Fr. Roger J. Landry
Bishop Connolly High School Baccalaureate Mass
Holy Name Church, Fall River, MA
May 30, 2003
Acts 4:32-35; Eph 1:17-25; Matt 5:1-12
1) While I was a seminarian and a priest in Rome, I had the privilege to be able to be involved in some very memorable projects. One was to translate the Latin speeches given during the Second Vatican Council by the man who became Pope John Paul II. These translations were eventually incorporated into George Weigel’s authoritative biography of the Holy Father, called Witness to Hope, published a few years ago. During my years in Rome, Weigel was a frequent visitor and guest at our seminary and we became good friends. With a few other priests, we’d get together regularly for dinner. One evening, well after he had finished the research stage of the biography, had made a comprehensive outline and was already in the process of writing what would become almost an 800-page work, I asked George what his impressions were of the Holy Father on a personal level. All of us had the privilege several times to meet the Holy Father, to introduce our parents or brothers and sisters to him, to exchange a few words with him. But Weigel’s exposure far exceeded our own. In addition to four years studying almost everything written by the Holy Father and interviewing his closest friends and colleagues, he, had had the chance to interview him, one on one, for over 20 hours. His response to my question I never forgot. “After all this time, I’d have to say that the Holy Father is … an adult.” Period. I was expecting, perhaps, that JP II is a really a tremendous genius, perhaps even a very warm or gracious man, or even a saint. “The Holy Father is an adult.” Saying such a thing about a man who at the time was 79 was not something that you needed four years of research and a several hundred thousand dollar book advance to realize. So I asked George what he meant by such a statement. “Roger, the Pope doesn’t have an immature bone in his body. He lives fully in the real world. He never makes any excuses. He knows full-well his responsibilities as a human being, as a Christian, as the successor of St. Peter and the visible head of the Church on earth and doesn’t duck any of them.” He concluded by making a 2500 year old reference to one of the most famous philosophers of all time: “The Holy Father has fully left Plato’s cave.” We’ll get to what that means in a second.
2) Tonight, surrounded by your parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends and relatives, by your teachers and coaches, we have come here together to thank God for the gift of your four years at Bishop Connolly — the gift you have received and the gift you have been — and to ask Him to bless you with all the graces He already knows you’re going to need as you take the experience of these four years with you to the next stage of your journey hopefully toward Him. This graduation is a real passage toward adulthood. It is a sign of, and a call to, a deeper maturity, as you move forward to greater responsibilities personally, in your family, in society and in the Church Christ founded. But real maturity is a result of wisdom, not just of age. It’s brought about not necessarily by what our IQ is, but by what type of person we are, especially in the context of the most important things and occasionally most difficult situations. When I think back to my own high school graduation — 15 years ago this week — I remember my longing finally to stop being treated by others like a kid. And I’m sure many of you share the same sentiment tonight, hoping that your relatives, friends and teachers here would each and all be able to say of you with pride and appreciation, “that kid is no longer a kid at all,” “that son or daughter, student or friend is really an adult.” On this very special night, we’ll talk about what being an adult means, reflecting together on the words of Sacred Scripture and on the example of the vicar of Christ.
3) In concluding his case for calling the Holy Father an adult, George Weigel said that he was a man who had “fully left Plato’s cave.” This was a reference to one of the most famous philosophical images ever made, one I hope all of you have a chance to study in college or on your own. In it, Plato contrasts those with real wisdom from the rest, the adults from the kids, the mature from the immature. He does it by means of an allegory, an extended metaphor, he puts on the lips of Socrates in his dialogue called the Republic. Plato describes an underground cave which has an opening toward the light. In this cave there are living human beings chained from childhood in such a way that they face the inside wall of the cave and have never seen the light of the sun. Above and behind them — in other words, between the prisoners and the mouth of the cave — is a fire, and between them and the fire is a raised way and a low wall, like a screen. Along this raised way men pass carrying statues and figures of animals and other objects in such a way that the objects they carry appear over the top of the low wall or screen. The prisoners, facing the inside wall of the cave, cannot see one another nor the objects carried behind them, but they see the shadows of themselves and the shadows of the objects. Eventually one of the prisoners is freed and led up the cave toward the light. At first, the light blinds him and he wishes to return to looking at the wall and the shadows. But as he is led further up, he sees the ledge containing the fire and the people carrying objects that were casting the shadows on the wall. Eventually he is led out of the cave and beholds sunlight shining on the created world. Finally, he is moved to gaze on the sun. Plato used the analogy to describe the whole process of education, which comes from the word “educere,” to lead someone out of some place to some place new. Plato said most human beings live at the level of shadows on the wall, considering that to be reality. The process of education is an arduous ascent, whereby one sees at first the initial cause of the shadows in the pots and statues and fire, but then is led even beyond that into the real world that those looking at the shadows never see. Finally, the adult, the fully-educated and -formed man, is able to behold the sun, the ultimate source of light, the ultimate source of life.
4) In saying that the Holy Father has “full left Plato’s cave,” my friend meant to say that he lives under no illusions, no shadows, that he’s fully left that behind and has come into the real world, the world in which he beholds the Sun, the source of light, the source of life, God. So often non-religious people will say to those who believe in God, “When are you going to come out into the real world?,” thinking that the real world is what we find on the stock pages of the Wall Street Journal, or in the political compromises made in legislatures, or even in an overly scientistic or materialistic universe, where nothing supposedly is real unless you can touch it, measure it, weigh it. Plato refers to these people in his allegory: they’re imprisoned at the level of shadows, but they don’t know it. When the freed former prisoner returns after having seen the light of the Sun, and tries to tell them about all that he has seen, and the causes of the shadows, they mock him, they call him crazy, they say he’s the one living in the dream world, and eventually they kill him. This was Plato’s way of describing what happened that led to the death of Socrates. It also describes very well what led to the death of Jesus.The Christian’s mission in the world, however, is to bring this knowledge of the real world back to those in the shadows. This is the life-description of the graduate of Bishop Connolly. The whole process of a Catholic education which we have tried to give you, following upon the foundations most of you received in Catholic grammar schools and at home, is to take you from the level of the shadows, to seeing their immediate causes — at the scientific level, or historical, or physical, or human level— and then to seeing the ultimate cause of everything and everyone, God, the source of light and life. That’s the process of our full education, to prepare you not just for the SATs and for entrance into college, but to prepare you for the final exam of life and hopefully entrance into heaven. But our hope for you isn’t just for you; we also hope to prepare you well to send you back to those still living in the shadows, to bring with you the light and life of the Sun, so that the truth, which is not just a concept, but a Person (Jesus), can set them free through you for the ascent toward the Sun. It is our hope for you and it is Jesus’ hope for you. Just as he himself said in yesterday’s Gospel, immediately before his Ascension into heaven, “Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” This Gospel is one of light, life and love and how much the world needs to hear it.
5) In your mission, which takes on added meaning with graduation tomorrow, you will confront a world that, to a large degree, lives in the shadows, but thinks that those shadows are the real world. It’s a world that thinks in order to be happy, you have to be rich, that the only real purpose of education is merely to get a well-paying job. But that’s a shadow. Jesus, the Truth incarnate, says, in the beatitudes we heard tonight, “Blessed [rather] are the poor in spirit.” The world which will be your Christian vineyard is one that thinks, far too often, that might is right, that you’ve got to be powerful to be happy. That too is a shadow. Jesus, the Light of the World, says rather, “blessed are the meek,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “blessed are the merciful.” The cities and towns, colleges and universities, that will be your missionary lands have many who think that to be adult, you need to be sexually-active now, that to be happy, you’ve got to be make light of the gift of human sexuality and treat it as just another type of full-contact sport. Jesus said, quite to the contrary, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God,” and even see him calling them to wait to give themselves wholly and entirely to the one he’s destined from eternity to be one’s future spouse. The part of our society that lives in shadows but thinks it’s the real world believes that we’re happy when we don’t have a care in the world, whereas Jesus affirms, “Blessed are those who are so concerned with others that “they mourn” over others’ miseries or difficulties, “for they will be comforted” by him eternally. And our culture thinks that we’ve got it made when we’re popular, when everyone thinks we’re nice, when we live the type of life in which we haven’t an enemy in the world. Jesus says, rather, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” and “blessed are you when people revile you, persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” “for your reward will be the kingdom of heaven.” The difference between those living in the shadows and those dwelling in the light could not be starker. The fact that so many live in slavery to shadows does not change the fact that they are indeed shadows. Jesus shows us and them the way to the light. Those who live in the real world are poor in spirit, mourn for others, pure of heart, meek, merciful, peacemaking, who hunger and thirst for holiness, and who have the integrity and the courage to suffer anything and everything for the truth, for the sake of the faith. Those who live in this truth are the ones who are truly free and truly mature.
6) The education you’ve received at Connolly doesn’t make you better than anyone else, but it does give you a greater mission. Just as Jesus said, “to whom more is given, more is to be expected.” Jesus himself has led us out of darkness into his marvelous light, and now we’re called to live in that light and to tell others about that light. We’re called to live lives of faith, lives fully out of the cave, truly adult lives, and then, maturely, to lead others out of the darkness to the One who lights up our life.
7) This task, which is your task, the task that Jesus trusts you enough to put into your hands, is, thankfully, not one you’re called to fulfill alone. The process of helping to transform you from cavemen to young adults was carried out by your parents, your teachers, your catechists — all working together in the Church Jesus founded to do just that. Likewise the mission you have for your contemporaries, for future generations, even for your elders, God-willing for your future children or many even parishioners or students, is to be done within the context of the same Church. We see something very beautiful in the first reading you chose, from the Acts of the Apostles. The whole Christian community was of “one heart and soul,” and they were so for some very good reasons. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. In other words, they were one in teaching, one in community, one and united in the Mass and one in praying to God. They held everything, including their property, in common. The text tells us that everyone sold what they had and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet. What a lesson! They laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet not because the apostles all had MBAs from Harvard or Wharton Business Schools or were the best money-men. They laid everything they had at the feet of the apostles, because they were the ones Jesus had appointed to lead his community and the early Christians trusted them, not because they were necessarily the most humanly talented people, but because they trusted Jesus, who himself had chosen them. My prayer for you is that you likewise trust in Jesus, and as your love for him hopefully grows, you will grow to love, too, more each day, Jesus’ bride, the Church, for whom he laid down his life to purify and sanctify. As Saint Paul says in the second reading you chose, the Church “is [Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” May you be one with this, Christ’s body, and help her to grow and carry on Christ’s salvific mission.
8 ) As we rejoice together tonight with the Lord over this big step in your lives, we pray that he may help you live in the real world, the world he created in the beginning, the world he redeemed by his own blood in the sacrifice we’re about to enter through the Mass, the world to which he sent his followers to carry out His very own mission of its salvation. The Lord counts on you. The Church counts on you. We all count on you. We’re confident you won’t let us down.
9) I finish by making my own the prayer of St. Paul you chose for the second reading, which is all about real maturity, real wisdom, the real path to a truly happy, rewarding, holy and eternally-successful life. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” May God bless you and guide you to be not just hearers but doers of this Word!