Baccalaureate Address at Wabash College
“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:40)
I would ask if we could observe a moment of silence to honor the soul and memory of Professor Steven Webb, a beloved spouse and father, a passionate intellectual, a devoted teacher of philosophy and religion, a man of real living faith, and an encouraging voice and friend in my own journey through Wabash and toward the priesthood.
May he rest in peace. Amen. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the Mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.
On the Catholic liturgical calendar today, we celebrate the Solemnity of Pentecost, that occasion recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The day before Pentecost the apostles were gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and some other women. The next day as they gathered, the Holy Spirit descended upon them in the form of a great sound like a rushing wind that filled the room, and tongues of fire emerged over them, as the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. The apostles were transformed that very day from anxious men, uncertain about the future, into to bold and fearless preachers, teachers, and workers in the vineyard of the Kingdom of God, who eventually went out to the ends of the known world to proclaim the Good News of salvation in the name of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, and baptizing thousands, before most of them were martyred for the faith. The power of the Holy Spirit drove them to begin the Church and change the history of the world forever. The Holy Spirit was spark that lit the fire in their hearts.
Well–on this liturgical anniversary of Pentecost, it is fitting that, like the Apostles, we are gathered together in this Chapel, a sacred space to pray in anticipation of an event that will send you out into the world. I do desire that the same Holy Spirit to be here now, and to inspire us to go out to live lives of radical love, to reach the fullness of our human potential–in other words to become saints.
Just as something unexpected happened on that first Pentecost, I want to interrupt, just a bit, the solemnity of this occasion and by creating a space in which God’s grace can enter into our hearts.
First, to the Class of 2016, as a sign of your fraternity as Wabash men who have completed a mission together, can I invite you to offer a sign of peace to your brother at your right and your left, or nearby, and to congratulate one another.
Next, if you are grateful to have made it to today, to be graduating, can you express your gratitude by saying, “Amen.”? [If quiet: Are you men or mice? Can I get an “Amen”?]
And, if you agree with the following statements, can you say, “Amen”?
It is good to be done with papers, Amen?
It is good to be done finals, Amen?
It is good to leave dorm rooms and fraternity houses to have your own space, Amen?
But it is going to be tough to get up at 6am every day and go to work and pay bills, Amen? ….Well, you have a lot to be grateful for today.
And, finally, as a sign of gratitude to those who have given their lives to bring you to this day, your parents and your teachers, let us stand now and express with applause our gratitude for these most important people in your life……….Thank you.
On this great occasion, I wish to continue now with this prayer invoking the Holy Spirit: Come O Holy Spirit, thou Fount of Wisdom, Blessed Light divine, Paraclete, Advocate and Guide, Father of the poor, and consoler of the afflicted, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and thou shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Begin here and now with the Class of 2016. Amen.
President Hess invited me to consider sharing some of my personal story this afternoon, so I ask your forbearance in doing so, because this day is about you and your future. My hope is that this story may serve as a parable with which you might be able to reflect a bit on your own life and the deepest desires of your hearts, hearts which, as St. Augustine said, can be so restless, until they rest in He who is Love.
It was not so long ago, in May of 1999, that I was sitting in those pews considering what lay in store for my classmates and myself. There seemed to be almost limitless possibilities in front of us–after all the gift of a liberal arts education, is that one gains greater freedom and access to more of the human experience. Later in my life, a great mentor would remind me that real maturity requires making decisions, a word that from the Latin, “decidere”—meaning to “cut off”; and that growth and strength of character will come from cutting off options and deciding to move toward a goal with firmness.
Like many of you, I cherished the 4 years of intellectual exploration at Wabash and by graduation I felt that there was so much more to learn, but I also wanted to know something about the “real world” of business, even if it would be a temporary stop. So, I took a job with an entrepreneur in Indianapolis and became his assistant to learn the trade of doing business, and later started my own little business as a head hunter–partnering with a professional recruiter who was very successful. At the turn of the millennium there was a technological boom especially in communications, and he told me that “you got to make hay while the sun is shining.” And so that’s what we did; and as a new college graduate, I started to accumulate money quickly.
One day, I went to church for Mass on a Sunday, and I heard from the pulpit that famous line from Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:24) And, I was troubled. Not only because I was getting rich and also wanted to go to heaven, but also because I knew wealthy people who were generous and altruistic, so what about them, I wondered? But, God’s grace often enters our life as an interruption, and disturbs us, and awakens us to deeper truths; and that is what happened to me.
Not content with making money, I decided to go to graduate school to keep learning. But by the end of the program, I was not sure what to do next, so I applied for a 1-year Fellowship in Public Affairs and got assigned to New York City. I arrived for the orientation and then on began my first assignment, near Wall St. in downtown New York City.
Incredibly, my first full-day of work at that assignment was 9-11-2001–the day the Twin Towers were attacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Many of you were in 2nd grade that day, and I imagine you remember the images from TV. I came out of the Subway a few blocks away from the World Trade Center about 5 minutes before the second plane struck the second tower. As I emerged from the Subway, I did not know what had happened, and could only see smoke billowing out of a hole on one side of the World Trade Tower. I asked a guy on the street what happened, and he said, “A plane went into the tower.” It didn’t seem possible from my vantage point, so I asked him again, “Are you sure?” “Yes.” And, he pointed up. As I looked up again, I saw over our heads the violent explosion then heard the loudest sound I ever heard in my life, and ran frantically across the street in the other direction to a woman who was shrieking and crying because she had seen the plane strike the tower. We watched, stunned as the towers burned and people were driven out of the windows by the extreme heat of the fire. It was surreal.
Shortly later, the NYPD came to evacuate our area, and as we were walking, there was an eerie silence and then strange sound, and then pandemonium, as people scattered screaming, “It is coming down.” We did not know if the tower was going to fall on us, but it collapsed upon itself, and the smoke came chasing us through the streets. I outran the smoke and made it to Chinatown, where I turned around and watched the second tower fall.
Like so many, that day changed my life, as you know, it has dramatically changed the history of the world into which your are being launched. The next day, Sept. 12th, I returned to Ground Zero as a civilian volunteer and worked there for about 5 days. That experience deeply marked my life. Amidst the pile of rubble, the thousands of workers, the clouds of dust, the remains and ashes of over 2000 people, I encountered God twice.
The first time was in the middle of the night. At Ground Zero, when the workers would find a body or a part of a body of the deceased, they would solemnly process them to an area that became a temporary morgue. I was passing through an atrium of a building when a procession of firefighters, eyes red with tears and sorrow, came carrying one of their fallen brothers. They stopped directly in front of me, and in front of them was a man dressed as a construction worker, but he was a priest, who pulled out holy water and a book and blessed the man’s body and prayed for his soul. There, in the midst of darkness, was a hidden light and presence, that I will never forget that moment.
Later, on the Sunday after 9-11, I saw a sign that read “RIP Fr. Mike”–Fr. Michael Judge was the Fire Department chaplain who died as he was praying for the firefighters in the towers. When I saw the sign, I remembered there was an outdoor Mass by the Hudson River that day. The Mass had ended by the time I arrived, but a priest was still there carrying Holy Communion. He offered me the Body of Christ. I received. Now, at that moment, I actually thought I might possibly die because my lungs were so heavy with the dust and poisonous gasses in the air I’d been breathing during those five days. And I had not slept much. So, after receiving Holy Communion, I went to a volunteer center to take a nap. When I fell asleep, I had a dream that I cannot describe. Only to say that it was like heaven and filled with light–it was a gift of the Eucharist. I woke up with a tremendous peace, and at that time Ground Zero was declared a recovery zone and no longer a rescue operation because it was believed that there were no more possible survivors. So I returned home.
I bother to share this story because at that time, my own death seemed very possible in my own mind. And, when that happens, our perspective changes. We become more capable of decisions–recall our earlier Latin lesson about cutting off options. For me, it was a good friend who told me: “You need to go to confession.” For Catholics, that is the sacrament in which we confess our sins and receive forgiveness from God through the ministry of a priest. My friend was right: I was lost and was not ready to die. During my years at Wabash and immediately afterward, I thought it was possible to keep one foot in the faith and another in the world, and to live life in a morally care-free manner in a way that many young men do–and then 9/11 happened and the brevity of life and the nearness of death woke me up.
I took my friends advice and went to confession and cleaned out my soul, and I felt so good afterward, lighter, and freer. And, I told the priest that I was tired of playing around with life, that I wanted to either get married or become a priest. In short, I wanted to do something with my life that would have real significance, even eternal consequences, and to stop entertaining myself to death.
God’s call was strong, and I surrendered to Him about 6 months after 9-11 and accepted the call to become a priest; and since that day, I cannot imagine doing anything that would bring me more satisfaction, striving to help souls get to heaven.
Because the truth is: that we are all going to die, and among the most important questions we can ask ourselves is: am I ready to die? If I died today, am I ready to meet God? Am I satisfied with what I am doing with my life and in with my relationships with others? In what concrete ways have I loved God and others, especially the poor?
My personal wake-up call was radical. For so many others, the Lord works subtly and persistently. But, for all of us, there is a universal call to become saints, to be instruments of a love so profound that it spills out of you like a light that cannot be hidden. You are called to lead lives of spiritual and moral greatness, and not just because you are a Wabash men, but because you are made in the image and likeness of a God who is Love.
It is this call to greatness, holiness, saintliness that I want to address today. You see, society is set up for you to succeed. Really, it is true. You are all going to graduate with a degree from a great liberal arts school that is very valuable in the job market and in the graduate school market. For those who have not already been hired by a company or been accepted to a graduate school, chances are you soon will be, or will land on your feet because in addition to your personal circle of friends and those of your parents, you have a network of alumni who are ready to assist you. We can say, even in an economy that is not perfect, that your chances of success in society are very good and dramatically exceed, for example, the majority of the poor, Hispanic immigrant population whom I serve in my parish in New York, and also exceed those of generations past.
However, while these advantages will increase your odds of worldly success, such accomplishments will not ensure that you live a full life and experience beatitude or blessedness, and lasting joy. These goals must be consciously and purposefully sought with great effort, even intensity. The alumni network can’t help you reach them. You can’t apply for beatitude with your transcript and CV. No, these are eulogy virtues–the virtues that people will talk about when you die–not resume virtues, the accomplishments we may boast about while we are alive.
Don’t get me wrong: achieving excellence and success in your profession of choice is a great thing–we are all about that at Wabash. But, if you do so while settling for moral and spiritual mediocrity at the same time, you will eventually find yourself at some point in the future sensing an inner listlessness. There will be a nagging feeling that something is lacking. And this something, if not addressed, can become a dark emptiness.
A great portion of my work as a priest is to prepare souls for death and eternal life, and so it is not uncommon to hear from men who are dying such things as: “I wish I would have been a better husband, or father, and spent more time with my children. I wish I would have reconciled with my father or mother before they died; I wish I would have forgiven my brother a long time ago; I wish I would have done more for others.” I rarely hear about money or achievements when a man is dying.
So, I believe the answer to all these final “wishes”,” to the longings in every human heart and soul is…Love. We were made by Love for love, and if we do not seek and strive to love wholeheartedly, we will not reach our potential, for which we are made. So, I hope to impart some counsel for your consideration.
Many of you are familiar with St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians–it is commonly used at a wedding ceremony as a reading, because it is the great ode to Love. In the 12th Chapter, St. Paul urges the Corinthians to strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, before writing, “But I shall show you still a more excellent way,” (1 Cor 12: 31), and then 13th Chapter begins:
If I speak in human and angelic tongues* but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.a 2And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.b3If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.c
St. Paul then goes on to describe love, but I want to stop here and adapt his words above to apply to our current situation, our own strivings and goals. Such a version could read:
If I have degrees and letters after my name and write or create the greatest works but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or clashing cymbal; If I have an important job and gain riches or get into the best graduate school, medical school or law school, but do not have love, I gain nothing. If I invent new technologies, find cures for diseases, or revolutionize industries, but lack love, I am nothing.
Now, here it is important to point out: this is not an either/or proposition–either I strive for success in my field, or I love. No, God has made us in His own image with and intellect and a will that are free and creative, and if they are trained and disciplined in the ways of love, they can become a force for goodness, truth, beauty, and Light in a world that has grown dark and cold by sin.
I urge you, let Love be your Master and Model in all that you do. Make every effort to place all your talent, creativity and energy at the service of Love of God and neighbor, and you will bring the Light of the World with you; and in doing so, you can become a saint, in whom light and Love shine so brightly that the world will come to know the God who is Love through you.
When we look at the crucifix, we see an icon of Love–a picture of what the theologians call kenosis–or self-emptying: God emptying himself of the privilege of his divinity to come among us to die as slave of love on the cross. Total abandonment and surrender. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13). On the crucifix, we can see the radicality of God’s love: the Master has become the servant, and lays his own life down for his disciples.
When we think of our greatest teachers and mentors, we see how with great patience and great cost to themselves, they have lowered themselves to relate to us and instruct us, precisely to serve us and raise us up, to help us reach our potential, the fullest flourishing of our human faculties.
Now, as you go forward , you will achieve positions of leadership in society, and your vocations may put you in contact with the high and mighty, but I urge you: do not remain there. Do get comfortable there. Your witness and example will influence others.
Rather, if you wish to lead a full life and reach your potential: look, seek, and strive to find ways to lower yourself, on bended knee, to serve the poorest of the poor in your midst, remembering this clear admonition from the Lord: “What you did for these least of my brothers, you did for me.” (Mt 25:40)
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Founder of the Missionaries of Charity, which serve the poorest of the poor in over 130 countries around the world, had an experience that marked her forever: Rushing through a train station in Calcutta on her way to visit the home of a sick person, she saw a man lying on the ground, dying. She made a mental note to come directly back to him after visiting the sick person. But, when she returned–he was gone. She asked a man where he went, and the man said, “he died.” She was deeply affected by that experience and said, “Never again,” would she walk by a dying man without attending to him. And, so she founded the House for the Dying in Calcutta in 1952, and the Missionaries of Charity have continued this work throughout the world ever since. It was this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 that embedded itself in her soul: “You did it for me.” She understood this mystical insight: that hidden in the poor among us is the presence of God. As she put it, “Jesus comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor.”
And you will find Him in so many of our brothers and sisters because there are so many forms of poverty. Of course, economic poverty is prominent and often comes to mind first, but Mother Teresa said that greatest poverty in the United States is loneliness. And, I agree. We find the lonely among the millions of senior parents or grandparents who spend their days in a nursing home or senior living facility staring at an open door at the end of their beds, wondering when their children or grandchildren will come through the door. We find the lonely in the suicidal teenager who was bullied as a child and isolates himself or cuts herself to cope with the pain; in the homeless man on the corner or in the shelter who has been alienated by his family because of his addiction or mental illness. We find the lonely in the widow who puts on a good face but is empty inside; in the separated or single mother whose children are grown and who has an aching loneliness in her heart. In all of these brothers and sisters, the truth is that the loneliness of the human heart can only be satisfied by Love. And, you and I are called to be those missionaries of love.
No government program, however laudable, can satisfy the longing of the human heart for Love. No, this burden, this cross, falls to you and me to shoulder and carry. If we choose to meet God in the poorest of the poor, and to satiate His Thirst for our Love–it will cost us greatly. It will hurt, and we will suffer; but we will know something of the peace that surpasses understanding and a joy that is complete, for we will begin to say with the saints, that it is no longer I who live, but God who lives in me. And, when we die, we will hear the Master say, “Come you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine–[when you loved them when they were hungry or thirsty or naked or a stranger, an immigrant or sick or in prison…when you did it for them]–you did for me.” (Mt 25: 34;40)
Finally, lest you think you it is beyond you to become a saint, Mother Teresa often taught a deep truth about love, for those who desire to become saints. She said, “We are not called to do great things; we are called to do little things with great love.” And when we consider our daily lives, we see there are so many ways to do so: it is a smile to the stranger, bringing a cup of coffee to the maintenance man, doing the dishes for your spouse when she is tired and you are too, working the late shift so you can watch your daughter’s first soccer game, cleaning behind the toilet because you know your mom asks for that, offering your place in line to the elderly lady, skipping the party to visit your great-aunt in the hospital, bringing sandwiches to the immigrant men waiting on the corner for work, writing the letter to your mom that you have put off, forgiving your father, lending your brother your car, and giving up the promotion so you can have time to coach your son’s team, and volunteering a night at the homeless shelter. These and so many other ways. Becoming a saint is within your reach, if you decide with firmness of purpose to seek it.
Class of 2016, I hope and pray you will not only be successful in your vocations and endeavors; but, that you will also lead full lives, lives of blessedness and joy that will satisfy the deepest desires of your hearts. There is a secret to that: and it is this call to become saints; to never pass up an opportunity to do good for another; to stay close to God by staying close to the poor through works of mercy; and in doing so, to satisfy the longing of God’s heart for your love. May you keep you minds on the heavenly realities, aware that death awaits us all, but placing your faith in the One has conquered death, knowing that His love lives on in you, and that He awaits you in your neighbor–don’t pass Him by. Stop and lower yourself, make a gift of yourself, and you will see how your hearts will be satisfied, and how, over time, you will come to know and taste the riches of heaven on the way to heaven.
God bless you!
Fr. Vincent Druding ’99
Read Fr. Vincent’s Ground Zero: A Journal