2014 Baccalaureate Mass Homily

Rev. Paul Harman, S.J., Vice President for Mission
May 22, 2014
Acts 15:7-21; Ps. 96; John 15:9-13

The order of worship in many religious traditions usually includes one or more readings from Scripture, followed by a homily.  I asked some students what they understood by a homily. One said that it was an explanation of the Scripture readings. Another answered that a homily was an occasion to present some doctrine or tradition of the Church.  A third student had a more intriguing answer that made use of a simile. The student said:  "It's like, you know, it's like medicine.” "Medicine? Why?" I asked. The student answered: “Because medicine is intended to make you feel better, but at the same time it often makes you very drowsy.”

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Jesus said to his disciples: "as the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. . . This is my commandment, love one another as I love you. (John            15:9-12)

Was it Mark Twain who said that it was not the things in the Bible that he did not understand that bothered him, but the things that he did understand?  So often, as we listen to Sacred Scripture, we seem to keep coming back to the same place, the same themes; you sit and think “We’ve been here before.” You are right. None of this is new. And none of it is easy.

What does it mean to be commanded to love? When I was a young child and it was a freezing cold winter’s day, my mother would say: “Wear a hat and gloves or you’ll die of pneumonia."  She meant business. But I sometimes did not wear my hat and gloves, and I didn’t die.

Later, I attended a prep school that required its students to wear a suit-coat and tie. Infractions of the rule were not treated lightly, but, in fact, you were not going to be expelled if, as sometimes happened, you did not wear them.

And when I entered the Jesuit novitiate 59 years ago, there was lots of strict silence and a quaint rule that forbade whistling indoors. Well, sometimes, as I mopped floors and scrubbed pots and pans, I found myself whistling. But I wasn't sent home.

You get the point.  Throughout our lives, we are told  -- often with good reason -- to do this or that, but failure to comply is not calamitous.

That is not what Jesus teaches us about love. When Jesus says “This is my commandment, love one another,” He is not offering advice we can take or leave. He is not suggesting a best practice or a helpful maxim. For Jesus, loving others is something utterly integral and indispensable to living as a man or a woman created in the image of God.  Where love is absent, there are terrible consequences; who of us has not witnessed some of them?

Jesus taught us the love of others, and he lived it. Ultimately, we know, Jesus’ love of others took him to the cross.

How else would the men and women who followed him have learned to love, unless they had first seen and experienced his love for them?

As you sit here this afternoon, it can be tempting to look back and think , "I have outgrown most of the things I grew up with."[1] I want to tell you that there are some things in life you will never outgrow; they were yesterday’s urgency, they are today’s pressing need, and they will be tomorrow's exigency.  Loving others is one of those things.

There is, first of all, love of the people who have loved you from the beginning. It is never an easy piece of work to bring a daughter or a son to age and you will only later come to the realization of how much you owe to the people who loved and cared for you: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. You no longer have to follow their advice, but never stop loving them. Talk with them often -- and listen. They will tell you what they can and you can sort out what it is you need.

Then there is love for friends, those close at hand and those across the oceans. You have begun to form lifelong, life-changing friendships and you will discover that the love of friends not only supports a good life but creates one. Shakespeare wrote:

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel [2]

He was right. The ties that bind good friends are invisible, but they are very strong and wonderfully safe to lean on.

The love you have for the friends God has given you is that part of yourself with which you should never quarrel, even though there may be times when the best of friends will disappoint each other, and when you will be left with a gaping hole in your heart.

Thirdly, Jesus tells us to love not only those who love us, not only our friends, but also to love all the other people who make up our daily rounds: the woman at the check-out counter, the stranger on the street, the lonely child by the curb-side, the people who speak different languages, live in different neighborhoods and worship on different mountains. Love them, Jesus says, pay close attention to them, give them the honor and dignity that is their due because they are your sisters and brothers. Even the difficult ones.

Sometimes, when we open our eyes and look into people's faces, we can catch a glimpse of just how precious these people are in God's eyes and our hearts will go out to them in ways too deep for words.

One final point, and I am done.  Dear Class of 2014, you cannot imagine the joy it is for me to know that nothing that I have just said is novel or new to you. In four years at Holy Cross you have been blessed to hear myriad expressions of this same truth in lectures and homilies, in lively discussions and intimate conversations. More to the point, you have lived it, both here on the Hill, and in cities and small villages across the nation and the globe.

Jesuit education rests on the premise that love is our origin and love our destination. God has loved us from the beginning and invites us to give ourselves in love as a response. At its best, Holy Cross has let you experience where mind and heart, faith and reason, come together and where they pull apart.

When you look ahead, love may not be the first word that comes to mind. No matter. So long as it is the last word. "In the evening of life, we will be examined on love," says St. John of the Cross.[3]  Remember that! It will not matter if we have ever done anything extraordinary or said anything extraordinary.  All that will matter is that we have loved.

Let me end with the familiar words of Will Jenks, Class of 1954, and make my prayer that of everyone who has ever taught you here, or counseled you here, laughed with you here or prayed with you here. Wherever you are in the years to come, may you draw "life and strength and hope from this place, this bond, this faith, this love, this Holy Cross . . . "[4]  


[1] Cf. John Shea, Gospel Light (The Crossroad Publishing Co., New York, 1998), p. 116

[2] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene iii. line 62.

[3] St. John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, 57.  The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Translated by Kiernan Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C, 1973) p.672.

[4]  William H. P. Jenks, '54.  "The Speech," Address for the 25th Reunion of the Class of 1954.