Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, SV
Superior General, Sisters of Life
Commencement Address to the Class of 2017
May 13, 2017
Dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima
It is an honor to be with you, dear graduates. And Joseph, you are a bit intimidating to follow! That was a beautiful address, and I thank you for it.
But first of all let me acknowledge President Michael and Mrs. Lynda McLean, Mr. Scott Turicchi and members of the Board of Governors, faculty and staff of the College, family and friends of the students and graduates of Thomas Aquinas College: Thank you for the honor of being with you today on this beautiful, joyous day of your commencement.
With this ceremony, dear graduates, with the grace of God, you fulfill one of childhood’s dreams: graduation from college.
These years at Thomas Aquinas College, I trust, have been something of a “cenacle” experience. You are blessed to be among those who have found the “pearl of great price” and to inherit the intellectual and the sacred tradition of the Catholic Church.
During these four years you have, no doubt, with your classmates worshipped the living God; forged friendships, which, God willing, will last a lifetime; studied and discussed the works of the world’s greatest thinkers; the natural sciences and the arts; created and played together; discovered, learned and competed together and against one another — and in all of this you have honed skills which will serve you well as you begin the great undertaking of adult life.
But who can ignore the fact that your graduation occurs on the day the whole Catholic world celebrates with joy the centenary of Our Lady of Fatima’s visit to the children in that town? You rightly choose her as your patron.
Mary knows her children, and she knows you.
Notice how Mary speaks when she speaks with such great tenderness to the Mexican people in Guadalupe, who did not yet know her son, saying: Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not …under my protection? … Are you not in the folds of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?
But in Fatima (before given the title, Star of the New Evangelization), Mary exhorted believers in her son, Jesus Christ, to a greater spiritual fervor in response to the grave perils which confronted a world at war. Our Lady wanted to make clear to her Son’s disciples that they had a decisive role to play in history. Her call is timeless.
There is no immutable destiny, either for individuals, nations or cultures. Mary exhorts us to call upon her to assist us in realizing God’s dreams for our lives and for the world. God gave the people of Portugal the miracle of the sun to underscore the validity of His mother’s message. And it was in response to her message of faithful prayer for the “conversion of Russia” — sustained through decades — that changed the course of the last century’s history.
To see vividly the power of faith and prayer, let us look at two moments in the life of Pope John Paul II, a son with total devotion to Our Lady.
The first moment, your parents and grandparents will remember, occurred on this day — May 13 — in 1981, in an attempted assassination of Our Holy Father, in broad daylight, in St. Peter’s Square. He was brought to the threshold of death by gunshot wounds. But recovering later, he requested the text of the “secret” of Fatima, and he would then explain his survival saying: “One hand fired the shot. Another (the hand of the Virgin Mary) guided it.” It was “a mother’s hand” that deflected the fateful bullet. And Pope John Paul II later visited Fatima and presented the bullet, which was intended to silence and to kill him, to Mary. The weapon she made powerless is now a jewel in her crown, a sign of her victory.
The second moment would occur 10 years later. Desiring to fulfill Our Lady of Fatima’s request, our Holy Father made a formal Act of Consecration of the world (and of Russia) to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1984. Our Lady had promised that prayer and the consecration of Russia would stop the spread of Communism. Just five years later, the icon of the division between Western democracy and Communism, the Berlin Wall, fell. And it would be only two years later that the Communist regime of Soviet Russia — one of the world’s two great superpowers — collapsed. History has no immutable destiny. Faith and prayer are forces which influence history, and in the end, prayer is more powerful than bullets — whether emotional or real — and faith, more powerful than armies.
Closer to home, let me tell you one story of the power of faith and prayer from our missions. In recent years the Sisters came to know a young woman, “Monica,” who lived nearby in the Bronx. The Friars of the Renewal recognized that grace was stirring in Monica’s heart and introduced her to us, the Sisters encouraging her to attend one of our young women’s retreats. Monica arrived for a weekend that would change her life and re-capture the hope she needed to dream. Let me tell you Monica’s story in her own words:
“I didn’t have the relationship a girl needs to have with her father. I had several broken relationships with men, and had seen a lot of abuse. I didn’t know who I was. I felt unlovable, and yet, I still wanted to give myself away. I decided to go on a retreat (with the Sisters of Life) whose theme was, ‘Perfect Love Casts Out Fear,’ and I really wanted to believe that was true. One of the Sisters gave a conference on the dignity of being a woman, made in the image and likeness of God. When she described woman as the crowning glory of creation, something happened to me. … It dawned on me — I have so much to give! God made everything, and He decided to make me. The world needs me. I went to the Lord in prayer, saying, ‘Jesus, show me how to be a woman. I need to know the truth about who I am.’ I had been living in a world of so much anger, feeling I could never be pure again. … That weekend, I knew God was saying, ‘You have dignity. You do not need to degrade yourself.’
“I understood then that I needed help, and it wasn’t long before I was able to receive Christ’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession. It made me cry because I knew I wasn’t alone anymore.
“And all my dreams came back.”
Since that retreat Monica became a vibrant member and leader of the young adult Catholic community of the South Bronx, and was awarded a full academic scholarship to an esteemed Catholic university — much like this one — from which she recently graduated, a dream she could hardly have allowed herself to imagine!
Young graduates, with Our Lady of Fatima to assist you, dare to dream, dreams full of truth and beauty and goodness. For the world needs your dreams.
Today’s ceremony is one of the rituals of young adult life which signifies that the stewardship of the awesome gift of your life is being passed into your hands. Receive the gift with a full measure of gratitude to your parents for the gift of life; with gratitude to those who, by their lives, their love, and their witness, have led you to encounter the living God and to a vision of the Mystical Body of Christ, His Church; and with gratitude to those who have shared with you the great adventure and dignity that is to be found in human life. The ways in which you steward the gift of your life is the most fundamental contribution you can make to the building of a culture of life and a civilization of love.
Graduates, dare to dream of living the high calling for which you were created as the central focus of your life. Every human life, as you know, is a question — as our Hoy father Pope John Paul II would put it — to which the assent and the gift of one’s love, given and received, totally and unreservedly, is the answer. Love is, therefore, the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.
To live vocationally requires a commitment to a life of continual conversion in the Lord. Then, whatever vocation you are blessed to receive — to family life and marriage, to a participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, to consecration to the Lord as a religious or in the lay state — may you live your vocation with such vision that your life contributes to the building of the earthly city, to human culture, in ways befitting the human person.
Graduates, dare to dream of living always within the bonds of communion founded within the Eucharistic Lord. As you depart this hallowed place, you will engage a wider, more difficult, world; yet at the same time a world replete with potential and possibilities. Therefore, to steady your life’s course, seek the bonds of community with other believers who will champion your aspirations, call you to accountability, strengthen your Christian resolve to walk humbly with God amid a polyphony of discordant voices, and challenge you to open your hearts to the gift of God’s grace and light, which is given equally in days of delight and difficulty.
I pray your life will be a compelling sign of contradiction. Find friends and points of cooperation among those who do not share our beliefs, and to those who oppose your good purpose. Remember the words of St. Augustine from the City of God, “Let this city bear in mind, that among … our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are destined to become our friends.”
Graduates, dare to dream of being truly free men and women. The freedom you seek is, most profoundly, that freedom given us by God, that we may choose to love and follow the way of transformation in Jesus Christ. We grow in this precious freedom by loving others, in the words of Mother Teresa, “until it hurts.” As we love we grow in our capacity for love.
As we all know too very well, in our attempts at loving, sometimes we fail. There are times when we have made mistakes, and there are times when others have hurt us. No matter where you have been, or whatever darkness you may yet pass through, nothing can keep you from the freedom that is already yours. Everything — even and especially the most difficult and painful aspects of our lives — can be given to Our Lady to become signs of her victory, jewels in her crown.
So today let us join with Christians throughout the world in this Easter season who celebrate our final and definitive liberation — the freedom of the sons and daughters of God! The Church’s celebrations are founded on the reality that, as prophesized by Isaiah, we have been ransomed by a savior, Jesus Christ, Who came to “set the captives free.”
We rejoice in the freedom won for us by so great and loving a God. Seize that freedom! Promise yourself that, throughout your life, you will avail yourself of the sacrament which frees one from the bondage of sinfulness. Secure that freedom! As you leave here today, promise yourself that throughout your life you will receive from the treasury of grace at Holy Mass, in times of personal prayer, and in the praise and adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Be witnesses to the greatest freedom of all — women and men, fully alive, capable of reflecting the glory of God.
Today Thomas Aquinas College presents you to us, and invites you to take your place among the educated citizenry of the Church, our nation, and the world; and we are blessed to receive you. The fulfillment today of one of life’s goals gives way to larger, and greater, dreams: dream of fulfilling God’s plans and purposes for your life.
At Fatima Our Lady made clear that we, her disciples, have a decisive role to play in the outcomes of history. Today Our Lady entrusts you, 2017 graduates of Thomas Aquinas College, with a task she repeatedly entrusts only to the humble and the bold — by the prayer and witness of your lives, be the heralds of an undreamed-of but longed-for reality to all who do not yet know Jesus Christ — and asks that you heed her call to the benefit of millions of souls and the glory of God.
Remember, you are never alone. You have a mother in Mary who has chosen you, who delights in you. She loves you. She knows you. Go forward, knowing that she awaits your requests.
May God bless you.
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