Rev. Edward M. Lohse, J.C.L.
Your Excellency Bishop Brandt, Archabbot Douglas, Mr. Marous, Father Justin, Members of the faculty, staff, and administration, Reverend Fathers, Sisters, Brothers, Seminarians, Family members, Guests, all Brothers and Sisters in Christ, …
I am truly both honored and humbled to stand here before you this evening, a recipient of an honorary degree. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Saint Vincent for the years I spent studying here, for the formation according to the priestly heart of Christ which the seminary in all its aspects so diligently worked to impart to me and to my classmates. It is that sense of gratitude, that desire to give back, that has brought me to return to St. Vincent time and time again, as with the Psalmist I have asked myself: How can I repay the Lord’s goodness to me?
Our gratitude must be that of the disciple. We give back not to cancel the debt, but precisely because we know that we can never cancel the debt. We make a return to the Lord not so much out of duty as out of love. Freely give what you have freely received, the Lord tells us (Mt. 10:8). And St. John, in his first letter, echoes the same thought: “We, for our part, love because he has first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). This is the gratitude of a disciple. It is the gratitude which we owe to God, and which we owe to all those people and places and institutions that are instruments of God’s love for us.
Saint Vincent Seminary, in its vision, in its mission, and especially in its people – its faculty, staff, administration, students, benefactors – has been such an instrument to many of us. We have met God in this place, and in this place he has touched us, and he has changed us.
We have come to know the truth that to encounter Christ is to be changed. This point was brought home to me very clearly when I first encountered an insight of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who in 1937 wrote The Cost of Discipleship. The cost of discipleship was a subject he knew well. Fewer than six years after writing this book, he would be executed by the Nazis for his faith.
Bonhoeffer noted that, as recorded in the Gospels, in Mark 1:17 and in John 21:22, the first words that Jesus ever spoke to St. Peter and the last words that Jesus ever spoke to St. Peter were exactly the same words: Follow me. Not only were they the same words, but they were spoken in the same location – on the shore of the Sea of Galilee – and during the same activity: Peter was fishing.
The same words, spoken in the same location, during the same activity … But here is the key: It was not the same Peter who heard them. Because, as you recall, 3 years had elapsed since the first and last times Peter had heard those words. In those 3 years, Peter had experienced a lifetime of discipleship. He had lived with Christ. He had traveled with Christ. He had heard Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount and had seen him multiply the loaves and fish. He had seen him give sight to the blind and heal the sick. He had answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” and he had heard Jesus reply, “On this rock I will build my Church.” Three times he had denied Christ, and when he heard the cock crow, he had wept. Three times he had heard Christ’s probing question, “Do you love me?” and three times he had responded, “Lord, you know that I love you.”
I have thought about this a lot. In my own reflection, I have often imagined that Peter must have answered Jesus very differently the last time he heard “Follow me” from the first time he heard it.
The first time Jesus spoke to him, I imagine, Peter most likely answered quickly, reactively, eagerly. He must have thought, “This guy’s going to take me places!” The last time Jesus spoke to Peter, on the other hand, Peter likely put his head down and just stood there for a minute or so, in silence, without saying anything, and then rather quietly, looking up, he simply said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you.” Because this time, Peter understood what Jesus was asking, and he understood how much it would cost him. This time, the answer was quiet, the attitude reflective, and the resolve unshakable.
No, it was not the same Peter who first had heard those words “Follow Me.” He had spent three years with Christ, and those years had irrevocably changed him. He wouldn’t go back. In fact, he couldn’t go back.
But Peter’s story is not unique. It is, in fact, the story of every disciple. To follow Jesus is to be changed forever. We will never be able to go back to the way things used to be, nor would we want to.
And so I turn to you, this evening’s graduates. You have now arrived at the end of your time here as students of Saint Vincent Seminary. Here in this place you have met the Crucified and Risen One. You have met the Lord. Peter had his Galilee and his Palestine with Christ. This evening, I suggest to you that your years here at St. Vincent have been your own Galilee, your own Palestine with Christ.
You have spent years here, walking with Christ, listening to him, being formed by him. He has come to you in your professors, in your studies, in your friends. He has spoken to your heart in the scriptures and fed you in the Eucharist. He has asked you in the intimacy of your heart, “Do you love me?” and like Peter, you have answered him, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And as he once said to Peter, he now says to you, “Then feed my sheep.”
He has formed you and molded you into the person he has called you to be. So then I ask you, “How has he changed you?”
In what ways are you different from the person you were when you first set foot upon this campus? In what ways has your encounter with Christ in the classroom, at the library table, in the dining room, in fellowship, in prayer, in the Scriptures, and in the Eucharist touched you and changed you? What things has he asked you to let go of? What things has he given in their place? Like Peter, is your response to him now perhaps somewhat more quiet, more reflective, more unshakable than it first was years ago? These are the questions I urge you to reflect upon as you graduate from Saint Vincent.
No one who encounters Christ is ever the same. But it is not enough for us simply to agree to change. We must surrender control over the form and direction of that change.
If we seek to follow Christ, and to live as he did, then we should not be surprised by this. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us this evening, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and when perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb. 5:8-9). As Christ was obedient to the Father, so we must be obedient to Christ, surrendering our wills to his. The Virgin Mother of God once gave an instruction to the table waiters which through the inspired scripture is given now to us: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5).
The priesthood of Christ is a self-emptying priesthood. All of us have been baptized into this priesthood which seeks to empty itself for the sake of love. Some of us have also been – or are about to be – ordained into this priesthood, called to offer ourselves in obedience to Christ, who through no merit of our own, in us and through us, offers himself for the salvation of the world.
What practical piece of wisdom can we distill from all of this? If we were to take from these reflections some kernel of wisdom, perhaps it might best be summarized by the instruction which Saint Benedict gave to his monks long ago in the Rule, an instruction that has guided Benedictines across the centuries: Nihil amori Christi praeponere – Prefer nothing to the love of Christ (RB 4:21).
Yes, prefer nothing to the love of Christ … to his love of you, and to your love of him. In the days and years ahead, prefer absolutely nothing to the love of Christ. You must love Christ more than you desire any worldly honor. You must love Christ more than you seek any ecclesiastical office or title. You must love Christ more than you desire any assignment, or pastorate, or career path. You must love Christ more than your own comfort or your own dignity. And as the blood of the martyrs teaches us, you must love Christ more than you love your own life.
This is the fundamental truth that St. Vincent has tried to impart to you: Down whatever path he calls you, through whatever toils and snares he guides you, beside whatever restful waters he leads you, cling to Christ alone.
Cling to Christ alone.
It is he who has formed you during your years at St. Vincent. But his formation of you is not complete if, in leaving this place, you continue to walk with him and live in him. To encounter Christ will change you. Let him continue to change you and to form you, according to his own will and not your own, so that you can be obedient to him as he is to the Father.
I would like to close by expressing once again my sincere thanks to Archabbot Douglas, to Mr. Marous, to Father Justin, and to the whole community of Saint Vincent Seminary for this honorary degree. It is given honoris causa, for the sake of honor, but I assure you that it is received in true gratitude and humility.
I have been blessed that significant parts of my life’s path have intersected with Saint Vincent Seminary, first as a seminarian, then as vocation director, and as a member of the Board of Regents. I wish to assure all who are associated with the Seminary of my continued support, respect, and prayers.
This evening, in a special way, that message of continued support and prayer goes out to you who are graduating. I think that I can speak for all of us gathered here when I say that we are proud of all that you have accomplished. Most of all, we are proud of how you have given yourselves wholeheartedly to the person of Christ during your years here at Saint Vincent. For our part, we pledge to you our continued prayers and support, and we humbly ask for your prayers in return, so that together we may continue on this earthly pilgrimage to serve the Master who has called us to his side, gratefully and freely giving what we have freely received.