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Your Not-So-Typical Commencement Address

June 6th, 2012by Brad Bursa

If I were to speak to graduating Catholic school students, here are a few thoughts I might share:

I’m not going to be able to take much credit for these points.  Almost all of it has been inspired by one of the seniors graduating from our Youth Ministry program.  Because she could not attend our End-of-the-Year Party and share her parting reflections for the underclassmen, she wrote them out (you can find it HERE, though some of it will not make complete sense to the outsider].  I will quote part of it for you:

Jesus needs me.  I think this alone is why I’m semi-ok with leaving [the Youth Ministry program] and moving on.  He needs me for the world, for the darkness. He may have created me just to bring one soul to heaven, and if I don’t follow I may miss out on my crazy beautiful call to take part in the salvation of the world.  What is even more beautiful is that you all have this call, too, and it has been you all … who have inspired me to know, love and serve for this call.   You all are the ones who help remind me of my vocation to greatness.  You all are the ones that have brought the words of Pope Benedict to life, showing me that my call to greatness is not an ethical choice or a lofty idea but an encounter with the person Jesus Christ (see Deus Caritas Est 1 ).  Our call to greatness is a call to a person – Jesus…

From an authentic Christian communion, one happening now and rooted in an encounter with the Person of Christ – springs forth a call to testify to the light (Jn. 1:7), a light that has overcome darkness (Jn. 1:5).

Jesus needs you.

The Church, where this profound communion happens, needs you (see Mt. 28:19; Acts 1:6-8, etc).

Class of 2012, the world needs more than a new socio-economic theory.  It needs something greater than vapid political schemes.  It needs more than a bunch of “self-made men.”  I might even go so far as to say that you cannot “be the change you wish to see in the world” through your own willpower alone.  St. Paul speaks to this in his letter to the Romans:

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.  (Rom. 12:1-2, emphasis added)

The world needs to you to be continually transformed by the One who made you, the One who has mercy on you, that you would set the world on fire.  Jesus’ bride, the Catholic Church, needs you to participate in this “crazy beautiful call” that is the salvation of souls.  The world needs light – the Light is Christ and you are the echo of his voice and a light unto the nations.

The urgency of our day demands the end of lukewarm Catholicism (see Rev. 3:16).  We are either hot or cold.  We are either disciples or we are not (i.e., we are striving for holiness and seeking relationship with Christ, or we aren’t).  We are either alive in the Spirit, or we are dying in the flesh.

If Jesus really does need you, then He needs you to continue to surrender, to give yourself in love to him and in charity to others.  In short, He needs your heart – He needs your life that He may purify and form it.  He wants to unite his action to your actions.  He wants to set you free like you’ve never been free before.  He wants to give you life to the full.  He wants to change your life.

This is a dramatic leap from the post-religious attitude, rooted in individualism, which dominates the modern landscape.  This is the sort of attitude breeds comments (these are real comments I’ve heard about living a life of faith in the Church) like:

-“Okay, you can convert.  Just don’t let it change your life.”


-“Religious or spiritual experiences are seen as ‘cool,’ until they change your life, the way you act, or have an impact on your relationships with others.”

But, this is precisely what we need.  We need an encounter with the person of Christ that transforms our weary minds and satiates our thirsty souls.  We need clean hearts.

I don’t have much hope that you will transform the world, or “be the change” based upon your own devices, innovative strategies, or by paving your own way (see the oft-quoted, and grossly misunderstood “Road Not Taken”).  In this regard, I don’t have much hope in myself.  But in you, I see my hope in Christ incarnated before my eyes.  Left up to our own devices, we see what happens – death, destruction, crimes against humanity, utilitarianism, neglect, darkness, etc.  But in Christ, we have a Way – a common path, a Truth with which to judge circumstances, and a Life in communion.

This hope springs from a life of communion, a life lived in the Church.  A life rooted in the sacraments and a committed, personal prayer life.  A life soaked in the Word of God.  A life that discerns the action of the Spirit, and pursues purpose and vocation seriously.  In this free communion of persons, grace builds upon our nature, and God’s action grows and expands ours.

Our hope lies in Christ, even in the midst of darkness around us.  Herein lies our freedom.

Real freedom, then, is God’s gracious gift, the fruit of conversion to his truth, the truth which makes us free (cf. Jn 8:32). And this freedom in truth brings in its wake a new and liberating way of seeing reality. When we put on “the mind of Christ” (cf. Phil 2:5), new horizons open before us! In the light of faith, within the communion of the Church, we also find the inspiration and strength to become a leaven of the Gospel in the world. We become the light of the world, the salt of the earth (cf. Mt 5:13-14), entrusted with the “apostolate” of making our own lives, and the world in which we live, conform ever more fully to God’s saving plan. (Benedict XVI Homily at Yankee Stadium 4/20/2008)

Further into his homily, Pope Benedict urged the youth present, saying:

I wish to close by adding a special word of encouragement to [the young people]. My dear young friends, like the seven men, “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” whom the Apostles charged with care for the young Church, may you step forward and take up the responsibility which your faith in Christ sets before you! May you find the courage to proclaim Christ, “the same, yesterday, and today and for ever” and the unchanging truths which have their foundation in him (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 10; Heb 13:8). These are the truths that set us free!

Christ is calling you now…He needs you now.  It is time to respond.

Photo credit: Flickr/David Michael Morris
Brad Bursa

Brad Bursa is the Director of Youth Ministry at St. Gertrude Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio.