Today, as I said, is the feast of the Ascension, it’s really a feast of a departure, a leave-taking.
Jesus had been for the disciples the center of their lives. They had left everything to follow him; He changed their lives. They experienced the dark days of the crucifixion, and wonder of the resurrection.
But now, he leaves them. And they are looking up to the sky wondering what is next.
But at this moment of departure and uncertainty, they find a new mission. They are told to go forth; preach; to baptize; to spread the word of Jesus and that mission will shape their lives.
It is a fitting feast day for this Commencement weekend: You graduates are also between a leave-taking and a new mission. You will be leaving people who have become so important to you – your friends, your classmates, your teachers, your rectors and others - but you are going on to exciting new things in the next stage of your life.
The disciples though in today’s reading, did not simply let go completely of one thing and then move on to another. Their lives and work after Jesus’s ascension--their mission--was shaped by their time with him, his words, his actions, his resurrection.
In a similar way, graduates, the people, the experiences, the learning you’ve had here during your time here at Notre Dame will shape your future. Certainly, the knowledge and skills you've acquired in your studies will position you to succeed in whatever you undertake.
But what is more, your lives will be shaped by the friendships you’ve made here, the experiences you’ve had, the conversations with classmates, and the personal growth that happened here.
A graduate who had been away from Notre Dame after his graduation for a long time once told me that as he looked back on his life if he cut into four-year increments, his four years as a student at Notre Dame had the greatest impact on who he was and what he did.
Of course, many of the experiences you’re going to take from Notre Dame are exciting, joyful and reassuring but no doubt there were struggles, disappointments, lonely times, difficult days and that too you’ll take from your experience at Notre Dame.
For you, the class of 2023, you had the experience of going to college during a global pandemic. For you undergraduates, you came in the fall of 2019, you left for spring semester little did you know it would be such a long spring break. And we did not gather until the next fall and you had to endure the restrictions, anxiety, and the isolation of Covid. That was hard on everyone; it was hard on you. But you made it through, and you made it through together.
The struggles and hardships are also part of what you take from your time at Notre Dame and I hope you find in them a lesson, a moment of growth, the motivation to take a new direction.
In this age of Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Twitter, we pay a lot of attention on how we present ourselves to the world through social media. And we all know that can bring with it a temptation to photo-shop your life —to include only the good times, the successes. We have a tendency only to post those photos where when we’re with friends, everyone is smiling, it’s sunny and you just look great. Now it makes sense to want to put your best foot forward but succumbing to that photo-shop approach to life can lead us to miss the ways in which God’s gifts come to us through the stumbles, the struggles and the blemishes.
If the disciples did not preach about the dark days of Christ’s crucifixion and their desertion of him, they would not have been able to convey the wondrous hope of the Gospel. The resurrection could only have happened if there were those dark days of the crucifixion.
You see, God enters our lives and our world most powerfully often through those struggles and hardships. If we try to edit out the difficult times, the struggles, we can miss the gifts that are present there. Class of 2023, you were given a global pandemic. I hope you found gifts even in the hardship. It will certainly help you face the challenges of your lives.
But that’s not only true for our own personal experiences in our personal life. For if we can find God’s work in the struggles and hardships of our lives, we are in a better position to find it in the struggles and hardships in the world around us. It is often through encountering the discord, the brokenness and the evil that we find in the world around us an opening for a grace.
You graduates who went through the Moreau course your first year know about Father Moreau. Father Moreau had a motto, “The Cross our only hope,” which is engraved in many places on campus. Its meaning is simply this: by entering into the discord, the suffering, the hardships and struggles with love, we find God’s gifts more fully bestowed.
The lives of some of our honorees with us here today and tomorrow testify to that truth. Our Commencement speaker you’ll hear tomorrow, President Juan Manuel Santos, was an economist and journalist who found his way into government service. His nation, Columbia, was afflicted with the 50-year long civil war that created years of death and destruction and held the country back.
He was named Minister of Defense, and had a reputation for being a hardliner in fighting the rebels. But he engaged with them in dialogue, and he saw the possibility of working through dialogue, to arrive at a peace agreement.
He committed himself to that effort and, after many frustrations and setbacks, a peace agreement for Columbia was signed in 2016, making it possible for the country to reconcile and move beyond hatred.
Sr. Rosemary Connelly was a young nun when she was put in charge of a non-profit that cared for children with intellectual and physical disabilities. Although they were cared for, they were given little else to lead full lives. She found ways to offer her community a range of vocational training, and educational, social, recreational, medical and occupational therapies. She also drew around her hundreds of staff and volunteers to create, with those they served, a beautiful community where the gifts of everyone could be developed, shared and celebrated.
Dr. Jim O’Connell, a Notre Dame graduate, was a doctor in Boston. As a young doctor, he was asked to do a one-year stint, caring for the homeless on the streets of Boston. In caring for their struggles and hardships for a year, he found in that work a calling, a vocation. He established the Boston Health Care for the Homeless program, and has faithfully served the homeless in Boston in a way that has inspired many.
The same could be said for Howard Adams, in his service for helping minorities, females and handicapped in science and technology. Or for Amy Grant, in her remarkable dedication to serving those in need in her city or Marguerite Taylor, here in South Bend, where she helped create a neighborhood that allowed young people to flourish. Or Jim Rohr, who is beloved in Pittsburgh, his hometown where he serves the people of that town.
In the darkness, light can shine more brightly; in the hardship, grace can be found. In picking up your cross, you can find hope.
Class of 2023—you were given the hardship and the gift of a global pandemic. That experience helped make you into who you are. It taught you how to overcome adversity, together. It taught you how to find the grace in hardship.
As you go forth from Notre Dame, look for God’s grace in the hardship the world puts in your way. Be a facilitator of grace by bringing hope, comfort and love to those who struggle. Like our honorees, it is there you will find a mission that will leave you more enriched even than the people you serve.
Wherever you go and whatever you do, remember the words Jesus spoke in the Gospel reading today as he left the disciples and sent them on a mission: “Behold, I am with you always.”
Let us ask for the consolation of Jesus's presence, and ask for the help to find God’s grace as we go forth from Notre Dame.