Mount St. Joseph University

Reverend James J. Walsh’s speech at the Mount’s graduate and adult commencement



File Under: commencement

Reverend James J. Walsh, pastor at St. Dominic, addressed the graduate and adult students during the morning commencement ceremonies on May 11. Father Jim was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree for his leadership and pastoral ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, both locally and nationally.

President Aretz, members of the board of trustees, Sisters of Charity, faculty, graduates, family and friends, thank you for this tremendous honor.

My education had a great beginning under the Sisters of Charity at St. William. I have always considered that one of God's blessings in my life. I feel very much blessed again by God today through this College of Mount St. Joseph, and the Sisters of Charity. Thank you.

Soren Kierkegad, the 19th-century Danish philosopher and theologian, is probably most noted for a famous quote, and the quote is this: "Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backwards." 

I have done a lot of living forward. I want to share with you a few of the deeper realities I have come to understand backwards. And the first is this: Even though today is a day to celebrate achievement, I have come to understand that the best things in life are given. And what are some of those best things? First of all, my life! Where did it come from? After all, we don't have to be! Why me? Who invited me in on all this? And why? The mystery of my own existence. I certainly didn't earn life. Every moment, every breath, every heartbeat comes to me as a gift.

Think about the ability to see things, to hear things, to think, and feel, to speak and communicate, to love, and to care for others. What did we ever do to earn that? The best things in life are given. What could we ever do to earn the intimacy of a spouse or the friendship of someone? It's not something we can ever say we have a right to. We can't earn the friendship of another. It's a gift. It's grace.

And then there is the love of God. What could we ever do to earn that? And along with God's love comes my very identity. Who am I? What am I worth? Where does that come from?

There was a time, living life forward, when I thought my worth came from: what I look like, who I hung out with, how well I could hit a baseball, how athletic I was, how much I knew. There was a time, living life forward, when I thought my worth came from: my role, my position, my job, what I can do, my performance.

I have come to understand a much deeper truth. Who I am, what I am worth, is given. It is given in the love of God. You and I are beloved sons, beloved daughters, loved by a gracious God. It's not like we do something, and then God loves us. God's love is given. It's a gift. It's grace. We can't earn it. We can only receive it. And respond to it. Who am I most deeply? A beloved son.

That is the most important thing I have ever learned. Best things in life are given. I have also come to understand backwards the truth about successful and happy living. One of the blessings of being a priest is that people let you in on their lives, and what is important and significant to them. Many who have lived life forward have witnessed to what they have come to understand looking back. Successful and happy living is a life lived for others. The gift of self to another in marriage, the gift of self to children, to a parish, to a college, to a religious community, the gift of self to a life of service to others.

That's what gives life meaning and significance. That's what is really important. In some mysterious way, the secret of finding life is losing it for another or others. The secret of enjoying life is in giving it away. That's the good life, the happy life, the successful life. When we look around us, we see it, don't we? The happy people are the givers. And we know it from our own experience. We are happier giving than receiving.

But we should have already known all this from Jesus. It's what Jesus told us about life. Jesus had it right, by God. Successful and happy living is a life lived for others. I have also come to understand backwards there is a quality of life that comes from living in touch with the mystery of God's reign.

Let me explain.

Scripture scholars point out: The core of Jesus' teaching was the reign of God, and when Jesus used that phrase, he was not talking about a place or domain separated from the world. Jesus was talking about the presence and activity of God in the world. The bottom line good news of God that Jesus proclaimed is this: God is present doing things. God's movement and activity is in your midst. It's here and now. Stay in touch with it. Be aware of it. Respond to it. Too many people miss the movement of God.

Pope John Paul II has said, "The problem of the age is shallow and superficial living!" For example, our lives are just living from one surface event and activity to the next. Karl Rahner, one of the great theologians of the Second Vatican Council, has said something similar: "The greatest pastoral problem in the church is the eclipse of mystery!" In other words, we live out of touch with the deepest dimension of our lives. God is present and active, loving us, inviting and challenging us, inspiring and transforming us. What a shame to miss it.

We stay in touch by prayerfully reflecting on what is going on in our lives, prayerfully reflecting on how God is loving us, challenging us, and inspiring us in the circumstances of our lives. It's the way of the mystics. Recognizing God's presence in all things, through prayerful reflection on life. Karl Rahner has made the prediction, "The Christian of the 21st century will be a mystic or he or she will be nothing at all." There is a quality of life that comes from living in touch with the movement and activity of God in our lives.

And all of this has led to a deeper awareness of the mission of the Church. Jesus' mission was to proclaim the reign of God. And not just to proclaim it, he also embodied it. He was the reign of God. He was God loving us, challenging us, inspiring us, forgiving and healing us. What Jesus did the in the flesh 2000 years ago was good news then, but today it is no longer news. The good news today is that the movement, the activity of God, continues in us, the followers of Jesus.

Our mission is to do what Jesus did! We are the healing, loving, forgiving presence of Christ in this world! We are the body of Christ. Our mission is make God's vision and dream for the world visible and tangible, to live and be the good news of God's reign, God's activity in this world! To give it flesh and blood, our flesh and blood. So that together, we become like leaven in our society. We become vital players in God's plan, God's strategy, God's dream for the salvation of the world.

Dear graduates, there is a wonderful life ahead. It must be lived forward. May you live it aware that you are beloved daughters and sons of a gracious God, grateful for all the good things in life that are given. May you live it as loving and generous followers of Jesus Christ, in touch with the movement and activity of God in your lives. And as you celebrate this special day in your lives, may you understand it backwards. That in everything in your life leading up to this day, your parents and family, teachers and friends, in all of the opportunities and challenges and losses in your life, God has been loving you along the way.

Graduates of 2013, congratulations and God bless you.