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Lessons learned from Pope Francis

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

May 9, 2015
Gannon Ceremony 2015 00
On Saturday May 9, 2015, Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania awarded the degree Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa to Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB.  Fr. Rosica delivered the following Commencement Address to 800 graduates and more than 4000 guests who filled the Erie Insurance Arena on Saturday afternoon.
Commencement Address
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
Gannon University – Erie, Pennsylvania – May 9, 2015
Your Excellency Bishop Persico,
Dr. Taylor, Distinguished Members of the Board of Trustees,
Professors and University Staff,
Fellow Classmates of the Class of 2015,
Dear Friends,
It is a distinct honor and privilege to stand before you today in Erie, Pennsylvania on this momentous occasion. I am very grateful to Dr. Keith Taylor and your Board of Trustees for this Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, for making me an honorary member of your class of 2015 and an alumnus of this great Catholic University. But before we go any further, fellow graduates, I want to remind you of the heroes of today’s ceremony, the real VIPs who are not sitting up here on stage but behind you and around you: your parents, families, friends, professors, counselors: those who have made great sacrifices to allow you to receive an excellent university education. Without the sacrifices, support, encouragement, love and prayers of some 4000 of them, we wouldn’t be here today. Should you not stand, turn around and show them a sign of our gratitude and affection?
I have been told that Gannon undergraduate and graduate students ending their studies today represent the worlds of humanities, education, social sciences, engineering, business, health professions and sciences… 800 of you will receive associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. In addition to students from the United States, approximately 100 international students from over 24 countries will also receive hard earned degrees. Clearly the motto of your (our) university is being realized in our midst today: Sanitas, Scientia, Sanctitas” - Health, Knowledge, Holiness.
Gannon Ceremony 2015 02I would like to speak with you today about the man who heads my organization – and yours, too – a 78-year old Argentine pastor whose name used to be Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He’s old enough to be my father and your grandfather. Now we know him simply as “Francis.” He has literally captivated the entire world since his election to the See of Peter two years ago on March 13, 2013. Elderly and often teasing the media with expressions like: “I’m growing old… with a few aches and pains. I may not be here for a long time… ”, he walks with a slight limp and is not known for fancy clothes. In fact just last Sunday on a visit to a Roman parish, he was photographed by some indiscreet Italian paparazzi who took a picture of the frayed sleeve of his white cassock and then plastered it on front pages of newspapers of Europe the following day! And yet he is one of the most youthful, dynamic, joyful human beings I have ever encountered. He is a sinner like us, relying on the mercy and compassion of God. He is not afraid.
He is evergreen. Let me tell you what kind of leader he is, and what we learn from him each day, and what you, graduates of the Class of 2015 can learn from his leadership, his vision, his commitment and his witness.
Francis is the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first from Latin America; these are the areas of the world where poverty is so great. Francis is inviting us to become witnesses, missionaries and disciples. That is our mission today. It is not new. Francis has brought new urgency, new passion, and I would suggest, new authenticity to this mission. He has surprisingly declared that God has redeemed all of us, not just Catholics. Despite his being a brilliant Jesuit intellectual who is predisposed to eloquence with words in speeches and sermons, Francis is even more effective in his teachings via his actions and through the sheer power of his example.
Gannon Ceremony 2015 05The world and the Church love Francis because he is a witness. Many young adults find hope in Pope Francis, because he constantly reminds us of what Christ reminded us: to love one another and not judge others. He has a passion for the poor, the immigrant, the forgotten, and the “throw-aways.” He’s got this thing for people on the peripheries, on the fringes and borders of life. He is modeling for us the opposite of what the world models. The world thrives on manipulative, exploitative, competitive power. Pope Francis embodies nutritive and integrative power: power on behalf of the other and a power shared with others.
He is simply reminding us of the basic Christian message that has been around for over 2000 years. The Christian story that Francis and many others model for us, strips us down to nothing in order for us to face ourselves anew. For it often happens that those we have often written off as the throw-aways and losers are not despised or rejected. In fact these people can discover something about themselves that winners can never appreciate – that they are loved and wanted simply because of who they are and not because of what they achieve. This is revealed precisely at the greatest point of dejection when Jesus died on the cross. His resurrection is not some kind of magic trick. It is a revelation that love is stronger than death, that human worth is not indexed to worldly success.
We must ask ourselves at a university graduation like ours today, “What does a Pope have to do with me on graduation day? What does someone living far away from Erie have to say to us at Gannon University? He has much to say to us because authentic Catholic Education, true Evangelization and missionary discipleship must educate and evangelize men and women into the disciplined sensitivity toward the suffering in the world whoever and wherever they may be. This is part of the education and evangelization called for by the Gospel. This is why you came to Gannon University. For without a specific Gospel-rooted effort to bring about such a religious and humane education in our educational and life situations today, we will simply graduate and form people unaware of pain, suffering and the real cost of being Christian and being disciples. Our efforts will mean precious little if we, ourselves were content to graduate from Gannon University or any other Catholic college or university magna cum mediocrity, ignorant of the Christian faith and the responsibilities and obligations that have been placed upon through our baptism.
Here are some of Pope Francis’ keys to happiness and success in his own words. In an interview published last summer in part in the Argentine weekly "Viva," he listed his Top 10 tips for bringing greater joy to one's life:
  1. Live and let live. Everyone should be guided by this principle which has a similar expression in Rome with the saying, "Move forward and let others do the same."
  1. Be giving of yourself to others. People need to be open and generous toward others because if you withdraw into yourself, you run the risk of becoming egocentric. And stagnant water becomes putrid.
  1. Proceed calmly in life. Francis says that in his youth he was a stream full of rocks that he carried with him; as an adult, a rushing river; and in old age, he was still moving, but slowly, like a pool of water. He said he likes this latter image of a pool of water – to have the ability to move with kindness, humility and a calmness in life.
  1. Have a healthy sense of leisure. The pleasures of art, literature and playing together with children have been lost. Consumerism has brought us anxiety and stress, causing people to lose a healthy culture of leisure. Their time is "swallowed up" so people can't share it with anyone. We must turn off the TV when we sit down to eat in our families because, even though television is useful for keeping up with the news, having it on during mealtime doesn't let you communicate with each other.
  1. Sundays should be holidays. Workers should have Sundays off because Sunday is for family.
  1. Find innovative ways to create dignified jobs for young people. We need to be creative with young people. If they have no opportunities they will get into drugs and be more vulnerable to suicide.
  1. Respect and take care of nature. Environmental degradation is one of the biggest challenges we have. …I think a question that we're not asking ourselves is: “Isn't humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?”
  1. Stop being negative. "Needing to talk badly about others indicates low self-esteem. That means, 'I feel so low that instead of picking myself up I have to cut others down.'" "Letting go of negative things quickly is healthy."
  1. Don't proselytize; respect others' beliefs. We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes. …The church grows by attraction, not proselytizing."
  1. Work for peace. We are living in a time of many wars, and the call for peace must be shouted out. Peace sometimes gives the impression of being quiet, but it is never quiet, peace is always proactive and dynamic.
Shortly after his election to the See of Peter two years ago, Francis startled the world in early July 2013, when he traveled spontaneously to the island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily – to that dangerous area were so many refugees have lost and continue to lose their lives in their journeys to freedom and safety. The Holy Father’s voice rang out across the sea as he asked the world to reflect on the tragic situation unfolding there on a daily basis:
“The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”
Gannon Ceremony 2015 06Fellow classmates, today as you graduate from Gannon, you are not becoming part of that massive globalization of indifference that is out there. You are entering rather into a globalization of compassion and mercy, of goodness and charity, of encounter and friendship with human beings, especially those who have so much less than you do.
Pope Benedict XVI said in Deus Caritas Est,“Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Because you have encountered the person of Jesus during your years at Gannon, whether you are Catholic or Protestant, religious, spiritual or nothing at all, you met the Lord present here in Erie and you will encounter him in countless situations in the future. Your life will change forever when you determine not just what you would like to have in life or what you want to become, but when you decide who and what you are committed to being in this world… being for others.
Use whatever life gives you at this moment to become the person of whom you have dreamed. Success is the result of making and keeping small promises: decide to hold yourself to a higher standard, decide to contribute, decide to choose your own attitude rather than allowing the environment to control you.
Do not worry about making a mistake or choosing the wrong path now and then. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. What you leave behind is not as important as how you've lived. Know that you will learn from your mistakes and every wrong attempt is simply another step forward on the journey. When you fall, be sure to get up again. It is the journey that is the reward. It is God’s unending mercy that gives us new energy.
Several weeks ago at the funeral of a good friend and a great American Church leader and wonderful pastor, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, of Chicago, we were reminded at his farewell of something very moving and beautiful that he once told a group of young adults at their confirmation:
“The only thing we take with us when we die is what we have given away... the only things that endure are our relationships with God and with others... we give him all that we have, and he takes the gift and calls us when he is ready to do so...”
Our relationships with the Lord and with each other are all that endure – all else goes to the grave. It doesn’t matter what our vocation, profession or even our religion is; let us all keep these words deep in out hearts and emulate and be inspired by the extraordinary leader that is Pope Francis!
Cardinal George said of Pope Francis: “He often contrasts our planning with God’s providence. Pope Francis reminds us that the final horizon is God’s infinite love. It can never be completely responded to; but as the years here go shorter, it fills in with the realization that, just as we pray to see God face to face, so God wants to see us face to face. We give him our time, which is all that we have, and he takes the gift and calls us when he is ready to do so.”
Let me end with these words – my prayer for you on this momentous occasion – the graduation of the Class of 2015 of Gannon University:
May you employ your power for peace,
your experience and wisdom to reconcile,
your compassion to heal,
your hope to destroy despair,
your very weakness to give strength.
Remember your most precious possession is yourself.
Give it away lavishly.
And in doing so you will be blessed with Sanitas, Scientia and Sanctitas: Health, Knowledge and Holiness, all the days of your life.
Thank you.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada and serves as English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office.