Fr. Shanley, etc., I am honored indeed to speak with you today at the Providence College commencement exercises. And I am further honored by your bestowing upon me a degree in Religious Education honoris causa. I always feel at home when I am among Dominicans. I received my vocation at Fenwick High School, a fine Dominican institution in the Chicago area, when a young friar, one warm spring afternoon, presented Thomas Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence. Though I was only fourteen at the time, that presentation was like a fire-bell in the night for me. It convinced me of the reality of God and set me on a path of intellectual and spiritual adventure that I have never left. Much of my academic work has centered around the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and I count as good friends and mentors many Dominican scholars all over the world, including your own Fr. James Quigley.
As I speak to the graduates today, I want to wear my hat as an evangelist, a proclaimer of the Gospel. I don’t mean to do this in an aggressive or prosyletizing way, for I know that there are many non-Catholics and non-Christians among us today. I simply want to share three truths from the heart of the Catholic tradition that I think will help you graduates as you embark upon your careers: one about the Father, one about the Son, and one about the Holy Spirit.
We live in a time that places an enormous value on scientific knowledge and economic advancement—and this is, in itself, all to the good. The sciences have indeed proved to be a tremendous boon to the human race, and the economic progress made in the last one hundred years has provided a standard of living for millions of us that even the Kings and Queens of past ages could only have dreamed of. But the human heart longs for more than the sciences or economic advancement can ever deliver. This longing reveals itself in certain fundamental questions: what is the purpose of my life? Is there a meaning to nature and history? What is it all about? The secularist ideology—presented and defended in so much of both the high and popular culture—says that these questions are meaningless, just the fruit of primitive thinking or psychological hang-ups. You can see this perspective in the writings of some of the key shapers of the modern culture—Feuerbach , Marx, Freud, Sartre—and the disciples of those figures are thick on the ground today.
But try as they might, the avatars of the secularist ideology cannot suppress the religious instinct. Long ago, the great St. Augustine said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself; therefore our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” Like it or not, we have all been wired for God, created with an emptiness in our hearts that only God can fill. No amount of scientific knowledge or wealth or pleasure or fame can ever satisfy that stubborn restlessness, that holy longing.
Young friends, you are going forth from this place today, filled with an eagerness to make it big in the world. And again, there is nothing wrong with the attainment of wealth or power or knowledge. But I am here to tell you, none of these attainments will make you truly happy, for they won’t—because they can’t—satisfy the holy longing. As the Psalmist said three millennia ago, “only in God is my soul at rest.” But who or what is God? The central claim of the Christian faith is that God is love. Love is not simply an attribute of God or something that God does; rather, love is the very essence and nature of God. Therefore to be filled with God is to be filled with love, and love is giving one’s life away for the sake of the other. So here is the formula: if you want to be happy, contrive a way to make of your life a gift. That’s the truth I wanted to communicate to you about the Father.
Now the Son. It is an absolutely basic claim of Christianity that Jesus is not simply a great teacher or mystic or prophet. Instead, he is, as the Nicene Creed puts it, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” In him, divinity and humanity come together, the human longing for God perfectly meeting the divine longing for us. The purpose of this Incarnation (to use the technical term) was to elevate our humanity. The Church Fathers never tired of saying “God became human so that humans might become God,” which means sharers in the divine life. No religion, no philosophy, no psychology or social theory has ever offered a more thorough humanism than that.
One of the most confounding mysteries conveyed by the Gospels, however, is this: when God’s Son came in person, most rejected him. As St. John put it, “the light was in the world, but people preferred the darkness.” In one of his great sermons, St. Peter said, bluntly enough, “the Author of Life came, and we killed him.” On Good Friday, all of the powers of the world—stupidity, hatred, cruelty, violence, institutional injustice, betrayal, and denial—conspired against Jesus and snuffed out his life. But on the third day, God the Father raised the Son from the dead, proving that the divine love is more powerful than anything that is in the world. This is why St. Paul makes bold to refer to the risen Jesus as Kyrios (Lord). A watchword of the time was Kaisar Kyrios (Caesar is Lord), meaning that Caesar was the most powerful figure around, the leader to whom final allegiance was due. Do you see how subversive Paul’s phrase was? In calling Jesus Lord, he was effectively dethroning Caesar. And do you see now why the first Christians held up the cross of Jesus as a kind of taunt? “You think we’re afraid of that? God’s love and forgiveness are more powerful than anything you can throw at us!”
Young graduates, this is a message that has sustained the work of radical social reformers up and down the Christian centuries to the present day. Why was Martin Luther King able to stand up to brickbats, water-cannons, racial slurs, and eventually bullets? Why was John Paul II able to face down one of the most powerful military forces in human history? Neither the Baptist preacher nor the Catholic Pope commanded armies, but each wielded the power of the cross of the Son of God. Whenever you are tempted to surrender to the forces of injustice and intimidation, remember the love of God which is stronger than any tyrant. The message of the resurrection is not something quaint and pious; rightly understood, it is still dynamite that can shake the world. That’s the truth I wanted to communicate to you about the Son.
And now the Holy Spirit. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul said, “there is a power already at work in you that can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine.” Every one of you graduates has a head full of projects and plans of your own contrivance, all the things that you would like to accomplish, and that’s altogether appropriate. But if Paul is right, the divine Spirit is already at work in you, preparing you for a fullness of life that you did not dream was possible. Mind you, this divine plan might not be the least bit glamorous in the eyes of contemporary trend-setters. But it will make you happiest and most fulfilled. The Lord himself indicated this same thing when he spoke of the man who found a treasure buried in a field and then sold everything he had in order to buy it. The favorite theologian of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar, distinguished between what he called “the ego-drama” and “the theo-drama.” The ego drama is the play written by you, produced by you, and above all, starring you. The theo-drama is the play written and produced by God. You, along with everyone else, have a role to play in it, and discovering that role is what will make your life worth living. Your life is finally not about you—and that is wonderful news!
There is a quiet scene toward the beginning of “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt’s great play about St. Thomas More. Richard Rich, a recent Cambridge graduate, eager to land a position among the glitterati at the court of Henry VIII, presses the influential More for a recommendation. “I have a job for you, Rich,” says the saint. “There is an opening in the new school.” “A teacher,” says Richard Rich, with obvious disappointment. Trying to cheer him up, More says, “you could be a good teacher, perhaps even a great one.” Rich fires back, “and if I were, who would know it?” That’s the voice of the ego, seeking a starring role in its own drama. More patiently responds, “yourself, your friends, your pupils, God—not a bad public, that.” That’s the voice of someone living out of the theo-drama. Young friends, seek with all your hearts to discover what the Holy Spirit wants you to do—and then do it. Don’t settle for the finally narrow arena of the ego-drama; be ready for spiritual adventure.
How wonderful that this city and this college are named for divine providence! The true God is not a distant or abstract force, but rather a person who knows each of us by name and cares for us, guiding us in the course of our lives. This providential God wants you to be fully alive. If you want to be happy and fulfilled, listen to him—and follow him. Pay attention to the holy longing. Understand that God’s love is more powerful than anything the world can throw at you. Realize your life is not about you. And may the God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, richly bless all of you!