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The Joys of Commencement Season

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29 May 2012 One Comment

My friends have long known that one of my weirdest quirks is the joy I take in commencement exercises. Really, any sort of convocation gets me going – a convocation to begin a new academic year, an honorary degree ceremony, or especially a University Presidential Inauguration. In fact, I am most certain that my interest in liturgy is strongly connected to my interest in academic pomp and circumstance. For instance, there are “funny-looking dresses” involved in each – the academic gown worn by graduates and the albs worn by ministers. Professors who have earned their doctorates wear fancy gowns, just as priests wear chasubles. And just like the stole of a cleric, members of the academy don hoods. The academic cap is the equivalent to the bishop’s mitre, while the university’s mace would be the equivalent to his crozier. In both events, there are ceremonial music and ancient rituals that hold great meaning for the church and the academy, respectively.

Perhaps the one analogy that is most overlooked at each event, however, is that of the homily during Mass to the commencement address/valedictory address/inaugural address during academic convocations. Unfortunately, at Mass we often see many members of the congregation paging through that week’s bulletin during this time. Likewise, during commencement, we find proud parents and grandparents searching for their graduate’s name in the commencement guide. Commencement speakers usually don’t do themselves any favors. During most such addresses, one is likely to hear the following words, “I don’t remember anything the commencement speaker told my class during graduation, so I’m not expecting you to recall much of what I say.” After all, with such a ringing self-endorsement, why would anyone listen?

This has just been a long prologue to my point that a commencement address has the ability to truly inspire those who actually listen. I still recall the words that Charlie Rose spoke on the Rose Hill campus of Fordham University on May 17, 2008: “In all of it, people matter; relationships matter; friends matter.” Fine words, but not the greatest commencement address I have ever heard. Recently, Father Gregory Boyle, S.J. was one of the commencement speakers at Loyola University, Chicago, where I currently study. I attempted to attend this ceremony to hear him speak, but was turned away at the door (alas, it was a ticketed event). I had wanted to attend because I had previously watched (online) a commencement address that he gave at Creighton University in 2009. It was the single greatest such speech I have ever heard, and I think that every graduating senior should listen to it before he or she walks across a stage to receive a well-earned degree. Part of Boyle’s address deserves to be cited in full here:

“And you go from here to create a community of kinship, such that God might recognize it. You go from here to bend the world to grace. You imagine a circle of compassion. And, then you imagine nobody standing outside that circle. And, to that end, you walk to the edges of the circle and you walk with those on the margins. And, you stand with the poor and the powerless and the voice-less. You stand with the easily despised and the readily left out. You stand with those whose burdens are more than they can bear. You stand, in fact, with the demonized, so that the demonizing will stop. You stand with the disposable, so the day will come when we stop throwing people away. You seek, as you leave this place, a kind of compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it. And, a great many people will look at you, standing at the margins and will accuse you of wasting your time.”

(You can read or watch the entire address at: http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/Boyle/Commencement.html)

I cite this passage because it exemplifies what Ignatian spirituality has been, and must continue to be: a faith that does justice (Jesuit General Congregation #32). Clearly, commencement addresses are a genre all their own. This genre, especially at Jesuit institutions of higher learning, should encapsulate exactly what it is that the graduating seniors have spent the last four years incorporating into their own lives. Such commencement addresses should beg to be heard and taken in by the entire assembly. The rest of one’s life should commence with the certain knowledge that no life is lived in isolation. Only in kinship and solidarity is God’s will carried out. And only we can carry it out. That is very good news.

Photo: “What Could Go Wrong” by John Walker from Flickr (Used under Creative Commons license)
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Daniel Cosacchi is a doctoral student in the theology department at Loyola University, Chicago. He studies Christian ethics, with special interest in just war theory and pacifism. He holds a BA from Fordham College, and a Masters of Theological Studies (MTS) from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

One Comment »

  • lisa said:

    Dan,

    I like your connection between commencement addresses and mass homilies. How I long for priests who took their 10 minutes each sunday with as much responsibility as a commencement speaker. Why can’t the words of Greg Boyle’s be our send off every week? Why don’t our priest’s see the possibilities in the 10 minutes of advertising-free attention they get every Sunday? The 5th avenue marketing giants pay millions for 30 seconds of our attention and the Catholic church has it ever single week and doesn’t seem to know how to use it. All the ceremonial garb without the message easily makes for an empty ritual.

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