Audio file

His Eminence Edwin Cardinal O’Brien
Grand Master, Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
Homily from the Baccalaureate Mass
May 17, 2014


It is truly a singular honor to have a part in your graduation ceremonies today, and I thank Dr. McLean for his invitation to do so. Not only do I have a part in your graduation ceremonies, but a major part in the most important ceremony of the day, the Eucharistic celebration. The patron of your college would be so very proud of this beautiful liturgy, given his single, mystical devotion to the Eucharist, evidenced in his writings and, above all, in the virtually inspired liturgy he composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi, hymns still savored in the Mass and the Divine Office for that feast.

Understandably, you soon-to-be-graduated turn to the Holy Spirit in your prayer today, thanking Him for the very paths that have brought you to this time and place, and pleading for His presence in your individual lives, His continued presence in this college in the days and years ahead. I will tell you two brief stories in order to leave with you two simple messages concerning what I see to be the Holy Spirit’s reality for you and in the life of the Church.

During my worldwide travels as Archbishop for our American Armed forces for over 10 years, I once found myself in Singapore for the Holy Week Triduum. There is a very small presence of the American Navy personnel and their families in Singapore, and I had the opportunity to meet with them and many others. The small chapel was filled with families for the Easter Vigil, when in darkness the new fire was set ablaze, and the chapel gradually became brighter as candles were lighted one by one to celebrate Christ Our Light. As you know, baptismal water — we call it Easter water — is solemnly blessed early in the Easter Vigil ceremony to remind us of our baptism. There, in the sanctuary, was a large metal basin filled with water ready to be blessed. What a blessing for faithful Catholics far from home to connect with such a moving liturgy.

The chapel was again overflowing on Easter Sunday, now with grandparents and aunts and uncles making the long journey in support of 12 eight-year-olds who were to receive their very first Holy Communion at that Easter Day Mass. During my homily, I asked a question of the 12 children that I often pose to teenagers at confirmations, but I rarely get an answer from teenagers, so self-conscious are adolescents at that age. But these 8-year-olds were loose and lively, and so I chanced the question with them. The question: Why did your parents have you baptized as infants? Why didn’t they wait until you were able to make your own decision — 8 years old, 12 years old, 18 years of age? It’s a question often asked of us by our Protestant friends.

Almost immediately several excited hands were waving, and I said to myself, my hunch was right; they are anxious to have a part in this liturgy. I called on the young boy in the aisle seat just in front of me. He said, with total and almost authoritative certainty, “I was baptized as a baby because if I got much bigger, I would not be able to fit into that big silver thing up there.”

As you can understand, I hesitated to go any further. Parents and teachers were mortified. But there was a little girl next to this young guy who was insistent. She said, “I was baptized as a baby because Jesus wanted to be with me from the very beginning.”

Can anyone in this very learned Catholic community come up with a better answer? St. John Paul II said that the most important day in his life was not when he was elected pope, consecrated a bishop, or ordained a priest, but on the day of his baptism, when the Holy Spirit configured him to Christ. And the Holy Spirit, he was convinced, would guide his every step along the way, as all the other sacraments were built on that baptism. For baptism is the gateway into life in the Spirit. One could not say that his baptism helped John Paul II evade the severest of trials and hardships in his life, but he was convinced that his baptismal faith was the key to his endurance of Nazism and Communism, as well as to the insights that led to Eastern Europe’s crumbling wall and bloodless revolution.

Having profited from the classical education for which Thomas Aquinas College is so renowned, you, I am sure, have been exposed to the prophetic insights of Bl. John Henry Newman. At one point, the Blessed Cardinal speaks forcefully on the temptations and dangers which, unknown to ourselves, we have been spared throughout our lives — the countless potential paths of ruin and self-destruction which we might have pursued but, thank God and the Spirit that is rooted within us through baptism, we never even knew were options. Baptismal graces are always at work.

Might we not pause at this moment to thank God for the unseen and unacknowledged baptismal graces that have been poured out to you over these many years, graces that have brought you to this very moment? And in doing so, might you thank those — many of whom are sitting behind you and around you in this splendid chapel — thank those who led you to that baptismal fount so many years ago? It is they who made it possible for Jesus to be with each of you from the very beginning.

A second personal experience, closer in time and place: 14 months ago, Sistine Chapel, the Vatican. What could ever lead a kid from the Bronx to dream that one day he would find himself involved in a papal conclave? But there I was. I have no recollection of ever having heard the name Jorge Bergoglio before those 115 cardinals gathered in conclave, except for a day or two before, when a retired cardinal suggested to me, “If you have any problems deciding, you might think of the name Bergoglio.” And so it happened in one of the shortest conclaves in history, when one who had not been included in the top 20 was unexpectedly chosen. Ask me how it happened, and I can honestly say: I don’t know. But almost out of nowhere, like mist mysteriously rising from the sea, the name came suddenly and clearly and repeatedly. Bergoglio. Bergoglio. Bergoglio.

I have never in all my life experienced the active presence of the Holy Spirit as forcefully and mysteriously as I did during those barely 24 hours of conclave. And I am totally convinced, and ever will be, that Pope Francis was God’s choice to lead His Church today. In less than a year he has made the Church as relevant and meaningful to Catholics and non-Catholics as ever the Church has been in my lifetime. Do some in the Church have problems with the change in papal style, a provocative tendency to challenge our assumptions and comfortable securities? Yes. And at this stage, the Lord might well be speaking quite directly to us through that same Holy Spirit Who started all this some 14 months ago.

In an essay years ago, on the Elder Brother Syndrome, Bl. John Henry Newman referred to the Prodigal Son’s return to his father and the older son’s resentment. Dutiful, faithful, and consistent — in contrast to his reckless sibling’s debauchery — elder brother was so very secure in presuming that there was no other way of living than was his own in those days, in total conformity to his father’s expectations and way of seeing things. He was very comfortable with his life, but now his life was being challenged. Bl. John Henry Newman warns that a certain quiet and peace, those greatest of blessings, constitute the trial of the Christians who enjoy them. Unwary Christians, says he, can become overconfident in their knowledge of God’s ways. “Those who long have had God’s favor without cloud or storm … grow secure.” They find it much more comfortable to believe that there is nothing more to find when it comes to God’s will for them and His Church.

And so, says Newman, in religion we have need to watch against the narrowness of mind to which we are tempted by the uniformity and tranquility of God’s providence for us, and cannot understand how God’s blessings can be given to modes of actions to which we, ourselves, are unaccustomed — an echo of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. God’s word is unpredictable in its power, and the Church has to expect this unruly freedom of the Word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking.

God willing, such a spirit of inquiry — which, during these fruitful and hopefully challenging years here, has engaged you at the desks and around the tables of this institution — will continue to challenge your minds, always, always guided by the Church’s teachings. This sense of radical trust in the Word of God and in the Spirit that guides the Church finds this pope insisting again and again that Christ’s disciples today, as 2,000 years ago, must leave our comfort zones to reach all the peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel. He especially invites young people to come down from the balcony and be the Church’s mission, even if, in the process, your shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.

Just last week the Pope exhorted young people such as yourselves: Never lose the impulse to walk the streets of the world with the knowledge that walking, even with faltering steps or limping, is always better than standing still, closed up in our own questions, our own certainties. Here I cannot but see a clear reference to your beloved classmate, Andrew Kent More, tragically killed two years ago as he walked the streets of America for the cause of innocent human life. Surely he is here with us in the Communion of Saints. We make special mention of him in this Mass as we remember his family as well as the pro-life cause which he so heroically championed, and which Thomas Aquinas College has so unfailingly and successfully promoted.

“Happy the people whose god is the Lord, the people He was has chosen for His own inheritance” — we have just heard that responsory. Studies confirm that joy remains the principal theme in Francis’s pontificate. It surely is the hallmark of his persona, and I would claim it accounts for his huge, universal popularity. In his defining apostolic exhortation, again fittingly titled, Evangelii Gaudium, he counsels those who would evangelize — that is, every one of us who are baptized — never to look like someone who has just come back from a funeral. He quotes John XXIII in warning against “a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses.’” When’s the last time you saw that word in a papal document?

What a blessing has been yours these last four years, Class of 2014, to have been formed here, at this college, in an atmosphere of deep Christian joy. That joy has been the result of God’s grace, a gift of Christ whose final wish for His disciples, at the Lord’s Supper, was that His joy might be in them, and their joy — your joy — in the Spirit might be complete. May the joy which today fills the heart of each one of you be a pilgrim joy, and continue to be born anew, as you encounter Christ in the very paths you will pursue. And may that joy overflow, like living water, for a world so very athirst for the living God.