Graduation Commencement Address
Kennedy Catholic High School – 2nd June, 2017
There was once a father who was preparing his two sons for their first year of college life. He sternly warned them not to go into dancing clubs of ill repute. Trying to act innocent, Charlie asked his father “Why?” His father cautioned him: “Because you will see things you should see?” One evening, while Charlie and his brother were walking down the city strip, Charlie spotted a sleazy dancing joint. Against his father’s advice and his brother’s objections, Charlie slipped in for a quick peek. Moments later, Charlie came out of the joint with an astonished look on his face. His brother anxiously asked him, “What? Did you see things you shouldn’t have seen?” “I certainly did,” said Charlie. “I saw our father!”
For our parents here tonight, I suspect that will find yourself doling out sage advice to your high school graduate who will be heading off to college in the fall. Maybe you will teach them how to do laundry; please teach them how to do laundry! You may find yourself encouraging them to embrace a healthy diet and challenging them to expand their nutritional horizons by looking beyond the college staples of Spaghetti O’s, Mac-N-Cheeze, and Ramen noodles. Please teach them how to cook a proper meal! Perhaps you will offer them financial advice and discuss the dangers of credit card debt.
In the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus offers some extended teaching to his disciples that we commonly refer to as the “Bread of Life Discourses.” The scene opens with Jesus multiplying loaves of bread to feed a hungry crowd of 5,000. “They ate their fill and were satisfied,” John tells us. So pleased where they with Jesus that he had to secretly sneak away from the crowd. This crowd eventually tracks Jesus down, looking for more of his home style, tasty, yummy bread. Jesus explains that they shouldn’t seek him out for perishable bread, but bread that gives eternal life. The crowd begins to question Jesus about where to find this mysterious “bread from heaven.” Jesus answers their question: “I am the bread from heaven.” The crowd moves from questioning Jesus to murmur against him. Jesus makes it clear to the crowd that the bread that he gives is his very flesh. The crowd then moves from murmuring to hostile quarreling against Jesus. Soon enough, the crowd moves from quarreling to outright rejection of Jesus’ teaching, stating, “This saying is hard. Who can accept it?” And, John tells us, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
Consequently, this crowd that initially numbered some 5,000 people, eventually dwindles to a mere 12 – THE Twelve. Jesus, however, does not do what we may have been tempted to do. He does not water down his teaching in order to make it easier to swallow. He does not offer an alternative teaching that wouldn’t demand as much. He does not bend to the pressure to be more accommodating in order to maintain a larger number of followers. Jesus clearly withdraws himself from any popularity contest. Rather, Jesus simply and quite poignantly, places the matter squarely into the hands of the Twelve and asks them: “Do you also want to leave me?” Jesus gives his disciples the freedom to choose for themselves: Are they willing to accept his often challenging and hard teachings, or do they too want “to return to their former way of life and no longer accompany him.”
Though perhaps they weren’t always perfect, throughout your lives, parents and teachers, priests and campus ministers, coaches and other people of influence, have tried to raise you to be responsible adults, to be morally conscientious of your actions, and to make the right decisions – especially when temptations and peer pressure were the greatest. Together, we have tried – more or less successfully – to “bringing you up in the practice of the faith.” Through our Catholic education and theology classes, our Action Club and Campus Ministry, we made valiant efforts to pass on to you the teachings of Christ.
I suspect that there are not a few of you who murmured under your breath about all of this. I would be willing to bet, as well, that there were times you quarreled with your parents, teachers, and priests, over the moral demands of the Gospels. Like the disciples of old, you have likely said to yourself – and maybe even out loud: These saying are hard. How can I accept them? Your teachings are too demanding. Why should I accept them? Sadly, you probably know of a number of your peers who chose to reject Jesus’ teachings, “to return to their former way of life, and to no longer accompany him.” Still, just as Jesus said to his Twelve over 2,000 years ago, he now says directly to you: Do you also want to leave me? As pack up to move to college this coming Fall, pack this question deep into your heart and allow it to linger there throughout your college career and beyond: Do you also want to leave me?
When you’re out late on Saturday night and are tempted to just skip out on Sunday mass or worship services, hear that question reverberate in your heart: Do you also want to leave me? When your pressured to neglect your studies in order to rave at the local frat house, hear it again: Do you also want to leave me? When you’re seduced by the glamour of binge drinking and recreational drugs: Do you also want to leave me? When you’re enticed by the fleeting pleasures of promiscuity: Do you also want to leave me?
Do not give into the ways of the world by trying to rationalize your way out of it, or to make accommodations, “Well, everyone else is doing it.” Do not give into the pressure, or try to water it down, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” Answer the question as candidly as Jesus asked it: “Do you also want to leave me?” Yes, or no.
Of course, this question is not reserved exclusively for our departing college students. It applies with equal force in the lives of parents and grandparents, and even younger siblings. Any time peer-pressure, temptations, and worldly seductions threaten us to act against the teaching of Christ, his question persistently echoes in the depth of our soul: Do you also want to leave me?
We technically or formally refer to this evening’s ceremony as our “Commencement Exercises.” We do so because, in so many ways you may not yet realize, your adult life commences today. Merriam Webster defines “commencement” as “a time when something new begins.” Alas, this evening, something new begins – a new chapter in your life begins. Whether you are among the best classes to graduate from Kennedy will only be answered in the years to come. It will be answered by the way you choose to live your lives by the values the Kennedy Catholic Family of Schools has strived to instill in each and every one of you: personal integrity, moral responsibility, intellectual excellence, servant leadership… the whole of which can be encapsulated in our motto: “Christo Servire.”
In the Bread of Life Discourses, the Apostle Peter reached a new beginning – a commencement, of sorts – in his own life. He seems to have come to the thoughtful conclusion that nothing in this world (status, wealth, fame, glamor, prestige) will ultimately prove satisfying – any more than ordinary, tasty bread can satisfy our deepest longings. In response to Jesus’ poignant question – Do you also want to leave me?” Peter reveals his new beginning by answering, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
As you leave our halls for the last time as students, stay close to your families and your roots – they are the ones who will always love and care for you, when it seems no one else does. Stay close to your school (now, your alma mater) – we will always have our doors open to offer our continued support, encouragement, and advise. Most importantly, stay close to the Lord and his teachings – for he has the words of eternal life. I wish God’s choicest blessings up you, the graduating class of 2017.