Commencement Address: “Through the Gifts of God Freely Given Make All Things Holy”

2018 News

Warm greetings to everyone – especially to Bishop Malesic and Archabbot Nowicki – and to all here today for this special celebration of the graduates. Many thanks, Father Mazich, for your generous introduction, as well as the kind invitation to speak this afternoon and to receive the notable recognition of an honorary degree from at Saint Vincent’s Seminary. This significant occasion is principally taking place to celebrate the dedicated work you graduates have done to arrive at your commencement and so I add my congratulations to those you have already received and others yet to come. Best wishes also to your families and friends who have accompanied you on your journey to this important day, and many thanks to your teachers and all who have shaped your lives during your time of formation. May your ministry and service be filled with many blessings!

As you complete this phase of your life, you are prepared for a new stage that calls you to produce good fruit abundantly, as the Easter season readings have so often inspired us to do. I would like to take a few minutes to explore with you some places where your spiritual gifts, your personal talents, and your good will are desperately needed. However we might choose to describe what ails us these days, my point is not to dwell on the problems, but to explore how you might become involved in a faith-filled and world-healing project with a sense of hope and expectation for improvement. The situation of our world and Church places before you many tasks that await your energy, insight, and enthusiasm. How will you enter the stage to create a more promising future?

You who are about to begin fulltime ministry are in a strong position to effect change – change that results in deeper faith, greater justice, and abundant compassion. When Pope Francis speaks about these works of evangelization, he calls attention to the kind of church needed today: one that “goes forth,” with open doors to all those outside its confines, the poor, the marginalized, the neglected, those without faith, the seekers amongst the young and the “nobodies” of this world. His call in The Joy of the Gospel, (#20-24), indicates the expansive need. Fortunately, each of you has been blessed with formation associated with this special place that has inculcated certain virtues and practices that make it possible for you to go forward undaunted.

For now, I would like to share my reflections on what I believe makes Saint Vincent’s distinctive and distinguished, and then suggest how you will make manifest these characteristics in fruitful ministry. Broadening the scope, I will include all here present to recognize how each of you might live out your responsibilities in faith, and then offer an example or two from my own experience. Indeed, all of us have received gifts in some form through God’s astonishing love for us expressed in the greatest gifts of all – the life, death, and resurrection of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, which we commemorate again very soon.

In the months since Father Mazich invited me here, I have reflected on your particular setting, this beautiful place where you have developed special virtues and insights inspired by Saint Benedict, as well as your patron, Saint Vincent de Paul. Let me begin by high-lighting a few of the gifts I am quite sure you have received during your time at Saint Vincent’s, gifts that will guide your future actions. Naturally, I turned to the lives of your patron saints to ascertain the virtues that were no doubt emphasized in your years here, but given the qualities of these saints, it was a difficult field to narrow. The lists of possibilities leave few stones unturned, though the Seminary’s clear mission statement is helpful in pointing out some of the key attributes: “the Benedictine heritage of liturgical prayer, study, hospitality and community” were to characterize your years of study, along with the example of Saint Vincent’s love and care for the poor. As you contemplate the list, it is likely that the first stands out above others, that is, prayer that leads to recognition of God’s presence in everyone and in every place. Most profound is the prayer of the Eucharist, celebrating Christ’s ongoing and real presence with us. In that context, you will have the unique opportunity to preach the Gospel, not by telling people what to do, but by bringing to them an awareness of how much Jesus loves them and is present in their lives.

What ensues is the call to offer hospitality, one of the most universally known of Benedictine virtues, and one I have experienced every moment I have spent here in this blessed setting. Following the example of your mentors, you, too, will be welcoming each person into the communities you will lead and nurture, showing respect and warm acceptance of all. In harmony with Saint Vincent, Pope Francis insists that we recognize not only the poor among us, but that we also go to the peripheries to find them, so that they too can receive our hospitality. No doubt, most of you will serve in pastoral ministry of one kind or another, where each day will bring multiple occasions for you to exercise this virtue of hospitality.

It is logical that building the community follows, requiring keen and sensitive listening with the ear of your heart to realize the hopes and dreams of those who gather together. If you are to ensure the good of individuals, as well as the common good, you will necessarily study the context of your service. By knowing your people you can respond with understanding of how to engage them in the practice of their faith. Through your example of truthful conversation, the community will grow in its desire for justice, respecting each person regardless of class, cultural background, age, or other characteristics that often divide and separate.

In this exercise of ministry, I think you are in an exceptional position to reach young people. So many of them who were raised as Catholics – over half – are barely participating, if not abandoning their faith these days. They need encouragement and challenge, along with an invitation to quiet reflection that will help them reach the peace that comes as they correlate their inner life and their outer life. If you share attitudes and values that reflect your faith in an authentic way, young people will be more likely to respond. Parker Palmer, a devout Quaker, teacher, mentor, and author spoke about this reality from his perspective. He said, “Let your life speak…. be attentive to your own soul, to deeper and truer life waiting to be acknowledged. Lead from within.” No doubt, in your pastoral formation, you have been developing your own approaches and thinking about how you will respond to all those you encounter in the many communities of which you are or will be a part – nation and state, worship and work, neighborhood and family. It is your God-given virtues and qualities that are valuable in generating hope in the settings of daily life.

As I come near the end of my years of active ministry, my recollections are many and varied and my beliefs in what has mattered most has become quite simple. In forty-five years of teaching, students continually gave me fresh perspectives. In my undergraduate classes on American and world religions, for example, I introduced the courses by asking students what they thought about religion and its effects on society. Their lists were often long, and sometimes negative, such as: religions and religious people are hypocritical, fundamentalism divides nations and families, and increasingly hard-edged religious beliefs cause violence. So many of their ideas had the common thread of division and disagreement, often ending in injustice if not aggression and violence.

Some of their thoughts however, were more positive, and these points, I believe, are most important to notice. They sensed that God was somehow present to them when they were peaceful and open; they valued the expressions of care by church communities, especially during stressful times of grief and illness; and they were aware of concern for the poor and disadvantaged that Catholic communities demonstrated, for example, in times of natural disasters. And, not surprisingly, in recent years they have loved the messages of Pope Francis. Though they appreciated my organized lectures (or so I thought), what remains in the minds and hearts of former students is the interest I showed in them, a caring word, and the simple fact that I listened to them. They preferred to tell me what they thought before they wanted to hear what I thought.

In ministry of all kinds, people appreciate a listening ear and a compassionate heart. One more personal example – allow me to share a particular moment when I learned in a powerful way to listen first and respond second. Some years ago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then Archbishop of Chicago, established what he called the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, an effort to reduce the polarization and acrimony that he found in the Church. He called for a renewed spirit of civility and generosity to heal the divisions, and he suggested some simple approaches and processes to move us in the direction of reconciliation. He spoke of including everyone who has something at stake in a decision, of demonstrating respect for others by hearing their points of view, and presuming that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith. He called for dialogue, where we are willing to evaluate ourselves rather than criticize others; where we can see all sides of an issue rather than two sides – our own and the wrong one; and where we listen to each other to understand and build agreement rather than find flaws and reasons to disagree.

Since I was part of the original group that Cardinal Bernardin asked to spread this message, I often gave talks to church and school groups – even to seminarians. I remember a lesson I learned on how this spirit can be made manifest on an occasion when I was speaking to a Catholic men’s group about some of these ideas. After I finished speaking about how to promote positive relationships through means of dialogue, several men offered their ideas and asked questions – nicely. THEN one man stood up abruptly, the first to stand – to disagree quite disagreeably with me. He spoke about the impossibility of getting along in the Church because priests didn’t preach the messages he agreed with, and he wished bishops would stop talking about the poor, and, moreover, why wasn’t I wearing a habit and veil. Having just spoken about being a reconciling person, I dared not respond in kind, so while he ranted and raved, I prayed to the Holy Spirit (silently, of course). Realizing that no precise argument would be persuasive, at last I mumbled something like “I respect your right to your views and I’m glad you had the courage to voice them.” He retorted in his booming voice, “Well, all right then,” and promptly sat down – for the time being.

Granted, most of our opponents don’t go away that easily, and neither did this one! Immediately after the talk ended, every single participant dashed to the lobby for coffee and cookies, leaving me with this distraught man. He raced to the podium, red-faced and angry. He continued to express his dissatisfaction with the Church. Eventually, in a moment when he was catching his breath, I said to him, “You know, I think that God loves you very much.” He was perplexed and asked, “Why are you saying that?” I said that it was because I could tell he cared so much about the Church and finding God. Then I mentioned the Gospel from shortly after Easter, where Jesus appeared to the Apostles and said to them, “Peace be with you. Peace be with you. That is my message to you.” He was utterly overcome, and tears came to his eyes. He then told me how unhappy his life was, and how he kept moving his family of seven to find a parish with the right priest, and how no one liked him at work (not a surprise!), and how he couldn’t go on like this. After a moment, he said, “Something just happened to me when you wished me to have peace. Maybe that is what God wants for me.” We talked a little more about finding help to deal with his concerns. This difficult exchange ended somewhat peacefully by simply respecting this person as I listened to his unhappy state.

This encounter brings to mind several lessons. First and most important – we need not worry about having all the answers; we can and must trust in the Spirit of God to help us. We can bring a measure of God’s blessing and peace, even at times when the world seems filled with darkness for them. If we are attentive to seemingly insignificant opportunities we encounter every day, we can bring peace and harmony to those around us who are estranged. In words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, we might “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly we will be doing the impossible.” We are called to be disciples, to follow our Lord in self-giving service to others out of love. As impossible as it may seem that any one of us can make a difference in our fractured world, each one of us can make holy the small things. The temptation, I believe, is to feel that problems are so overwhelming and so beyond our reach that any one person is powerless to effect change – not necessarily so. Consider Mother Teresa, whose simple act of helping one poverty-stricken and dying person at a time led her to reach thousands upon thousands of neglected persons. She made an enormous difference by making each small act holy, as indeed they are in the sight of God. Of course, she is now a saint, we might say, but all of us can do our part by trusting in God.

This stance calls for both humility and a certain greatness of soul, that is, magnanimity. If we can discipline ourselves to think beyond ourselves, we will recognize opportunities to cultivate a spirit of reconciliation – creating decency and peace in troubled situations. Imagine if all of us here today performed one more healing act, one more reconciling act every day, what a different world we would know! In one year we would have thousands of more acts of reconciliation that impart healing.
These words of Scripture from Isaiah 49 (3 and 6) capture for me the potential that God sees in each of us:

God says to us, “It is too little for you to be my servant; I will make you a light

to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Each of you is a ray of light. As you make holy the small things you do, in God’s eyes they are important and large. You will contribute by bringing unity and peace to your places of ministry, to family and friends, and your gifts will reverberate through the whole world. I invite you to renew the face of the earth one step at a time. In this season of hope and on your special day, may you be a reconciling messenger of peace to all you meet.

Sister Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., Ph.D.
Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion (Emerita)
St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity
University of St. Thomas
2260 Summit Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55105 May 11, 2018