Remarks to the Seniors of 2020

When my wife and I were growing up, not everyone went to college, and having two graduations in your lifetime—a high school graduation and a college graduation—was something of an accomplishment. But by the 1980s or 1990s, when the first of our own children were going through school, the culture had decided that self-esteem was more important than excellence, and affirmation for everything at every level had set in. For example, when our third daughter finished kindergarten, there was a graduation ceremony, and her teacher had each child affirm some friend by saying that he or she was “loving, caring, and sharing.” Ad-libbing in these circumstances was definitely not encouraged. When our daughter’s turn came, she stuck to the script and praised Susie for being loving, caring, and sharing, but then she added, to our great amusement, “and she doesn’t call me names.” I should emphasize that we were the only parents amused by this little outburst, and we probably should not have enjoyed quite so much that brief glimpse into the Hobbesian state of nature that actually prevailed in kindergarten.

In any case, before long, there were graduations from kindergarten, from grade school, from middle school, from ballet—on and on, year after year, through our eight children—and each one drew away a little more of the sense of a special occasion from the ones that followed. We grew weary of graduations. But this year, under the shadow of COVID-19 and the dislocations it has occasioned, most graduations at any level have disappeared into the virtual realm, and this one almost alone in the country is taking place in person. A month ago, it looked like we would be having virtual commencement exercises like everyone else. In fact, I sent out a notice that we would have them last Saturday. We would have had speeches on Zoom, and I don’t know what else my colleagues imagined, but I was picturing captioned photographs or short videos of our seniors—a shot of Joel Samec rock-climbing, a few seconds of Catherine Stypa giving her oration about Death Comes to the Archbishop, Parker Eidle singing a song mysteriously praising the number 7.

But instead, here you are, and I cannot say adequately what a joy it is to see you here. Despite all the amplitude and celebration of the presence of family and friends that the usual ceremony would have brought, it would inevitably have been like other graduation; it would not have been this difficult and hard-won return from exile. For you, the completion of your work here is not simply a matter of finishing finals and then enjoying several days of celebrations. It is about regathering from all over a shaken and uncertain country. These few days uniquely bring the satisfactions of real reunion and homecoming into the bittersweet ceremonies of departure. This is forever marked as a singular class, because there will never be another graduation like the one of 2020.

In no one’s living memory has there been a world more beset by uncertainties than the one you are about to enter. There have been difficulties, no question—recessions, periods of malaise, collapses of various sorts, but nothing quite like this. The question is how being at Wyoming Catholic College has prepared you for what no one six months ago could have predicted, and it is a question we welcome. In an email that my wife wrote this week to an incoming student, she said, “I have never known a college better structured to usher its graduates into the world with not only the skills but also with the imagination and drive to shape circumstances—even impossible ones—to the good.” That’s exactly right—and I’m not just saying that because I need to go home tonight. The imagination and drive she praises come from many things here, but I will mention three that characterize this education.

The first of these Jacques Maritain describes in a passage that I quoted last week in my weekly column. Maritain is writing about the conditions necessary for a poet to thrive as Dante did, but it struck me that he is also describing the fruits of the education at Wyoming Catholic College. He names several things the poet has to be sure about, and I want to concentrate on one of those: “a certitude that the impact of his freedom on his destiny gives his life a movement which is oriented, and not lost in the void, and which has to do, in one way or another, with the whole fabric of being.” That is, you are not guessing or merely hoping, you are certain that what you freely do gives your life a direction; circumstances obviously affect you, but you are never merely the victim of external forces, because what you choose gives your life a movement that is ultimately oriented toward God.

I am not saying that you are or should be certain about what you will do with your life; I am saying that you already have an intuitive sense of what it means to take your bearings and choose the right direction. You know  that mistakes have consequences—I remember the lost boys of WCCL5 a couple of summers ago—and even more importantly, you have the conviction that the important choices you make in your life involve “the whole fabric of being.” You know from your experience with others in your class, from outdoor trips, from seminars, from your life in common, that what any one person does and says, who that person is, has an impact on the whole, good or bad, sometimes disproportionately so. When Fr. Zosima says that “each is responsible for all,” he means that this responsibility does not stop with those you see and know personally, but that it involves the whole mystical Body of Christ.

Certainty in the importance of your freedom accompanies and perhaps stems from the second thing you take from Wyoming Catholic College, which is trust in Providence. Hamlet’s remark to Horatio is quoted so often that you might not be able to hear it: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/Rough hew them how we will.” Hamlet means that God perfects our half-formed or half-understood designs; it’s as though you started a paper with a rough notion of what you wanted to say and woke up to find it miraculously completed. You wish, right? But I think that’s what has happened with Wyoming Catholic College itself. It’s not that it was founded to be exactly what it has become, but that its original ends continue to be shaped by the work of Providence. In a similar way, the curriculum continues to work in you long past the end of your studies. Your professors have ends in mind in what they teach, but they can never anticipate exactly how it will all cohere in you. For the rest of your life, what you have learned will continue to take shape within you, and it will give form to the particularities of your own character and the nature of your choices. Fifty or sixty years from now, particulars of a seminar, or a professor’s remark, or the impossible prop you mastered, or a friend’s recommendation that you read a certain poem or a book, will take on the visible lineaments of the providence working through your life.

Every good choice you make moves you in the direction of God, and that thought alone should give you courage. Late in Crime and Punishment, after Porfiry Petrovich finally stops playing psychological games, he encourages Raskolnikov to admit the murder and accept the consequences: “don’t be over-wise; fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid—the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.” Porfiry doesn’t tell Raskolnikov to be exercise his intelligence, but not to be “over-wise.” Don’t try to approach everything with calculation. Trust life; acknowledge the danger, but don’t look at the world and shrink away; don’t be afraid of what might happen. This was Saint John Paul II’s first teaching as Pope: “Be not afraid.” You will never be afraid in the fundamental sense if you believe in providence. All through the Gospels, Christ approach people who need healing and asks, “Do you believe that I can do this?” If someone fears to believe, if someone is over-wise and afraid in that crippling worldly sense, then little can be done, whereas openness to belief in miracles in one’s own life changes the very character of the world.

Along with the certainties of freedom and trust in providence comes a third quality, harder to describe, that I will call poetic readiness. This is most visible in actual poets, musicians, artists—a way of being seriously present to experience, to the weather of emotions or thought, and always looking for a way to bring into artistic expression the subtleties of the grandeur of God. Such a readiness has its analogy in moral life, when active memory and the habit of choosing well encounter the real complexity of experience without reducing moral action to formulas. By poetic readiness, I mean the capacity to look at problems and find the unexpected answer through a similarity or metaphor that no one locked into formulaic thinking would ever see. I mean a full sense of undistracted attentiveness, enhanced and directed by grace. I mean the ability to be in a situation and see it for what it is and find the language for it that lets the reality of things shine through. At present, others see this quality in you more than you see it in yourselves; but the more conscious it becomes, the more open the everyday world will be to transformation.

It is a privilege for all of us to be a part of what you are becoming, and we will see more of that in what follows tonight and tomorrow. The uniqueness of this graduation ensures that we will always remember this class of 2020 for its goodwill and epic fortitude. May God bless each of you.