Homily for the Baccalaureate Mass
Chesterton Academy of The Holy Family
25 May 2023 – Ss. Peter and Paul, Naperville
Dear members of the Board of Directors; dear Mr. Ellison and my esteemed colleagues, the faculty and staff; to you, dear family, friends, and honor guests; and to you, brothers and sisters in Jesus, the honored Chesterton Academy Class of 2023:
Those who went to Rome with us last March might remember the day everyone’s favorite Joe Long had to take a step back from our group and attend to an under-the-weather child. You might remember the sound of shuffling in your Whisper set earpieces as he quickly removed his tour-guide microphone and handed it to me saying, “here give the tour of this church,” and the soft muttering of me saying something back to him I shouldn’t repeat in the context of Holy Mass.
The church in question, you might remember, was the Santuario Madonna del Perpetuo Soccorso, the Church of St. Alphonso’s Ligouri and the home of the original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. This is a church that – until that moment – I had entered exactly one time and knew less than nothing about.
So we hurried out of there and began what seemed to many of you to be a Green Mile of the brightly colored Roman buildings of the Via Merulana. “How nice this is!” I told you. “Look, we’re in a regular everyday neighborhood! How fun!” Shortly before we reemerged in the Piazza San Giovanni and turned toward the Colosseum, I pointed out to you a Metro Stop about which I was more than a little excited.
It was the stop at the Viale Manzoni, and you might remember why I was so excited.
Alessandro Manzoni, who lived from 1785 to 1873, is one of Italy’s most famous writers. His book, I Promessi Sposi – The Betrothed is credited with doing for the Italian language what only one other work of literature ever did: Dante’s Divine Comedy, written some 500 years before. Manzoni is known as the Father of the Modern Italian language, and The Betrothed is the most hated book by Italian high school students who must study it over and over in a way similar to our own obsession with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
The Betrothed belongs to a category of 19th century novel which Henry James described as a “loose baggy monster.” The English translation is a whopping 720 pages that comprise (in my opinion) a novel that is at once thrilling and life-changing, painfully boring and really too wordy, and is, at the end of the day, in the top 3 books I have ever read.
It is a truly Catholic story: a young priest who has no time for mercy or the details of his peoples’ lives causes great harm to young Renzo and Lucia, and one small decision of Don Abbondio unleashes a storyline that leads the young couple to depth of hell, to the height of glory, and to the fulness of the human experience.
It’s a book whose details remind us of the timelessness of human folly, and the eternal ramifications of both generosity and selfishness, and gives credence to what we learn from Quoheleth in the Book of Ecclesiastes: there is truly nothing new under the sun.
In The Betrothed we meet busy-body church ladies, and young men who have no vision for the future; set in the 1628 in the midst of Spanish rule of Milan, Italy, the book takes place in a time of great civil strife with great discord in local and national politics, and even includes a highly politicized pandemic – a plague, in fact – the civil discourse around which probably caused far more damage to life in Milan than the disease itself……..
We encounter the saintly Archbishop of Milan who teaches Don Abbondio (and every priest who reads the book) a lesson about the priestly heart, and we see such a heart exemplified in the Capuchin hero, Fr. Cristoforo, who changes the course of so many things simply by his fidelity to his vocation and the witness he gives.
Sent all over the place by his order, Fr. Cristoforo lands eventually at the Lazaretto, the community of exiles suffering from the plague just outside of Milan, where he rises through the ranks and becomes the rector of the place, overseeing every aspect of care. In one of the most moving sections of the novel, right near the end, the jaded and bitter Renzo – having lost all hope of ever being able to marry his beloved Lucia – meets Fr Cristoforo and listens to the speech he gives to those men and women who, by God’s grace, had been healed of the plague and were ready to be sent out into Milan; immune from the plague’s effects, they were called to serve even the poorest and most needy, even if only by the witness of their lives.
Let us give heed to the many thousands who must remain here today, and who do not know by which road they will leave this place when their time comes. Let us take heed for ourselves, so small a band, who leave it in safety. Blessed by the Lord! Blessed in his justice, blessed in his mercy! Blessed in death, and blessed in health! Blessed in the choice that he has made in saving us. And why did he make that choice? … Was it not to make us feel more keenly that this life is a gift of his hands, to be cherished as a thing given by him, to be used in works we can offer up to him? Was it not so that the memory of our own sufferings might make us compassionate and helpful to our neighbors?
Think now of those others, in whose company we have known pain, and hope, and fear; among whom we leave friends and relations, and all of whom are our brothers. (666)
Think now of this place, dear graduates, and all the work you’ve done…of all the people you’ve met. Think now of all the pain, and hope, and fear; and joy, and heartbreak, and betrayal, and reconciliation, and growth, and fruit, and peace.
The Class of 2023 is the largest graduating class in the history of Chesterton Academy of The Holy Family; you are the first class of two sections. You are a class that has called on us as an institution to refine what we are doing; your size but also your intellect and heart is itself a fruit of the mission of this place, a mission that has challenged you as you have challenged it and – by this mutual challenge, this mutual encouragement – I firmly that each has grown. This is the way it is supposed to work.
You are a class that has grown and shrunk. You are a class that received transfer students in sophomore, junior, and senior years. Many of you sitting here before us tonight could never have imagined as you graduated eighth grade that you’d be here with us. But we’re glad you are.
Fr. Cristoforo continues:
Those of them who see us pass through their midst will perhaps be cheered to see someone get out here alive; but let them also be edified by our conduct and bearing. God forbid that they should see in us a noisy gaiety, an earthly rejoicing at having escaped from that death with which they are still wrestling. Let them see us go forth thanking God for our safety, and praying God that they too may be saved. Let them say to themselves: “Even when they are outside, those people will not forget us, and will pray for us.”
While it was the weirdness of our own pandemic that brought many in this class to Chesterton, it is our own confrontation with the weirdness and lopsidedness of the aboriginal pandemic, the one for which everybody forgets there is already an ultimate cure, the plague of sin, that has given us pause and has been the source of our own internal wrestling.
Let no one here think that he or she is, by their own effort, immune from this plague. It is by our own effort that things fall apart, when we lose sight of who we are and where we’ve come from and where we’re called to go. The evil one is nasty, and he’s relentless, and he’s clever. But Jesus who calls you away from the old life obsessed with sin and death, has a yolk that is sweet and light. He is our brother, our companion, our redeemer.
And it is precisely here that we get to the heart of what your time at Chesterton has been about. You are moving from this place. Thank God. No really, thank God. It would be wrong for you stay even one moment longer than the appointed time.
The simple of mission of this place is to give you a time and a place and a community where you can be introduced to the most Sacred Mysteries of all, that you might become acutely more aware that life is worth living, and that there is so much beauty in being human, and that this beauty will help you learn to seek the good; and that, as I have said so many times, you would move from choosing the good because you are afraid of the consequences of being bad to choosing good because you love what is good. “May you love what is good and become what you love.”
Having been formed in this way, having tasted this fruit and having seen a glimpse of this vision, you are called to go where God is calling you: always higher, always deeper; further up, and further in. You are set free from the shackles of this place, as Paul was in the first reading, not to run whimsically and without vision through the passage of time, but to go out and strong and to bear witness to what you have learned, and to the One whom you have come to know.
Fr. Cristoforo again:
Let us begin a new life from the first moments of this journey, from the first steps we take along this road – a new life which shall be all charity. Let those of us who have got back all their strength give a brotherly arm to the weak! Let the young help the old! … And as your charity cancels our your sins, so it will soften your own grief.” (667)
Dear Class of 2023,
I ask you now to pray for us, your teachers and staff and families and friends. I am always moved by the way Fr. Cristoforo finishes his speech to those preparing to leave and live a new life:
I speak both for myself and for all my companions, who without any merit of our own have been chosen for the high honor of serving Christ by serving you, and I beg your forgiveness most humbly if we have failed in so great a mission. If idleness or rebellion of the flesh have made us inattentive to your needs, or slow to come to your call;…if our human frailty has led us into any action that has been of scandal to you – forgive us! And so may God forgive you all your debts, and bless you.”
I know that I speak for each of your teachers when I echo those marvelous words of Jesus in the Gospel tonight: “Father, they are your gift to me.” Being a priest is a gift, being your teacher is a gift, being your brother on this strange and varied pilgrim way is a gift.
Being your mom is a gift. Being your dad is a gift. Being your friend is a gift. Being your sibling is a gift. Being able to know you, and to help you grow is a gift. And I hope that you can look at us and say, somehow and maybe from a very deep place, that because you have been here and because you have known us, you too have been given a great gift.
So go out and bear witness. Be brave in your vocations, be steadfast in your prayer, be truthful in your relationships, and be kind to all (especially to your mom).
And be grateful.
Let me leave you with the words Manzoni uses to end The Betrothed, probably my very favorite ending of any novel I’ve ever read:
After a long debate, and much heart-searching they came to the conclusion that troubles very often come because we have asked for them; but that the most prudent and innocent of conduct is not necessarily enough to keep them away; also that when they come, through our fault or otherwise, trust in God goes far to take away their sting, and makes them useful preparation for a better life.
This conclusion may have been reached by humble folk, but we find it so just, that we have decided to place it here, as the very essence of our story.
If the story has given you any pleasure, think kindly of the man who wrote it….But if on the other hand we have only succeeded in boring you, please believe that we did not do so on purpose.