Delivered at Notre Dame’s 169th University Commencement Baccalaureate Mass, held May 17, 2014, in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Readings: Acts 6:1-7; I Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12
Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. president of the University of Notre Dame, gives the homily at the 2014 Commencement Mass
Graduates of the class of 2014: on this Commencement weekend, we congratulate you on the many things you have accomplished.
You have learned many things during your time at Notre Dame. Among them, you have learned how to travel. You traveled from your home — for some, a long way away — to this campus to begin your studies. The majority of you have traveled to other parts of the world to earn academic credit — whether in London, Santiago, Rome or Beijing. Many of you have traveled to do a service project over break or during the summer. And I’ve heard that, for one or two spring breaks, some of you traveled to Cancun, Mexico; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; or the Bahamas.
In literature and life, travel often changes the travelers. Travel opens up new perspectives, affords new experiences and calls into questions certain assumptions, so that it can change your life. Many of you may have had that experience.
On a trip we begin by simply changing our geographical position, but it can end up changing our soul.
I mention traveling, because we have heard a lot about it in both last Sunday’s Gospel and in this one. Two weeks ago, we heard about the disciples’ journey from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus. We don’t know why the disciples are traveling to Emmaus. But we know that, as they walk, they are discussing Jesus, who has just been crucified. A stranger walks up and asks them what they are talking about. They engage him in conversation and he explains the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then they recognize in an instant that it is the risen Jesus. From that recognition forward, their lives will never be the same.
This week, Jesus says he is going to travel ahead of the disciples to prepare a place for them. Thomas tells Jesus, reasonably enough, that they do not know the way, nor even where he is going. Jesus says he is “the way, and the truth and the life.”
There is an interesting contrast in these stories. Both are about travel. But in the first, Jesus is found along the way during a journey to somewhere else. In the second, Jesus is the way. But maybe they are not so different. For in the journey to Emmaus, the disciples are going Emmaus for some unknown reason, but they recognize the risen Lord and their lives are changed — Jesus becomes the way for their lives. In the second, Jesus makes it explicit that he is the way — he is the one that changes your life and gives you a purpose.
There is an ancient Christian spiritual practice of making a pilgrimage. This is the practice of traveling with others to some holy place as a sort of spiritual retreat, where one seeks to reflect on and deepen one’s spiritual life. As you travel, you join with others on the same journey. You reflect on the spiritual purpose of your life. And, with grace, you encounter the risen Jesus, and he becomes the way of your life. He gives the journey of your life a spiritual purpose.
In a way, a pilgrimage is the Christian life in miniature. We are on a journey through life. As we walk, we have a spiritual purpose, and we grow in friendship and community with others. We encounter — sometimes in surprising ways — Jesus along our travels. That encounter gives purpose and guidance to our traveling.
Graduates, your time here at Notre Dame has also been a sort of journey, which is completed this weekend at Commencement. You should look back on the journey with gratitude and pride. And, as you look back, I hope you will find that it was a sort of pilgrimage — journey that is the Christian life in miniature. On the journey, I hope you have found and formed a community, that you have forged deep and nourishing friendships. I hope that you have recognized Jesus in your midst — often at surprising times, and when he was wearing a very effective disguise. And I hope this trip, and the encounter with the Lord, gives purpose and guidance to all your travels of your life.
There no doubt has been some trials and confusions on the way. Dan Brombach in yesterday’s Observer put it well:
“My college career was a bipolar collection of the highest highs and the lowest lows. Like many kids that come to Notre Dame, I got a steady IV drip of humility my freshman year. I was just a pale and awkward as I was in high school, but after my first few chemistry exams took me out behind the shed, I felt like a tiny pale fish in a lake filled with fish that had already cured cancer and saved a small African nation from civil war. The bright side is that all this did was motivate me. … My failures … helped pave the way for later success. And, to be honest, that may be the overriding theme of my college career.”
And there have been tragedies. During your time at Notre Dame we have lost Declan Sullivan, Sean Valero, Xavier Murphy, Michael Thigpen, Connor Sorensen and Akash Sharma. All these names are seared in my memory, and maybe they are in yours. Yet you came together. Jim Ropa wrote about this in a 2010 letter written hours after Declan Sullivan’s memorial Mass on campus:
“I never had the privilege to meet Declan, but I have spent the last several hours thanking God for this soul that could be so inspiring. … Though I never knew him, I found myself crying through his service as if I had known him my entire life. I found my heart was aching for his family, and as I scanned the faces in the crowd that filled the Basilica, I knew that the entire group felt the same way. I felt the power of the entire student body spreading their prayers over his family, his friends and his dorm mates.”
It has not always been an easy trip, but perhaps most of you would say that you found something extremely valuable — something transformative — along the way. When it comes to the spiritual life, I am — and perhaps you are too — like Philip in today’s reading. “Lord,” we say, “show us the Father.” Lord, give us that one overwhelming glimpse of God in all His glory that will answer all our questions, and clear up all our doubt and confusion. Then we will be satisfied.
But Jesus replies: Walk along the road of your life, and attend to your fellow travelers. Then, in the most humble circumstances, at unexpected times and in surprising places, you will find me, the risen Lord. When you do, recognize me. And let that recognition change your life.
I hope, during the journey of your time at Notre Dame, in the day-to-day events of your time here, you have seen Jesus, the Lord who, through his death and resurrection, conquers all sin and death. As our paths diverge, and we go our separate ways, I hope that sustains you. You will continue your journey, perhaps with new companions, but I hope it will always be with a sense of moral and spiritual purpose, with a sense of solidarity with those with whom you walk — particularly those in greatest need, and with eyes that look to find guidance from the Lord of Life and Hope.
As Alex Coccia wrote in the Observer: “The candle was lit at Notre Dame, but we should let it burn deeply and brightly throughout our lives. It is a light of purpose and sacredness, a light whose flicker only indicates the lingering desire to act and to put faith into action. The flames of these experiences may continue on as we stay in touch and reminisce. But forever, we will have lit the candle at Notre Dame.”
Graduates, we are grateful to you for walking with us on this path for the past years.
Parents, we are grateful to you for entrusting your children with us for this journey.
And, graduates, I can promise you two things. First, you will always be in our prayers here at Notre Dame — my prayers, the prayers of the priests behind me, and the prayers of all of us here at Notre Dame. And, second, always remember this: Whatever turns your path takes, and wherever it leads, you will always have a home at Notre Dame, and always be welcome here.
You know the way.