His Excellency Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith
Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the
Discipline of the Sacraments
Commencement Address to the Class of 2007
May 12, 2007
Mr. President, members of the Board of Governors, members of the academic staff and the administrative staff, dear graduates of this most noble institution, dear parents, friends, and my dear brothers and sisters, I thank you, first of all, for the kind invitation extended to me to participate in this important ceremony today, and I thank the Board of Governors of this institution for having decided to confer on me the Medallion of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Thank you very much for your kindness.
The Basis of Human Dignity
Statistics show that there are more than 6 billion people on earth. Yet, none of them is equal to the other. That is the wonder of creation. Even twin brothers or sisters who may appear similar, are different in their character traits. They may not think and act the same way. That is how life is: difference is part of life.
Difference is also beauty. If we walk in a nice garden (and here you have such a beautiful one), we see flowers, but they are not of the same color or beauty. There are flowers of different colors and hues, each one so unique, and that makes any garden look so beautiful.
That is the way we humans are made, and that, too, adds to that unique dignity which the Creator confers on you and me, a dignity that is unfathomably precious. The book of Genesis states that He created us "in His own image and likeness" (Gen 1: 27). What is more, we know that He redeemed us by His own precious blood. Besides, He has a unique project for each one of us, even if it looks so tiny in the great mosaic of His eternal plan of salvation; we may be a small pebble stone in that great mosaic, but we have a place that is important.
As the Psalmist said, "What is man that you are mindful of him, or of the son of man that you care for him? You have made him a little less than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor." (Psalm 8) This dignity is not something that human society gives us or the United Nations confers on us. It is something that is already within us, given by God. The United Nations did proclaim the Charter on Human Rights and Human Dignity, but that charter is only a recognition of what we intrinsically are and not something the United Nations conferred on us. Thus, no one can take away from us this dignity which is inborn within us, which is God-given. No political or economic force can take it away from us.
A Unique Place in God's Plan
For every one of us, therefore, there is one, single, unique vocation. It is something planned for us from eternity, not due to our own worthiness, but given to us freely on God's part, as a gift. As the Lord said to Jeremiah the prophet, "Before I formed you in your mother's womb, I knew you. Before you came to birth, I consecrated you. I appointed you as prophet to the nations." (Jer 1:5) Even before he was formed, God knew that he was important for that mission.
When Jeremiah was called, the young Jeremiah said, "Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am a young man." But the Lord said, "Do not worry; I will give you the words." (Jer 1: 1-9) Similarly, when Moses fled from Egypt out of fear and did not want to go back, the Lord wanted him to return in order to deliver Israel from Pharaoh. Moses protested saying, "Who am I to bring Israel out of Egypt?" (Ex 3: 11) Thus, often enough God's plan for us is something for which we do not feel competent by ourselves. But, He calls us. It is a gift, often a surprise in our lives.
A question people frequently ask is, "Why me, and not the other one?" That is always the situation in our lives. But we should never forget what Jesus said about this, "You did not choose me. No, I chose you. I commissioned you." (Jn 15: 16) The plan He has for each one of us, our Christian vocation, is a sign of His love and appreciation of us. It is a sign of trust.
My dear students be therefore happy, for you have a unique place in God's plan. God loves you, and He has chosen you for whatever is your portion in His plan. What would happen in your lives if you allow Him to guide you, would thus never be an accident or one of pure chance, but what He would accomplish. That, too, is a sign of His love. It is this love and trust that makes you experience how much He values you.
Besides, His plan for you is something that is also mysterious. You do not see it now. But if you allow Him, He would make things happen in your life. When you walk away from this ceremony today, you will still not know what your future will be. It will be full of possibilities. But, you can be sure that what He will finally realize in you will be something great — if you only allow Him.
Maybe, when you are older, when you are in your 50s or 60s, each time you look back, you would see that interconnecting string that runs through your life — the way He was preparing you for what comes later. You will look back and say, "Well, I was prepared by the Lord for this in that fashion, at times even in ways that surprised me." You will understand it better and better as life moves on. That is the way a servant of God would understand and value his or her life.
Obedience is the Key
What, then, is it that is required of you and me? We are required to be obedient and faithful to Him, and to say, like Mary, "I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me as you will." (Lk 1: 38) If we obey Him, it is possible for God to achieve great things in our lives. If we turn our lives to Him, then He will achieve what He has planned for us, and we will become miraculous manifestations of His love for humanity.
Jesus was always conscious of that call to obedience to the Father in His mission. In that episode of His being lost in the temple, answering the anxious question of His parents, "Why have you done this to us?" (Lk 1: 48), Jesus replied, "Did you not know that I have to be attending to my father's work?" (Lk 1: 49) He was, thus, forthright in claiming that His mission was to fulfill the will of God faithfully. Obedience to the Father was what mattered most for Jesus. You, too, ought to feel that way. Through obedience, you will become open to God's action in your life.
In fact, St. Paul calls Jesus' salvific death his greatest act of obedience: He obeyed even until death, death on the Cross. That is how He became the Savior of the world. Now, this is what is expected from us: full and total obedience to the Father in Jesus, His Son. This obedience is like a process of "tuning in," like tuning in to a radio or television station. You may have a radio with you, but if you do not tune in, you cannot hear the music. If you do not "tune in" your life to God, He will not be allowed to realize what He wants to realize in you.
If I were to explain through another example, it is like the lotus flowers that bloom in our part of the world. Outside of the cities there are these swampy areas, and if you take a walk in the early hours of the morning, you see these small flower buds opening out little by little when they see the sun. If you go around 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., you see that they have opened up fully, and the whole marsh is one full carpet of flowers. It becomes so beautiful. The lesson is that our lives, if they are turned towards the light of the Lord, will blossom and become so beautiful, beautiful beyond description.
If we turn our life to God and allow Him to do what He wants, our lives will shine brightly. It is also like the sunlight reflected on a mirror: if you wish to turn the sunlight in any direction, the mirror will help you to reflect the light where you wish to. Just so, if the mirror of your life is turned to God, His brightness will fall on you, and you will be able to reflect it to others. Thus, you will become a cause of strength and blessing on your brothers and sisters, too.
Genuine Catholic Education
Education today, if it is to be wholesome, has to help young people to come closer to God, to feel challenged, strengthened, and called by Him, and to be able to respond generously to Him. In other words, it must facilitate a young man or woman to "tune in" to God's wavelength so that he or she may achieve what has been planned for him or her.
Jesus told us, "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them." (Lk 18: 16) That is the invitation addressed to the Catholic school and to Catholic teachers. The most important consideration is to let the Eternal Truth shine on these young people. Jesus did claim that He was "the way, the truth and the life," (Jn 14: 6) and He did assure us that "the Truth will make us free." (Jn 8: 32) It is to reflect that truth, which brings true freedom, that a good Catholic education should assist young people.
The Second Vatican Council's document on education says this: "Beautiful, therefore, and truly solemn is the vocation of all those who assist parents in fulfilling their task, and who represent human society as well by undertaking the role of schoolteacher "(Gravissimum Educationis n.5). It is a beautiful vocation to be a teacher, but what is most important is that the schoolteacher empower himself so that he works with the young people who come to him or her, and helps them, along with the parents, to discover their supernatural vocation and to respond generously to that. It is a most noble task. Teaching is thus a vocation, not merely a profession.
Jesus Himself should be the example of those who take up teaching or those who run Catholic schools and colleges. He turned, within a brief period of time, a rag-tag band of illiterate, confused, and ambitious men into committed apostles. They were ambitious; they were doubtful; there was one who was very close to Him and yet denied Him three times and, worse still, one who even betrayed him. But within a short period of time, because Jesus was so powerful and His light shone on them so much, He turned them into apostles who were ready to proclaim and fulfill the mission that was entrusted to them, and even to lay down their lives for Him. That is what the school and the teacher should empower their students to do.
I know Mr. Dillon has always said that Thomas Aquinas College has to be like another Christ who forms the best in these students. And I think the College does this, so I can only compliment it.
Catholic Education Suffers from Modern Trends
The danger facing education today is that of visualizing itself as a servant of a given economic or socio-political system with goals which are purely earthly, just placing the accent only on some shades of the externals. Education, however, is not an appendix of an economic or socio-political system. Its aim is not that of producing a man or a woman who will serve a given political or economic system blindly. Hitler, for example, sought to orient the schools and universities in Germany during his time towards an idolization of himself and the system he introduced. This is not education. So it was also in the countries that were hidden behind the Iron Curtain.
Now, there is a new ideology today which tends to dominate humanity — secularization — which in its extreme form is atheistic and materialistic. This ideology in some of its milder forms at times seems to have adherents even among good Catholics. It seeks to marginalize faith and the Church from public life. Even good Catholics adhere to this ideology that the Church should stay away from public life. They posit a strict separation between the Church and the state, and between faith and life.
To make matters worse, there is an economic free-for-all without any spiritual or moral content, which in matters personal places accent on the freedom of the individual so much so that the individual sees all binding structures of religion, morality, and discipline as impediments to his freedom. He seeks to free himself from these either through an attitude of indifferentism or by relegating these strictly to the realm of the private and personal. In matters social, this ideology seeks to suffocate or kill religious and moral values through a philosophy of strict separation of the spiritual and the secular.
Then there is the substitution of religion in its communitarian expression with mass-scale social gatherings or distractions, especially those that demean the sense of the sacred in human life. By this I mean the use of Sundays and holy days for mass-scale cultural events, sports events, or other distractions. Nowadays, for example, I know where I live in Italy, more people go to the stadium to watch football than do for Sunday Mass. More people go to the supermarket on Sundays than to church.
As Pope John Paul II stated, "Unfortunately, when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a weekend, it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see the heavens" (Dies Domini 4). What beautiful words! Even the day which should have been a day of rest and quiet has now become, for many, yet another noisy affair. This is the type of society that is being advocated — man becoming its slave — doing exactly what it wants.
All of this is a result of a utilitarian outlook on human life which affects education, too. Education becomes a process by which only the personnel that are needed for the progress of the market economy are formed. Schools and universities are more oriented to the empirical and rational sciences which concern the intellect, rather than to the ethical, moral, and disciplinary aspects of formation.
Catholic Education Is Ordered to the Transcendent
In the life and formation of Jesus, however, the focus of attention is different. For even Jesus had His own formation. Yet He is not considered the object of education, but is very much its subject. He is always conscious of his ontological relationship with the Father: "I and the Father are one," (Jn 10: 30) He stated. He is, in fact, from God and has been sent by Him so that He may fulfill God's will. He was aware of the nature of His mission and prepared Himself for it consciously. Thus, He is not so much the object of education as much as its subject.
This understanding is something very important for us so that we do not consider ourselves as just objects at the receiving end listening to lectures, being drilled to accept uncritically everything that is taught. On the contrary, education should stimulate us to start thinking about ourselves, our noble vocation, our higher relationship to God, and to feel stimulated to achieve great things in Him, not just ordinary immanentist goals. Like Jesus, we should recognize the nobility of our vocation and its divine origins.
An education that does not take into consideration the transcendental nature of our vocation and the need to orient our life towards the noble aspirations which go along with it cannot be Catholic education. Says the letter to the Ephesians, "And you, parents, provoke not your children to wrath, but nurture them in the discipline and the admonishment of the Lord" (Eph 6: 4).
The Scriptures recount to us how before his death Tobit advised Tobias, his son, on the way he should bring up his children: "Bring up your children to do what is right. Teach them that they must give to the poor and must always remember to praise God with all sincerity" (Tob 14: 9).
St. John Chrysostom, a 4th century Father of the Church, in his sermon on the Letter to the Ephesians, spoke about the example of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who, after the Lord had removed the shame of her barrenness, conceived and bore him. He stated, "Imitate Hannah's example. Look at what she did. She brought Samuel up at once to the temple. Who amongst you would not rather that his son should become a Samuel than that he should be king of the whole world ten thousand times over? She offered him up to God, and then she left him" (Homilies on Ephesians XXI, 4). Let everything else, therefore, be secondary for us, when compared to the need to take provident care of our children, raising them up and orienting them in the first place to know, love, and serve God.
Thus, the best education we can give a child is to place him or her in the closest possible mode of relationship with God, because God's light will then fall on them and help them to see, understand, and respond to truth in the most noble way. The best in their characters will then shine out naturally.
Some of us still recall with great awe and reverence teachers who not only taught us but allowed that which was happening in the intimacy of our hearts at the behest of God's mysterious hand to realize itself. They did not stop or impede that. That is what the famous educator Maria Montessori affirmed, "We teachers can only help the work that is going on, as servants wait upon a master" (The Absorbent Mind, Ch. 1). Each teacher before a student is like someone approaching something sacred saying, "Something is happening in this young person; let me help as much as I can."
Truth is a Gift
What I am pinpointing here is that there is a deeply divine dimension to Catholic education which must be understood. That is the only way in which a proper Catholic education can be given to young people.
I was edified to listen to the presentation just now by the Senior Class Speaker, as he talked about that divine aspect of theology, of knowledge, and of truth. As Jesus stood in front of Pilate, there was a very intriguing question asked. Pilate asked Him, "What is truth?" Jesus never answered. He did not answer because truth is not so much something that is defined as it is given. It is a gift of God. It is a person. It is God Himself, Truth eternal. And Pilate failed to recognize Jesus, the very incarnation of Truth.
Truth. We only have to seek Jesus, and if we genuinely seek Him, and if we open our hearts to Him, He will reveal Himself and His plan for us which will help us free ourselves from slavery to untruth. Otherwise, we are like the five blind men who were taken to a big elephant and told to define what it looked like. One went and touched the trunk and said, "An elephant is like a tree." Another touched the tail and said, "An elephant is a creeper." But that, everyone knew, was not the truth. We cannot go looking for truth if we are blind to God's light. The eye of faith is that which leads us to that personal expression of truth, which is the understanding of God. That is why it is important that we allow the Lord to shine on us and let His light guide us.
This is very important, and I congratulate Thomas Aquinas College for the great service it renders to these young people, especially helping them to discern truth through faith and reason as its handmaid. I was edified to hear yesterday, when I was with a group of these graduates at breakfast, how they presented their lives and their dreams of the future.
Dream in the Lord
Dream. It's a good thing to dream. But dream in the Lord. Dream for Him. Dream with Him. Hold His hand, walk in the search for truth, and He will lead you to the truth which He himself is. That is what we all wish for you, dear young people, today. Take with you this great optimism of life which comes from your faith. Never give up. Be courageous.
I wish to conclude my reflection by thanking all of you, dear members of the staff and my dear students. I wish you God's blessings in the years to come. As St. Paul states, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor 2: 9).
God loves each and every one of you, my dear students. That is why He created you so differently and gave you so many different talents. That is why He has a special plan for you. If you allow him, you will shine and be yourselves the manifestation of His light and truth. Let Him then be always the cause of your brightness and grandeur.
“What we learned about God in the curriculum — St. Augustine, the way he spoke about God, and St. Thomas’ treatise in the beginning of the Summa Theologica — really set me toward my vocation.”
– Rev. Fr. Mark Bachmann, O.S.B. (’82)
Co-founder and Subprior, Annunciation Monastery of Clear Creek