Guest column: Now what? Share the gift

Graduation ceremonies are taking place this month in schools around the Diocese of Peoria.

Following is the full text of a homily given by Father Gregory Ketcham during a Mass at Baccalaureate and Commencement exercises for 83 students last Sunday at The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign. Father Ketcham is chaplain and director of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois.

I am honored to be asked to address the Saint Thomas More High School Class of 2008 at their Commencement Mass. I thought it would be only appropriate if I first spent some time with them.
And so, on May 7, I took the four senior religion classes and shared with them some wisdom of making the transition to college life. I also took the opportunity to get to know them. That was primarily done by asking them to spend some time and reflect on a couple of questions:

First, what is happiness? Second: How has Catholic education affected you? I got a number of outstanding responses. Here is just a sampling:

What is happiness?

1) Happiness is knowing I have positively affected someone’s life.

2) Happiness is making others happy or fixing something broken.

3) Happiness is the capacity to have a will to live and a will to dream.

4) Happiness is being with people who make me feel optimistic about life. Happiness is freedom. Happiness is making good out of every bad situation.

5) A lot of times people are unhappy because they want something more than they have and are not satisfied with what they have. The inner desire of a human can never be fulfilled by worldly goods. To be happy, one must seek spiritual satisfaction in life.

How has Catholic education affected you?

1) My Catholic education has opened up a new door for me. It has given me heavenly insight into an earthly world.

2) My Catholic education has made me more humble and caring. It has taught me to stop and look for the little things and to enjoy what’s around me and not take it for granted.

3) I would imagine without STM, I would be involved with negative aspects of “teenage-hood.” Catholic education has given me the strength to grow as a person and I am comfortable with myself enough to be tossed into the real world and manage myself with grace and poise.

4) My Catholic education has taught me tolerance and the difference between true love and selfish love.

5) My Catholic education has given me a strong attitude and conviction, a firm base to go out into the world, it has brought out my leadership skills, and it has given me the understanding to defend my faith and to do the right thing.

6) I know I would be so different if I had gone to a public school, and probably not for the better. I didn’t really realize until the end of this year, but my faith has really been strengthened. We can talk openly and have all kinds of questions answered. Because it is so present, my faith is never forgotten and can’t be out on the backburner. I’ve already formed good habits with my faith and so I know it will be a lot easier to continue practicing my faith in college and beyond. Mostly I know it has shaped me into a much better person — unselfish and focused on people really in need. I really want to do missionary work when I am older and I attribute that all to my Catholic schooling.

Parents and grandparents, I think you will agree: “Money well spent!” Congratulations on giving your children and grandchildren a lifetime gift — a Catholic education!

STM graduates, I know it hasn’t always been easy. I know well the difficult things that young people face today. My guess is that some of you have faced making sense of relationships and how at times relationships break down. Some of you have dealt with your self-image, self-love, and self-confidence. Some of you may have dealt with learning disabilities and depression. Some of you may have walked the journey of grief in the death of a family member or friend.

But, look where you are! You are a survivor! And you have grown as a person — human growth, spiritual growth.

It reminds me of a story. Toward the conclusion of World War II, the American troops entered a German war-torn town looking for snipers. The troops descended into the cellar of a bombed house. What they saw startled them. They discovered, no doubt, that the cellar had been a hiding place for German Jews avoiding Nazis — for scribbled on the wall of the cellar was a Star of David and beneath it, these words:

“I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when feeling it not. I believe in God even when he is silent.”

STM graduates, like believing in the sun, you have learned to be optimistic in the face of pessimism.

Like believing in love, you have learned to be selfless in the face of those who are selfish.

Like believing in God, you have learned to embrace faith when it doesn’t always make sense.

Today we celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday. This solemnity teaches us about the very nature of God and how we are to reflect our Creator. The Trinity is a family — the ultimate family (par excellence). And what binds the family together — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is the love that they share for one another.

STM Class of 2008, you share in the love of your God-given domestic family. You have also experienced the love of the family of Saint Thomas More High School. As you move on, I anticipate you will carry with you this familial love. And the great thing about the journey of life is that every year God brings new people into your life and your family of love grows.

You have learned to be a member of a loving family by your parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members. But you have also learned to be a loving family member by your faith experience here at STM:

a) a spark of faith was kindled in a school Mass, TEC, or class retreat

b) reason was brought to your faith in your religion classes

c) you encountered Jesus present in the sacraments (especially tangibly and truly present in the Holy Eucharist)

d) you put your faith into action in a service project or service trip

e) you went deeper by approaching your priest chaplain for spiritual direction or counseling

f) you put the other disciplines of education in proper perspective by bringing faith to the broader school curriculum

The list goes on.

STM graduates: You may be asking, “Now what?”

What you have received as a gift here at STM, you must now give as gift. This graduation Mass is really a “commissioning” by the Holy Trinity.

My graduation gift to you is a story:

There is an old story about how God took a man to two doors and showed him glimpses of heaven and hell. God opened the first door and the man looked inside. He saw a large table in the center of the room. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, and it smelled so good that it made the man’s mouth water. There were many people sitting around the table and each person had a long-handled spoon, but all of the people were emaciated and ill-looking.

The man saw the problem at once: the handles of the spoons were longer than the arms of the people and so, although they could get a spoonful of delicious stew, they could not then get the spoonful of food into their mouths (because the handles of the spoons were longer than their arms). Thus, they were starving in the midst of plenty.

God closed the door and said to the man, “You have seen hell.”

Then God opened the next door and said, “Now you shall see heaven.” The man looked and saw the same large table, the same pot of delicious stew, and the same long-handled spoons in the hands of each person. But in this room, the people were plump and well-fed, happy, and laughing.

The man was puzzled and turned to God saying, “I don’t understand.”

“It is simple,” said God.

“You see, here the people have learned to feed each other.”

Again — what you have received as gift, you are to give as gift. STM graduates, some of you are off to college, some of you to a trade school, others off to the military, and finally some of you are going into the work force. Wherever you go, you will find throngs of people starving in the midst of plenty.

STM graduates, you have been well prepared. Now, the Holy Trinity commissions you to go and feed them!

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