2019 Commencement Mass Homily
Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center
May 18, 2019
Tomorrow’s commencement, at which I will award you graduates your degrees, will not be the first Notre Dame commencement of the spring of 2019, nor will you be the first in your class to receive your degree. The first occurred a week ago Friday in a hospital room in town, where I, accompanied by our provost, Tom Burish; the dean of the College of Arts and Letters, Sarah Mustillo; and our vice president for student affairs, Erin Hoffman Harding, conferred a degree on Chris Westdyk, a classmate of you seniors. You see, Chris has been struggling with cancer. His health had deteriorated, and it was unlikely that he would be able to join you at tomorrow’s ceremony. He became, then, the first Notre Dame graduate of 2019.
Chris had been struggling with cancer since his junior year in high school, but he generally kept that struggle to himself. He was selected as an RA for Stanford Hall for his senior year and his rector, Justin McDevitt, encouraged him to share that struggle with his fellow students on the hall staff. He did, and Chris and his family were moved by the care and support he received. Through all the ups and downs of succeeding months, his friends and colleagues stuck with him, supported him and encouraged him.
Last week, on a sunny Friday afternoon at the end of finals week, that group of friends, along with Chris and his parents, crowded into the small hospital room with us for a simple commencement ceremony. That scene was for me a particularly poignant expression of what we strive to be at Notre Dame: a community that cares for one another in good times and in bad.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gathers with his disciples for the last time before his death. He will be with them only “a little while longer,” he says, and he wants to tell the kind of life he wants them to live and the kind of community he wants them to form. “I give you a new commandment,” he says. “Love one another as I have loved you. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
I don’t need to tell you that the word love has taken on meanings that are far from what Jesus was talking about. It can denote a certain sentimentality, or infatuation, or romantic attachment or erotic desire. Jesus’s meaning is captured by the example of his life — a life that gave itself completely to others, even unto death. That kind of love was palpable in Chris Westdyk’s hospital room last Friday as he and his Stanford Hall friends and colleagues gathered for the conferral of his degree. It was the Notre Dame community at its best.
On this Commencement weekend, graduates, we not only celebrate your accomplishments, but we reflect on the hope we have for you as you go forth from this place. You have worked hard, certainly, and your professors and many others have worked hard to teach you. You have acquired skills that we expect will be put to good use in the professions to which you will be called, whether business or teaching, medicine or law, engineering or architecture. By applying the knowledge and skills you have acquired, you will make the world better.
We here at Notre Dame, however, have an even more ambitious hope for you. We hope you will be people who will respond to Christ’s command to love in the circumstances of your lives. We hope that what marks you as a graduate of Notre Dame is not simply the superlative knowledge and skills you apply in your profession — as important as these are — but the quality of the love you show.
This past week we mourned the passing of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities and one of the great spiritual figures of our time. Vanier, born to Canadian parents, began his professional career in the British and then the Canadian navies. He then felt a spiritual calling to do “something else,” and went to get a doctorate in philosophy and, upon receiving his degree, took a faculty position at St. Michael’s College in Toronto.
In 1964, through a friend who was a priest, he became aware of the plight of developmentally disabled people consigned to living in institutions. Vanier invited two men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to live with him so that he could care for them. He discovered, however, that these men had as much to offer him as he had to offer them. He came to see that the calling was not so much to provide care for these men, but to form with them a community in which each person could share her or his gifts. Vanier went on to inspire such communities, which he called L’Arche communities, around the world.
Graduates of the class of 2019, I know you have the talent and training to do great things across a range of professions. I am confident that you, with the discipline and hard work you have shown here, will have success. I hope, though, that into each of your lives will enter people like Chris Westdyk, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux. For these encounters will call you not simply to use your knowledge and skill to solve some problem within your area of competence, but also to show the kind of love that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel reading. If that happens, then the encounter will not give you simply a disease to cure, a lesson to be taught, a legal case to be argued, or a community problem to be solved. It will invite you to be part of a community of love in which you give and receive gifts.
Graduates, let your hearts be open to give and receive that kind of love.
Make no mistake, though, if you open your hearts to that kind of love, they will be broken from time to time, just as the hearts of those gathered in Chris Westdyk’s hospital room were broken to see him struggle with his illness.
A powerful image of the heartache born of love is Ivan Mestrovic’s sculpture in our Basilica. It depicts Mary, Our Lady, receiving in her arms the lifeless body of her son who had just been taken from the cross. To open your hearts to love is to open your hearts to that kind of heartache. When you experience those moments of heartache in your life, always remember you graduated from a university named after Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows.
If, however, you do live a life open to such love, you will experience something else — you will know joy. “I tell you these things,” Jesus says to the disciples in the same speech in John’s Gospel, “that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). We all seek success and happiness, and these are worthwhile goals, but the joy that arises from a life of love is more enduring, deep and precious than anything personal success or self-satisfied happiness can offer. Find a way to give yourself in love to others — family, friends, patients, colleagues or even strangers — and you will know a joy that can change you and those around you.
As Jean Vanier said, “When we begin to believe that there is greater joy in working with and for others, rather than just for ourselves, then our society will truly become a place of celebration.”
Graduates of 2019, we wish you health, happiness, success and all good things. Most of all, though, we wish you the joy that comes from responding to Christ’s call to love. May God guide you in your quest to live this love.