Ms. Noonan, Father Jenkins, Dr. Francis, distinguished faculty and guests, dear friends and loved ones: Welcome and thank you for celebrating with us today, especially those of you who traveled a long way to be here.
Now, to my fellow members of the class of 2019: We are invited today to step forth from this institution. We are invited to exit this arena, and greet what lies ahead. It’s an invitation to respond to what we’ve been given by putting our learning in the service of justice. Will you say “yes”?
One of the most inspiring examples of saying “yes” in my life is the story of Aldo Trento. Originally from Italy, Aldo was sent to Paraguay as a missionary in 1989. He had no idea what awaited him, but upon his arrival he opened his heart to the community. He began to welcome the ill, the hurt, and the abandoned into his home. These relationships eventually grew into a foundation that serves the needs of the poorest of Asunción’s poor. I had the privilege of spending a summer with his niños, the children in his orphanage. And as I worked alongside Aldo, I witnessed his extraordinary joy in the midst of darkness. I saw that Aldo had become fully alive by responding to the needs of others, by saying “yes” to his calling.
It was a “yes” a bit like Aldo’s that brought us all here four years ago. As young and hopeful seniors in high school, we chose to accept the invitation to attend Our Lady’s University. This demanded hard work and sacrifice. Not just from us, but from our parents, coaches, and teachers back home. To all who supported our education, thank you. Words cannot express our gratitude.
Because saying “yes” to a Notre Dame education has changed everything for us. It’s taught us how to live a truly human life. As my freshman seminar professor taught me, I’ll frame this in three points. There are three lessons from our time here, lessons on living a truly human life. These lessons will serve us well as we step forward from Notre Dame.
Lesson #1. We are not just a mind, but a body and a spirit.
We’ve all heard Blessed Basil Moreau’s words, “the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart.” But it’s not a trite cliché here at Notre Dame. It’s enacted. We saw it in the professors who cared about our flourishing, and didn’t just see us as a brain in a vat. We saw it when we ran the Holy Half with our friends, or fought in Bengal and Baraka Bouts for the Holy Cross missions. We saw it when we fed our spirits on pilgrimage and retreat. We saw it as we expanded our horizons through Appalachia seminars and study abroad.
Our education didn’t just happen in DeBart. Because as humans, we are not merely “thinking things,” as Descartes would have us believe. We are physical, spiritual, moral, and social beings. So our worth cannot be measured by our productivity, nor our dignity by the quality of our resume. No one helps us see this more clearly than St. Andre Bessette, a Holy Cross brother who had no formal education. He wasn’t considered smart enough to become a priest, so he spent his life opening the door of St. Joseph Oratory. And yet this doorman’s love, his welcome of the sick and outcast, made him the first saint of the Congregation of Holy Cross. As the playwright Paul Claudel put it, “What is the value of the world in comparison with life? And what is the value of life if not to be given?”
Notre Dame is full of incredible mentors who helped us live according to this different standard of value. We each met professors, rectors, staff, and Holy Cross priests who are living examples of what it means to be truly human. Personally, I am deeply indebted to Dr. Nancy Michael, who taught me how to be a neuroscientist. Through her knowledge of brain structure, Dr. Michael engaged every part of my life. As a scientist, she modeled for me what it means to be a loving mother and a fearless community leader. She challenged me to love others fiercely, to put my convictions into action, and to cultivate wonder at the miracle of my own life.
Mentors like Dr. Michael helped us see that Notre Dame wasn’t just a training ground for our future career. Our education was the formation of our whole person. So it demanded that we engage questions of ultimate meaning and value, that we freely debate and disagree in our pursuit of truth. Because, as Pope John Paul II wrote, we are “guided by the certainty of always knowing the fount of truth,” the One for whom our hearts were made. For whom our hearts were made. Because we are not just a mind. We are a body and spirit as well.
Lesson #2. Risk everything for others.
Through our time here we’ve learned to let go of our comfort and our pride, and move beyond our fear. Because a Notre Dame education puts everything at risk. We had to let go of what we thought we already knew. We had to allow what we learned — in the classroom, in our dorms, in the South Bend community — to change us.
This part of our education started on day one in our dorms. Living with randomly assigned roommates challenged our preconceptions. We were invited into relationship with people who were different from us — different in small things like sleeping habits and majors and different in big things, like nationality and ideology. We were invited into friendships with campus workers, who reminded us that we weren’t here for our self-interest, but to strive together toward a common good. Because we need each other, we need each member of the Notre Dame family.
Last year, I traveled to El Salvador through Campus Ministry to explore the life of Oscar Romero. Romero was called to action by the unjust suffering of the poor. He said “yes,” sacrificing comfort and ultimately his life for the liberation of his people. On the final day of the pilgrimage, we had the privilege of celebrating Mass at the site of his martyrdom. His canonization had just been announced. So at that Mass, I said the words “Saint Romero” for the first time. And I knew St. Romero was inviting me to a truly human love. Not a love of humanity in the abstract, but a painful and messy love of the people right in front of me. As the Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Such a love asks us to embrace our needs. To confront our failures. To ask the difficult questions. To open up about our mental illness, our loneliness, and our confusion. Because at a Catholic university, suffering cannot be a reason for shame or silence. Our places of darkness are opportunities for encounter and healing.
And only by embracing our own needs, and moving beyond our fear, can we put our learning in the service of justice. My friends have researched the homelessness crisis, founded prison ministries, and lived at Catholic Worker Houses. After graduation, some are entering the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, others are doing ACE, and still others are going into politics. Because we’ve learned that, while we aren’t meant to help or save others, we must get our hands dirty working alongside them. Saying “yes” to this risk can be uncomfortable, painful, and costly. But in the words of Luigi Giussani, “The condition for being true in a relationship is sacrifice.”
Only through sacrifice will we find fulfillment. We become truly human by giving of ourselves, by pouring ourselves out in love — no matter our chosen career. We are going forward from Notre Dame not as bystanders, but as protagonists of justice and mercy. So we must risk everything.
Lesson #3. Live reality intensely.
Ultimately, the invitation we receive, every day, is this: to live reality. We are called to live exactly what we have in front of us. This means confronting life’s problems. The dramatic ones, like a death in the family or a loss of faith. But also the not-so-dramatic ones. Here at Notre Dame, we’ve learned to confront the boredom of our Gen Chem homework, the sacrifice of caring for a sick roommate, the dreariness of the bus to O’Hare. And now, we’re asked to confront the challenges of a 9-to-5 job, a new city, or a long commute to work. If we pay attention to reality, we will see that even in these burdens there is a promise. There is something positive offered to us. It’s the kindness in the gaze of a stranger. The beauty of a sunrise on your morning commute. The comfort of sharing your worries with a fellow Domer. If we stay attentive, these moments will show us that there is an answer to life’s deepest questions, inviting us to discover it. It’s possible to live the challenges of life in a truly human way. I’ve learned this by sharing daily life with the women of Cavanaugh Hall. I’m still a beginner, still learning to live my reality intensely. But I’m certain that if we are to be happy, we must take this invitation seriously.
What do we need for the journey? We need the grace to work hard, and the willingness to serve others. We need to make choices, rather than keeping every door open out of fear. And ultimately, we need a community. A companionship that reminds us who we are, that helps us take risks, and that re-awakens us to the meaning of life. This companionship won’t come automatically. We won’t be able to walk down the hall of our section and find our closest friends anymore. We will face loneliness, but we can bear this burden without settling for less. Because at Notre Dame we haven’t just been given a community, but been formed to create community. And as Blessed Moreau reminds us, the Cross is our only hope, and this hope does not disappoint.
Class of 2019, we have been extraordinarily blessed on this campus. And who we are is not measured by the number of the opportunities in front of us, but by how we respond to what has been given to us. Today, we are invited to respond to the gift of our education, fearlessly. We are invited to say “yes” to a truly human life. To say “yes” to our calling, just as Aldo Trento did thirty years ago, and the Patroness of this University did two thousand years ago. Our Lady is looking down from her perch on the Golden Dome on this day, as on all days. She will accompany us as we, too, are invited to bring justice and peace into this world. If we respond as Mary did, with our whole selves, and risk everything as we seek to live our reality intensely, we will set the world on fire. Will you say “yes”?