Editor’s Note: The following is an address by Kerry A. Robinson, delivered May 22, 2010, at the commencement ceremony for graduates of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, Berkeley, Calif.
“Nothing is more endangered in the modern world than the powerful combination of hard work toward meaningful goals joined with an exuberant embrace of the present moment.”
You have worked very hard toward meaningful goals and deserve to heed Tom Morris’ advice. Exuberantly embrace this present moment!
Bravo, Class of 2010.
Let me, however, be very clear. Far more than our congratulations are in order. For everyone who belongs to, works on behalf of, or simply cares about the church owes you a profound debt of gratitude.
These are relentlessly challenging days for the church; to pretend otherwise would be naive. It is not always easy to be Catholic, let alone to have committed to lives of leadership and service to the church as theologians, ecclesiologists, teachers, deans, pastors, executive directors of Catholic institutions and lay ecclesial ministers. I trust that you have had many discussions over meals and following worship services in this sacred space. And certainly you have spoken of the challenges facing the church in classes, benefiting from the rich ecumenical and interfaith diversity afforded by membership in the Graduate Theological Union. I know that some of these discussions can be wrenching and demoralizing and heartbreaking. Perhaps, like me, you may have even found yourself at moments questioning the years you have already dedicated to the church, wondering: Is it meaningful or futile?
The best advice I can offer in times of anguish when the institutional church fails to live up to its potential or manifests ignoble qualities -- arrogance, fear, control, sanctimony, prejudice, inertia -- comes from my teacher and spiritual director, Sister Margaret Farley: Always remember what it is you love most about the church, and membership in it. Name it. Claim it. And be radically grateful for it.
Perhaps what you find inspiring, beautiful and most authentic about the church is the essence of its sacramental nature -- the belief that grace is everywhere, but for us to recognize and thus appreciate it, grace must pierce our consciousness so that we are reminded that we, right now, are in the presence of God, held in God’s embrace, infused by the Spirit. As Father Michael Himes so eloquently describes, this is to experience the sacramental nature of our faith. And anything can be sacramental -- a vista, an aria, a kiss, a friendship, a meal, service, liturgy.
Perhaps what you love most about our church is the contribution to the world that its profound social justice tradition offers. Or the articulation of a community of saints to which we all belong. The celebration of the Eucharist. Theological insights. The rich deposit of our faith. Our church’s intellectual tradition. The holiness of others. The way the church at its best responds to the needs of a broken world with uncommon compassion. The importance of reconciliation. Or the fact that our faith insists that everyone is capable of redemption, all of the time.
I submit that there are as many personally held and valued reasons why one loves the church as there are members of the church. Be clear, often, about what it is you most love and value, for that will sustain you in times of challenge and difficulty.
My own answer, at its heart, is simple: I love the church, have dedicated my life vocationally to serving the church, have accepted often wildly imaginative leadership positions in the church and will never give up on the church because of one thing: You.
From the earliest memories of my childhood, I was exposed to women and men, ordained, religious and lay, like you, committed to the church, and like you, from all corners of the globe. I met these extraordinary people because I was born to a family that now has a 65-year formal history of Catholic philanthropy. My great-grandparents, John and Helena Raskob, established a foundation with two clear and simple intentions. The first was that all of their financial resources be used to support the Catholic Church across the world, in all of her ministries and apostolates. And the second was that their children and descendants be stewards of the foundation’s resources.
Membership in the foundation is voluntary and nonremunerative, demanding and more humbling than anything my cousins, aunts and uncles could have ever imagined. As a child and for the rest of my life, I have had the privilege of meeting people like you who have dedicated their minds, hearts, time, spirit and energy to living out their faith in the world. What my childhood heroes and heroines had in common was a profound sense of purpose, a groundedness in their faith, and despite ministering in often wrenching social conditions in the poorest neighborhoods, in the most dangerous regions, in the midst of profound social inequity and injustice, they all possessed a palpable sense of joy. Formed and informed by their faith, Christlike, they feed the hungry, educate the poor, advocate for human rights, catechize, champion justice, risk their lives for others and extend compassion to those who are suffering. They -- you -- are the heart and soul of our church.
It is one of the many reasons my heart is broken by the fractured trust, respect and credibility that is one consequence of the sexual abuse crisis.
Daily, through the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, I witness the generosity and staggering competencies of senior executive leaders from all walks of life who want to share what they do best to help the church they love meet the complex, contemporary challenges it faces. And the urgency for this level of skill and expertise in managerial matters is so deeply evident. They believe to do nothing to help is to be complicit. But it is work not for the faint of heart.
Recently, in troubled days of prayer about the crisis and how to ensure we are all an effective part of the solution, I asked a close friend of mine, Father Jack Wall, “How does one replenish the reservoir of hope and dedication and faith in the midst of the shame and anguish of the unfolding abuse crisis?” Permit me to share with you his response. He said: “Pray with the image of standing by the cross. Pray with the image of the women giving witness to the Resurrection, ‘their fear giving way to a mounting sense of joy.’”
We are watching the suffering of something we hold dear. What is our response? One response might be anger at the injustice that this could happen. Another response might be profound sorrow at the loss of something once cherished. Another response is shame. Another, fear: what does this portend for the future of the church? And still another response might be the desire to shake the dust from your sandals, to wipe your hands clean of this mess, to walk away. Each response is authentic, valid, understandable.
But we are nothing if not a paschal people. Deep within the Catholic imagination is the conviction that out of suffering and death comes new life.
And you, whom we honor today, you are the bearers of this good news. Your response will be to stand witness to the new life to come and to be the interpreters of the signs of that new life for which we all yearn.
Your leadership could not come at a more profound moment in the life of the church. For it is more important than ever for thoughtful, articulate, educated Catholics to involve themselves in the life of the church.
I offer you a challenge in the spirit of this new life. Theologians and ecclesiologists, leaders and teachers, bearers of the good news, witnesses to new life: Help to give faithful, articulate, prophetic voice to the importance of baptismal rights and responsibilities. Be part of the global transformation of consciousness that celebrates, invites, affirms and encourages the genuine collaboration of laity, religious and clergy in the service of the church’s mission.
In this country, Catholics comprise 25 percent of the population and 35 percent of CEO positions. Catholics are counted among the highest echelons of leadership in every sector and industry. Their competencies and expertise are greatly needed by the church in all aspects of church management, finance, communication and human resource development. And the consequence of serving the church by offering what one does best is always evangelization. I challenge you to articulate why that specific form of Christian stewardship -- laity, religious and clergy offering their unique competencies to strengthen the management of the church -- is profoundly, deeply faithful and neither violates existing ecclesiology, apostolic governance nor canon law but, on the contrary, strengthens and fulfils them.
Be bold. Think big. Trust in Providence. Desire excellence across the board for the sake of the church’s mission, and ensure that aspirations of excellence extend to the temporal affairs of the church. For as Somerset Maugham observed, “It is a funny thing about life: if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.” Forgive yourselves, each other and those who have misunderstood or mistreated you. Work toward the restoration of trust and credibility. Exercise faith-filled imagination. Live in the world of possibility. Be joyful. My classmate at Yale Divinity School once remarked that she had visited a parish for Mass that was painfully stultifying and lackluster, bordering on morose, prompting her to speak to the pastor afterwards. She said, “Father, I know that this is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but you are not the one being sacrificed!”
Act on hope. For as William Sloan Coffin reminded us, “Hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible.” Live out of an abundance model, because Christ “came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Bridge the chasm between the left and right. Silence the vitriol. Avoid cynicism. A cynic, after all, is simply one who has given up but not yet shut up.
In closing, you cannot know the profound effect you have had on people like me. I am dedicated to the church because of your witness, example, commitment, leadership and ministry. I urge you to be the church you want to see. A more relevant church to young adults, a more joyful church, a church of integrity, ethics, accountability, transparency and openness. A church at the forefront of justice, peace and charity. A church that avails itself of the talents of all of its members, acknowledges the gifts and competencies of women and utilizes those talents in meaningful leadership. A church that properly cares for all that has been entrusted to it, and responds courageously and confidently to the potential at hand. A church the world needs because the world needs solace, healing, peace, hope, compassion and love.
How appropriate to conclude with a quote from a Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “The most satisfying thing in life is to have been able to give a large part of oneself to others.”
Thank you and bless you for having committed to doing just that.