Pope Francis in Graduation Season
If his schedule would allow it – and it is safe to say, it does not – Pope Francis would probably be the most in-demand commencement speaker in the world, sought out by colleges and universities, and probably high schools and elementary schools too, Catholic and non-Catholic, private and public alike.
In this season when we prepare to send the Class of 2016 onward for further studies or into the world with a vision for now and the future, we can reflect on some of the Pope’s recent words for inspiration for not only our new graduates, but for all of us.
When the Holy Father made his historic address to a joint meeting of Congress on September 24, 2015, he made a special point that he sought to “dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations.” He pointed out that for many young people, “a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions.”
Pope Francis called on political leaders and all people of good will to work together for the common good. He encouraged people to follow the example of four great Americans, two of whom were Catholic, saying, “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, and when it bears the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
The Holy Father ended his remarks to Congress by expressing hope for young people, saying, “I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.” Then he simply said, “God bless America!”
Significantly, Pope Francis then traveled to Catholic Charities to meet with and offer love and support to the homeless and poor, and express thanks to the staff members and volunteers who stand in solidarity with them. With words and then actions, he offered a blueprint for how today’s Catholics and indeed all Americans can bring Christ’s love to their country and their world.
One day earlier, Pope Francis celebrated the first canonization Mass on U.S. soil, as he declared Father Junípero Serra, the great Franciscan missionary of 18th century California, as our nation’s newest saint. The liturgy was celebrated on the steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, facing the campus of the adjoining Catholic University of America, at the spot where the school holds its commencement exercises each spring. The congregation included thousands of Catholic University students, including many members of the Class of 2016, who would never forget that a pope once visited their campus and prayed with and spoke to them.
Pope Francis concluded his homily at the canonization Mass by encouraging people to be missionary disciples of Jesus in today’s world, just as Saint Junípero was in his times. “Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, not just a saying, but above all a reality which shaped the way he lived: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward!” the Pope said. “For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”
With that mindset and work of the heart, members of the Class of 2016 and all the rest of us too, can keep dreaming and moving forward together.