About six years ago, I graduated from high school.
And about six days ago, I attended the graduation ceremony for the first senior class of my teaching career.
As anyone who has attended one can attest, graduations are all alike; whether you are marching with a crowd of excited classmates, proudly (and/or tearfully) watching your child receive his or her diploma, or watching your students move on to the next stage of their lives. The graduates think that they are terribly clever when they conceal deflated beach balls and cans of silly string under their gowns, and parents firmly maintain that their child is the most accomplished and beautiful/handsome graduate in the world.
Amid the typical graduation day staples, such as flowers, balloons, local government officials, and a high school band tentatively playing the alma mater, present at every graduation ceremony is also an undeniable and very tangible sense of hope.
As I processed onto the football field last week with my colleagues, I couldn't help but smile. The excitement was infectious, and in that moment, the futures of the 200 members of the graduating class looked so bright. However, once I began think about what a graduation signifies, I began to wonder where these students and their parents are placing their hope.
Graduation addresses typically include variations of “Reach for the stars!” and “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” The culture encourages us to pursue our dreams, work hard, and do great things with our lives. All of these encouragements are valid and vital, but they need to be qualified or else they run the risk of becoming meaningless. Are we really going to find happiness and fulfillment by doing whatever we want? Is it wise to tell our students that they can accomplish anything if they put their minds to it? Can they, really?
Many students graduating from Catholic high schools today have been attending Catholic school for the past 12 years, often due to their parents' strong support for Catholic education and the Gospel values that are taught at Catholic schools. Catholic schools are unique due to their religious affiliation, and, ideally, a strong foundation in Jesus Christ and his Church. Parents make many financial sacrifices in order to send their children to Catholic schools, because they believe that Catholic education is central to forming their children into becoming the best people they can be. However, the distinguishing quality of Catholic education should not be smaller class sizes or a community environment, but the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Every day when I walk through the main doors, I pass a plaque that reads: “Let it be known to all who enter here that Jesus Christ is the reason for this school, the unseen but ever-present teacher in all its classes, the model of its faculty, and the inspiration for its staff and students.” If we let a day go by without remembering this, without making it part of our daily lives- as students, teachers, parents, and staff members- we are missing out on Christ, “the reason for [our] hope” (1 Peter 3:15).
In the midst of the excitement generated by graduation and the next step in the lives of the young people we know, work with, and encounter in any variety of settings, we have to ensure that their hope, trust, and faith is being put in God, and not in their own talents and abilities. God, in His goodness, generosity, and love, has blessed the particular students that I have had the joy to work with in so many ways. I know that they have the abilities to do “a beautiful thing for God,” as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta would say, if they are open to His will and grace, and His plan for their lives.
Bishop William E. Lori, the bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, gave the closing remarks at the graduation. He congratulated and encouraged the graduates, but most importantly, he called them on to a deep and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Using the words, of Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop Lori said: "Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life."
During this season of graduations, as we watch our children, students, siblings, and friends move on to the next stage of their lives, in the midst of the excitement and congratulations, let us not forget to remind them that Christ is the reason for their hope.