Even though we find ourselves in unusual circumstances, I offer hearty congratulations to the young people of our community who are members of a graduation class. Whether you just have finished high school, college, graduate school, trade school, or some other academy, your accomplishments will no doubt serve to cultivate a wiser and one hopes, more humane society. Decades ago, Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, the President of Catholic University, delivered a commencement speech from his own perspective as an epidemiologist. Comparing the effects of learning with those of a benign, but infectious disease, he writes: “The degree you receive today is only a certificate of exposure, not a guarantee of infection. Some may have caught the virus of education, others only a mild case, and still others may be totally immune. To which category do you belong? Should you care? How can you tell?” Friends, today our nation is concerned with the nature and risks of a contagious disease: and rightly so. How does it work? Can it be stopped? But just as illness threatens to overwhelm the body, just so God’s grace has a life-giving effect upon the soul. The mind searches for truth, and the heart, for all things good. A human being can never be satisfied until he or she discovers God, the source of all perfection. Life then becomes, in a sense, the drama that unfolds as the desire for God consumes every aspect of life: our work and play, our loves and aspirations, our friendships, and even our sufferings. As a priest pointed out to me recently, with God, nothing is wasted. Victory and tragedy lead us to the Lord who meets us at the cross, of course, but ultimately in Paradise.
Friends, a few days ago, the Church celebrated the mystery of the Ascension, on which day the Risen Lord Jesus was taken up in glory, and seated at the right hand of God. The lesson we take from Solemnity is that the Kingdom to which Christ precedes us is the destiny of all who believe in him. The question becomes: what until then? How are we to conduct ourselves in the meantime? We get a clue from the Scriptures today. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear what happens immediately after Jesus’ Ascension. The disciples return from Galilee to Jerusalem to await further word from the Lord. They meet in the upper room with the women who were part of Jesus’ entourage, along with Mary his mother. Their time is spent entirely in prayer to await his coming just as they had witnessed him go up into heaven.
The apostles, of course, are not the only ones at prayer. Jesus, the Gospel reminds us, consecrates them to the Father in his hour of glory. He does so that they might be free from the world and caught up in the mystery of divine life. Still, like Jesus, they have to accept their share of his cross. The first Letter of Peter explains that we will be made to suffer for Christ, but he himself will remain in our midst to sustain us throughout our trials here below.
Friends, you don’t need me to point out the pain of so many throughout the world today. The Scriptures teach us that we should not even be “surprised” by this. Yet suffering is not the last word. The ordeals of earthly life have redemptive value as we humble ourselves before God. Therein lies the paradox: the disciple of Christ learns to find life in the midst of death, glory in suffering, and grace in affliction. Graduates: let’s keep on learning.