Hello Wheeling Jesuit class of 2016! As you count down your final hours on this campus, you join universities from coast to coast in a unique ritual. This is the moment when someone whom you've never met, comes in from out of town, and offers some parting words of wisdom before you receive your well-earned diplomas.
While I know that I am new to you, I am not new to the great endeavor of Jesuit education and I am honored to have this privileged time with you.
Jesuit education is well known in the world, especially since the most famous Jesuit, Pope Francis, has become a global figure. But how exactly does one label it? Is a Jesuit education a commodity that one has, as in “I have an iPad Pro, a Subaru Legacy, a Jesuit Education and a job offer at Google?” Is it an existential description of our being, as in, “I'm an extroverted, open-minded, Jesuit-educated, Sagittarius.” Or is it another value added attribute that we use to punch-up our resume so as to stand above the competition?
It is easy to reduce a Jesuit University to a franchise, or a brand. My current go-to comedian, Mr. Stephen Colbert, has an interesting routine on religious branding. In his book I am America and So Can You, he describes his faith with these words:
“Catholics have many advantages over other religions, one is marble. For every buck I put in the collection plate I want some production value.”
“Also Catholics have saints, more than 10,000 of them. They're like God's customer service reps, and each of them has a specialty. Say you lose your wallet? You could bother the Creator to help you but if you're a Catholic you don't have to. Just pray to St. Anthony. Finding lost things is all he does - for eternity! Also there are times that you might want to pray to St. Agatha. She is the patron saint of nursing and bell-makers. If you are a nurse and a bell-maker, that's one stop shopping.”
I think that we can all appreciate Mr. Colbert's satirical take on the branding of religion.
Imagine the parody he could do on Jesuit Education?
“One reason why Jesuit Universities are great is that they are a sure bet during March Madness. And if you win you gain pride and cash.
“Jesuits have taught thinkers as famous as Rene Descartes and presidents as infamous as Fidel Castro. When you want to feel smart you can say that you have the same degree as Descartes,” and when you need someone to blame you can say, “I was taught by the same guys who taught Castro.”
Yes, your degree is not a model, make or brand. It is not something to be auctioned on e-bay or appraised for its resale value. The value of a Jesuit education goes much deeper than branding.
Jesuit education has many descriptors which help to understand its richness and depth. There are the letters AMDG, Ad Maiorem dei Gloriam, For the Greater Glory of God, which is the motto of the Jesuit Order. You've no doubt heard of, “Forming Women and Men for Others” which is a primary outcome of our schools. And some among you are familiar with the Latin word Magis meaning “more” or “greater.” These are all excellent points of departure for a reflection on Jesuit education.
And descriptors, as helpful as they are, can be easily diluted. Ten years ago a well-known NBC news personality was delivering Harvard University's commencement address. Because he had given dozens of quotable commencement addresses, those who were to be graduated from Harvard College took top quotes from his previous addresses and plotted them into a game of Bingo. Each time he uttered a familiar phrase, students would mark their cards until they could stand and call out “Bingo!” A bit of a cheap shot from our nation's oldest university, but we rarely like to hear the same thing twice.
So why do we repeat expressions such as AMDG, “Women and Men for Others,” and Magis? And how will this repetition affect what you do and how you live in this world?
I like looking first to the one who inspired this whole enterprise, the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola. Ignatius Loyola was not what we would call a traditional student. A rather happy-go-lucky-guy, he didn't seek higher education until after his conversion following a battle wound. When he decided to go to school, he first had to fulfill the equivalent of his GED and study alongside students more than half his age.
But what he eventually learned at the University of Paris, and what he did with his education, has had a lasting impact on the world. By placing his desires ahead of his pride and by placing God and others before himself, he transformed the manner and the way in which people learn.
o Education did not make him better than anyone else rather it bettered his ability to help everyone else.
o Education did not double his paycheck; it more than doubled his ability to change the world
o Education was not his tool for winning arguments, it helped him to win and inspire followers.
o Education was not so much something that he had, it was something that he gave.
o It was a lens into the past that gave him hope for the future.
o And it was a way for him to see the hand of God at work in the world.
I believe that this perspective is as relevant today as it was when he was graduated some 470 years ago. Last month I was attending a meeting of Jesuit provincial superiors in Antananarivo Madagascar. During the meeting I attended a graduation of their Jesuit University. Parts of the ceremony were different than today: the music, the Malagasy language, and the names; much was the same: caps and gowns, the conferral of degrees and the enthusiasm of the families in the stands. At one point, my counterpart, the president of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar addressed the graduates. He is South African and he spoke with the assistance of a translator. In his remarks he told the students that all human beings have three basic needs, food, shelter and companionship. Only his translator mistakenly labeled “companionship” as physical intimacy. Needless to say, the graduates burst out laughing. The speaker quickly figured why and said, “Yes, this education even has something to say about that need!” He used the misunderstanding to emphasize a philosophy that was central to St. Ignatius Loyola. This education seeks to form the whole person, mind, body, spirit. For St. Ignatius education was not simply technical skills, or professional competence. Education said as much about who you were as a person as it did about what you did in the workplace. It affected your beliefs as much as your aspirations. And this education was all in vain if it did not help you to find your vocation, and your direction in life.
We've all met someone who was in the wrong vocation. I once taught in the classroom next to someone whom I overheard saying, “This class is out of control, now put me down!” He didn't have a future in teaching. A friend once told me that bringing her Samsung Galaxy phone to an interview at a Mac Store might have cost her that job? And I met a former Congressional intern in DC who mistakenly revealed to his Congressmen that he never voted in elections because there wasn't anyone worth voting for! Not exactly an astute reading of his surroundings.
The stories of failed jobs and mismatched careers are legion. But finding your vocation is not simply about a good fit in the workplace or nailing your first job interview. For St. Ignatius Loyola our work was as much about the difference that we made in the world as it was about our livelihood and personal satisfaction. For him, true satisfaction came from finding the unique gifts that God gave us and developing these to our fullest potential.
In your years at Wheeling Jesuit you have achieved some noteworthy goals.
o A momentous Division II Women's Volleyball championship.
o Accomplishing 27,000 hours of community service this year.
o Taking part in mission trips to Haiti, El Salvador, Peru and Haiti.
o You traveled to Stratford on Avon to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death.
o And some of you even joined me in welcoming Pope Francis to Washington this past September.
You've seen your campus expand its athletic, residential, and academic facilities. This year you met Sr. Helen Prejean, you remembered the tragedy of the Holocaust and you encountered a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi genocide. Such experience would be close to the heart of St. Ignatius Loyola because be wanted his followers to go to the corners of the earth to bring consolation and hope to those who were most in need. Yes, you have all in your own way earned the admiration of St. Ignatius Loyola.
So let me return to those earlier descriptors of Jesuit education as I share some parting thoughts.
As graduates of Wheeling Jesuit you should be men and women of the Magis
Magis means “more,” but not as in having more, or earning more. The Magis or “more” which characterizes Jesuit education is about how you make choices. You will be faced with many choices in the years ahead. Choices about your own family, choices about your work and the many everyday decisions that you will have to make. For St. Ignatius choosing the Magis was about choosing that which would accomplish the greater good and that which would be more pleasing to God. Let the Magis shape your future.
As graduates of Wheeling Jesuit you should be Women and Men for Others
This famous expression of Fr. Pedro Arrupe (the former head of the Jesuits and 37th successor of St. Ignatius Loyola) has summed up a primary goal of Jesuit education. In a world that places so much emphasis on love of self, Father Arrupe wanted to remind us that, 'It is [only] in giving that we receive.' Two years ago I had the opportunity to meet and converse briefly with Pope Francis. To say that I was nervous, talking to him in the Italian language, would be an understatement. I worried that I might mispronounce a vowel and do the Italian equivalent of thinking I said, “We love you” when in fact I was saying, “We loathe you.” But his warmth and smile won my heart. At the time my father was to have cancer surgery and instead of talking about myself I told him about my Dad. I still tear up when I remember his response, “What's his name?” “When is the surgery?” “I will pray for him.” Didn't I feel special when I called home and said, “Hey Dad, guess who's praying for you?” But my pride was tempered by this exceptional generosity from a man who has the care of over a billion, yet never loses sight of the needs of one. Be Women and Men for others, in giving you will receive more than you could ever ask for.
Finally, as graduates of Wheeling Jesuit you should live AMDG: Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam
If you are looking for role models who have lived their lives for the Greater Glory of God, you need look no further than to your own parents and grandparents, and those who have brought you into this world and to this special day. In loving you, they reveal the power of selfless love and whoever does this gives Glory to God. Dare to reach beyond yourselves. Build on their strength and courage as you move into the world. There is no greater love than to give of yourself to others and in your moments of despair, there you will find your hope.
So what is Jesuit education? Jesuit education is you! You are our proudest and newest witness to this nearly 500 year old tradition. On behalf of your families, your faculty and all who serve the mission of Wheeling Jesuit University, I congratulate you and I salute you.