2011 Commencement Mass Homily
University of Notre Dame
May 22, 2011
Gospel: John 14: 1-14
This is an appropriate Gospel for today. It is from Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, the night before he was to be crucified.
In John’s Gospel, this Last Supper discourse was his critical final instructions to his disciples before his death on the cross. And this Commencement weekend is our last discussion with you before you go your separate ways. It is a good time to reflect on what Jesus has to say to his disciples, and what he is saying to us today.
Jesus tells them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled; have faith in God, have faith in him; he is going to prepare a place for you, and you will know the way.”
But Thomas asks, “Lord, we don’t even know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus replies, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
What is Jesus saying here? When you think about it, Jesus’ words were and are surprising and confusing, and it is no wonder that Thomas and Philip were confused. Jesus is going to prepare a place; the disciples know the way—but they don’t! And Jesus says he is the way. But how can that be? Thomas was looking for a definite destination and some directions, and Jesus simply tells him, “I am the way.” How can a person be the way? A person is not a path, or a set of directions.
What was Jesus trying to say?
It is a good time to reflect prayerfully on paths, directions, and destinations. This past week, you have perhaps had a chance to look back on your time here, and the path you traced in your life since your arrival. To a large extent, your respective paths were determined by your plans, objectives, and decisions. But, if we are honest, I think most of us must admit that there were some unexpected and unplanned turns in the road. After being intent on one major and a corresponding career track, you may have found your interests and abilities directed you elsewhere. You may have gained some insights into yourself and life that have had a profound influence and even changed the course of your life. You may look back at some dead ends you followed for a while, before moving forward. And in every life, there are some mistakes: we all wander off the right path at times. But you did what was important: you got back on the right path.
And you cannot think about all this without thinking about the friends you made—people you did not know when you came here that have become such an important part of your life.
All this—your plans and objectives, the unexpected turns, the wrong turns and wandering, and the companions on the road—all this has become part of the path of your life, and that path has brought you to where you are.
As you look forward, you can perhaps expect more of the same: plans and objectives that help you plot a course, unexpected turns, perhaps some mistakes and a little wandering, and companions for the journey.
So, at this time, reflecting on the path you have travelled to come to today, and the path ahead: how are we to understand Jesus’ statement that He is the way?
Perhaps it is this: finding our way, and staying on the right path, is not just a matter of having a set of definite directions toward a destination we know in advance. It is, rather, about staying in a relationship with a person, with Jesus.
This reminds me of when I was in New York for the Notre Dame-Army football game in November. I was going from our hotel to the game by subway on a very crowded Saturday evening in New York. I don’t know New York very well and, to be honest, had no idea of where I was going—I did not know the subway station in which we were to board the train, where we were to get off the train, or how to find the stadium once I got off the subway.
I’ll fill you in on a secret. Presidents don’t usually know where they are going or where they are supposed to be. Fortunately, they have people around them who get them where they need to go. So I was with my colleague, Frances Shavers, who is somewhat tall and easy to spot in a crowd. I knew I did not know where I was going, but I knew that if I kept eye contact with Frances, I would get to where I needed to be. It wasn’t always easy. The crowds jostled me this way and that. I got separated from Frances. And I almost took a wrong turn or two. But I was able to keep my eye on her, try to stay reasonably close, and move in her general direction, and eventually I made it.
Perhaps Jesus is the way for us in a similar fashion. As we travel in life, we can get jostled, make unexpected turns, and even wander. We can even be a little unsure of our ultimate destination. But we try to keep our eye on Jesus Christ, particularly in those moments of uncertainty or wandering. With that, we can find our way.
“Have faith in God; have faith in me,” Jesus tells us. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Perhaps this is an image for faith: finding our way by keeping an eye on Christ, and in that, finding some peace.
Graduates—as you leave here and go your separate ways—find your way by keeping an eye on the Lord. Do this through regular, even daily prayer and reflection; through the sacraments, such as the Mass; and through prayerful, serious, and regular reflection on the course and purpose of your life.
You will not have the luxury of being at ND, where you can walk to the Grotto or go to the chapel in your dorm. But you will carry Notre Dame in your heart, and with this, you will find that space for prayer, reflection, and keeping an eye on the Lord.
Graduates, we are grateful to you for walking with us on this path for the past years. Parents, we are grateful to you for entrusting your children to us for this journey. And, graduates, I can promise you two things. First, you will always be in our prayers here at Notre Dame—my prayers, the prayers of the priests behind me, and the prayers of all us here at Notre Dame.
And, second, always remember this: whatever turns your path takes, and wherever it leads, you will always have a home at Notre Dame, and always be welcome here.
You know the way.
Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
President, University of Notre Dame