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To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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“What is God asking of me now?”

Commencement Address given at St. Thomas More Academy, in Raleigh, North Carolina, on May 25, 2024.

Bishop Luis, Mr. Luddy, Msgr. Ingham, Deacon Watkins, parents and grandparents of the Class of 2024 of St. Thomas More Academy, faculty members and staff of this exemplary school, and, above all, dear graduates:

Thank you for inviting me to share this day with you.

Some things in life can never be too short. Visits to the dentist and lines at Chick-Fil-A come immediately to mind. So do presidential State of the Union addresses and New York Yankees winning streaks. Those of you pursuing scientific studies in college will soon learn that an organic chemistry class can never, ever be too short.

I think this Can’t-Be-Too-Short rule also applies to commencement addresses. This day is about you, our graduates, not about me. So as your patron, St. Thomas More, said on the scaffold, just before his execution, “I shall be brief.”

Jerzy Stuhr, a renowned Polish actor, found himself in Rome in the 1990s and was invited to dinner in the papal apartment by Pope John Paul II—who, as you know, had been an actor as a young man. After they were seated, the Pope looked across the table at his guest and said, “Pan Jerzy, what brings you to Rome?” To which Mr. Stuhr replied, “Your Holiness, I am playing in Forefathers’ Eve”—one of the most famous dramas in Polish literature, and a play so emotionally charged with patriotic energy that its public performance was banned in the Russian parts of partitioned Poland in the 19th century.

Hearing this, John Paul got very excited and recited whole chunks of the play (in which he had once acted) from memory. Then he asked, one veteran actor to another, “So, Pan Jerzy, what role do you take?” Mr. Stuhr looked a bit sheepish, and then replied, “Your Holiness, I regret to report that I am Satan”—who is indeed a character in the play. The Pope was silent for a moment; the pontifical eyebrow went up; and then John Paul said, “Well, none of us gets to choose our roles, do we?”

That might have been a bit of papal whimsy from a man who didn’t imagine being a priest, much less a pope, when he was your age. But I think John Paul II was also making a different, and deeper, point: one that another saint, St. John Henry Newman, made in 1848 when he wrote this prayer, which is well worth pondering on this commencement day, or indeed any other day:

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an archangel in his….

I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place…if I do but keep His commandments.

Therefore, I will trust Him; whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.

Amen. He knows what he is about.

As you, our graduates, have learned here at St. Thomas More Academy, each of you is an idea in the mind of God. That means, to continue the dramatic metaphor, that each of you has a specific role to play in the long arc of the human drama. That drama, Christians believe, is not some lucky accident in which random cosmic biochemical forces fortuitously conjured up us over the course of 15 billion years or so. We know that we have not come from nowhere; we know that we are going somewhere; and we know that there is purpose in the great cosmos.

Each of us lives a personal drama. And each of our personal dramas “plays” within a greater drama. That greater drama is one in which there are eight acts: Creation, Fall, Promise, Prophecy, Incarnation, Redemption, Sanctification—and finally, at the end of the drama, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the Kingdom of Heaven.

It will take some time for each of you to discern just what your unique role in that great drama is. Your roles may change over the course of your lives. You may be called on to play multiple roles at a given moment. But if you live your lives asking one question—“What is God asking of me now?”—you will discover that, while your lives may be challenging, they will never be dull or boring.

Living into the future according to that one great question—“What is God asking of me now?”—is the greatest of adventures. And it will prepare you for the greatest, most tremendous adventure of all, which is eternal life in the light and love of God the Holy Trinity.

As you begin the next phase of this great adventure, let me offer you another story from the life of St. John Paul II, which speaks to the challenges before you—and to the help that is always available in meeting those challenges.

Westerplatte is a narrow peninsula framing the Bay of Gdańsk in the northwest of Poland. There, one of the first battles of World War II in Europe was fought. At a quarter to five in the morning on September 1, 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the small Polish garrison at Westerplatte, expecting that the vastly outnumbered and outgunned Poles would run up a white flag. That, to put it mildly, was a misimpression. The Poles—mostly youngsters your age or slightly older, with no combat experience—not only resisted the offshore bombardment; they repelled amphibious assaults by German marines, suffering serious casualties in the process. The Polish garrison finally surrendered on September 7. But they had so impressed the aggressors that the German commander allowed the Polish officer leading the Westerplatte garrison to keep his ceremonial sword.

Addressing a vast throng of young Poles at Westerplatte in 1987, John Paul II, speaking slowly and forcefully in his beautiful, sonorous Polish, invoked the memory of the heroes of Westerplatte, while explaining how those young Polish soldiers were relevant to young people of every time and place. Here’s what the Pope said:

Here in this place, at Westerplatte, in September 1939, a group of young Poles, soldiers under the command of Major Henryk Sucharski, resisted with noble obstinacy, engaging in an unequal struggle against the invader. A heroic struggle.

They remained in the nation’s memory as an eloquent symbol.

It is necessary for this symbol to continue to speak, for it to be a challenge…to new generations…

Each of you, young friends, will also find your own “Westerplatte.” …[T]asks you must assume and fulfill. A just cause, for which one cannot but fight. Some duty, some obligation, from which one cannot shrink, from which it is not possible to desert. Finally—a certain order of truths and values that one must “maintain” and “defend”: within oneself and beyond oneself…

At such a moment (and such moments are many, they are not just a few exceptions)…remember …[that] Christ is passing by and he says, “Follow me.” Do not forsake him.

Dear Graduates of the Class of 2024 of St. Thomas More Academy: If you carry one thing of what I have said here into the future, let it be this: Remember that, in both your joys and your challenges, Christ is passing by and saying “Follow me.” Remembering that, you will never be alone.

Remembering that, you will be empowered to live, not without fear, but beyond fear.

Remembering that, you will, in time, discover the singular adventure that God has in mind for each of you: the adventure and the mission that will be your unique path to happiness, and ultimately to holiness and beatitude.

Thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts with you today, and Godspeed on your journey.

Published by Catholic World Report

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