never imagined would be part of our college experience. We gathered our things, void of the passing good wishes of friends and crowded hallways full of anticipation and excitement. Now, instead, we had only the unknown ahead of us. Who knew then that “Zoom” would be a new word in our vocabulary, and “in-person” would be something we craved, but couldn’t have.
Practices, rehearsals, performances, game days, interviews, internships, study abroad, and so much more, gone before our very eyes... so much despair for those things we saw slipping away.
Just as the story, though, of the Great Fire is not really a tragedy, neither are all of the effects of COVID-19 -- they are, rather, stories of renewal: Despair to determination.
Lessons from the Great Fire lie in how the University and its students responded. Four days following the fire, the University’s founder, Father Sorin, returned to campus, and rather than sitting idly by and letting grief overtake him, Father Sorin gathered everyone at the church and spoke from the altar steps, stating “If it were all gone, I should not give up...tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool, we will rebuild it, bigger and better than ever.” Father Sorin was determined.
And true to the University’s mission of providing a space for inquiry, scholarship, and creativity, the main building was rebuilt in time for classes the following fall, just four months after the fire. The dome was completed with a 4,400 pound statue of the blessed Virgin Mary, and in the following decade it was gilded with gold – the same gold that is enlaced into the diplomas that you will soon be holding in your hands.
So how is the story of The Great Fire and Father Sorin relevant to us? Just as Notre Dame’s students of 1879 saw tragedy strike their beloved campus, so have we been challenged, not only over the past fourteen months, and through our rigorous studies and navigating life away from home, some of us oceans away, but by watching the world change in so many ways before our very eyes.
Some have had a more difficult time these past fourteen months than others, and some students, throughout their college experience, have had to dig deep in reflection of the newness and uncertainties of college life, of hopes and dreams that had to be redirected to meet reality head on.
One day in late January of my freshman year, I had a meeting scheduled with Sister Mary, rector of Breen-Phillips Hall, and a fast and loyal friend of mine. When I phoned Sister Mary’s room to tell her I was on my way down, her close friend Sister MJ answered and shared that Sister Mary was fighting some kind of terrible bug but indicated she fully expected her to be up and back to her routine in a day or so, and we would reschedule then, because anyone who was gifted with knowing Sister Mary knew that grit and determination were her first and last names. Within days of that scheduled meeting, Sister Mary went from a mentor and friend who lived on the first floor to an angel above, but I hear her message often: don’t despair, you can do this.
Multiple personal losses all within weeks of each other the first semester of my sophomore year challenged me like no other time in my life: Despair was heavy, and determination seemed for just a moment out of my reach. Chances are each of you experienced something similar at some point in your college journey… but you did it, here you are! And as you reflect on your time here, it might look a little different than you imagined, but your determination brought you to this place of celebration. I most definitely had a different picture painted in my mind of what my college experience would look like, and even though it didn’t include many realities that came to be, it also didn’t include so many unexpected blessings: for example, the intimacy of dorm masses; traveling through global gateway programs with new friends when the freedom of travel was a gift we may have taken for granted; friends turning into family because COVID made our worlds a little smaller for a while, and the really unexpected— like storming the field on a game day that will live on in most of our memories forever…sorry about that, Father Jenkins! But if you didn’t experience difficult challenges, if this journey was seamless for you, I challenge you, as you move forward in life, to bear the burden of those whose lives can be changed with your efforts, genuine kindness, true not just spoken empathy, walking a walk in someone else’s shoes to a place you have never had to walk before. It is our responsibility, armed with the grace of God and the tools Notre Dame has gifted us, to exhibit each day as we leave this University: humility, faith, selflessness, and restoration.
Class of 2021, we have persevered together through adversity. We have developed resilience and overcome challenges primarily because we have the support of one another, of our professors, and of our loved ones. Without these advocates, we would have no buffer against inevitable adversity. Because of the people sitting to your left and to your right, in front of you and behind you, and because of all of those who have guided you and encouraged you, whether here in person or watching virtually, we have survived and thrived in these unprecedented times, and we have succeeded. If we had not succeeded — all of us: Father Jenkins, the Administration, faculty, staff, students and your families — we would not all be sitting here today, many of us – gratefully – without face masks.
Our presence in this moment demonstrates that we have learned and grown along the way, and that we have persisted together, determined -- none of us could have accomplished this on our own.
Today, just like that April day in 1879, is proof that each of us can be a force-for- good, and together our force is stronger than any one of us alone. We now have the power to be proponents of progress. With this diploma, cap, and gown come a calling – how will you make a difference? How will you mobilize the intellect and inquiry you have been gifted with?
While we hold great responsibility as we move forth into the world, and as we continuously seek that place where our deep gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet, let us not forget that we embark on this journey in a place of belonging and support through the Notre Dame family.
I invite you to emerge from this year with a sense of renewal, just as our Golden Dome was born from ashes of the Great Fire. Think not about what we have lost, but ALL that we have gained, because we have walked this journey together, we are determined, we have overcome.
May we move forward as forces-for-good, bound by shared experiences, and never forgetting that there is deep gladness to be had in the journey itself.
Thank you Notre Dame, for preparing us for our journey ahead. To our President, Father Jenkins, the Administration, the Fellows, and the Board of Trustees, we thank you for the gift of being here in person today, and for your stamina and tenacity in dealing with the challenges presented by COVID-19. You accepted those challenges with humility and grace, and withstood adversity so we could experience another year of learning and growing under the Dome.
To our faculty and staff, we thank you for your commitment to our intellectual growth. You have shared your wisdom, challenged us through rigorous intellectual engagement, and supported our desire for boundless inquiry. Your commitment to campus and community make Notre Dame a place where there are no boundaries to intellectual pursuits, and where the heart is cultivated along with the mind.
To our families and loved ones, we thank you for your sacrifices, for walking alongside us throughout this journey – because yep, most of us know that we may have been a little difficult at times over these past four years – thank you, parents and families, for your patience with us. You have supported us emotionally, spiritually, and financially, and helped us grow both as students and as citizens. Because of you, we have been given the gift of belonging to the Notre Dame family, and we are grateful.
And to my fellow classmates: through stamina, resilience, and a little creativity, we have survived and thrived in one of the most uniquely challenging times in history. We have learned lessons and made memories that will bind us together forever. While this may be the last time we see our class together in one place, the Notre Dame family we know and love will live on in our hearts forever.
Congratulations Class of 2021...wherever God has called you, let your deep gladness serve a world hungry for your gifts.