On the lengthy list of kindnesses shown me since my arrival here as archbishop nine months ago, the privilege extended today in being awarded an honorary doctorate and being asked to be commencement speaker ranks very high. Thank you, Father Wild, my brother priests, especially members of the Society of Jesus; thank you, members of the board, faculty, administration, alumni and benefactors of Marquette University; thank you, students and graduates, for this honor. I can only hope, graduates, parents, family members, friends, and visitors, that this greater Milwaukee community I now fondly call home has shown you the same warm welcome, hospitality, and embrace it has me. Most of all, I thank God for the gift this splendid Catholic university has been to the Church and this community since my predecessor, Michael Heiss, laid the cornerstone here 123 years ago.
Graduates, congratulations! I realize this happy morning you look back with legitimate satisfaction, joy, and thanksgiving. But you also look ahead, as you begin a new stage of your lives, which is why we call this ceremony “commencement” and not “conclusion”. My words to you this morning will be simple, yet sincere, as I invite you to look ahead not only to the challenges, goals, and excitement before you in this life, but to look forward to your eternal goal of ultimate union with God. We today rightly celebrate your achievements and accomplishments, but also show appropriate wisdom by recalling the sobering inquiry of Jesus, “For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but suffer the loss of his soul?”
Right after I was ordained a priest almost twenty-seven years ago, I received a telephone call from a grade-school classmate who wanted to visit me. I had not seen “Eddie” in twelve years, but had heard that life had not been very good to him, that his years of service in Vietnam had particularly scarred him, and that he had become a drug addict surviving on the back streets of St. Louis. How surprised I was when he showed up at the rectory looking happy, healthy, and confident, more shocked when he introduced me to the young woman he wanted to marry. He sensed my amazement and began to explain. “Tim, you know that I've been through tough times. I had lost everything – family, friends, faith, future. One day I almost lost my life. Another addict and I were in the basement of an abandoned warehouse shooting up heroin. I watched as he loaded up our two syringes with a triple, lethal dose and locked his glazed-over eyes onto mine. 'Let's cut-to-the-chase,' the other addict whispered. 'Neither of us can find any purpose to life. Unless one of us can come up with a reason to live in the next thirty seconds, let's go out on a high with this triple dose of gold.'
“I was desperate, sure,” recalled Eddie, “but not ready to end it all, so my scrambled brain went into overdrive to discover some purpose or meaning to life. And what came to mind, Tim, was the third question and answer you and I learned in second grade from our catechism: 'Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.'” Eddie continued: “That's what I blurted out just as the other guy said, 'Time's up,' and began to look for his vein. 'Say that again,' he asked. 'God made me to know, love, and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.'” Eddie had tears in his eyes as he finished the story. “The other guy shrugged and said, 'Sounds good to me,' and we both dropped our syringes. That 'wisdom' I remembered from second grade saved – and changed – my life.”
It's precisely that wisdom we claim today, graduates. It is the wisdom of St. Augustine, who wrote, “We come from you, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they return to you for all eternity.” It is the wisdom that, while dramatically preached by Jesus and His Church, is treasured as well by Judaism, Islam, Eastern Religions, Native Americans, and philosophers of no particular creed at all: namely, that we have within us the spark of the divine, that we are destined for eternity, that life is so beautiful, so noble, so sacred, that it will never end; that our highest goal is eternal union with God. It is the wisdom that saved Eddie's life, a wisdom that is your priceless legacy as graduates of this Catholic university. The self-help guru, Stephen Covey, claims that a habit of a successful person is to have a clear, constant goal and focus in life. There's ours: immortality.
I don't know of anyone who has expressed it more eloquently than the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola, who called it “The First Principle and Foundation”. It goes like this:
We are created to praise and serve our Lord, and by this means to save our soul. Everyone and everything on earth is created to help us reach the end for which we are created. Hence, we make use of all things insofar as they help us reach our eternal destiny, and get rid of whatever hinders us from attaining our ultimate goal.
It is certainly this “First Principle and Foundation” that inspired the missionary fervor of one of the most renowned of the sons of St. Ignatius Loyola, Pere Jacques Marquette, the patron of this university, whose death on this very day, May 18, 1675, led a companion to observe that, “Pere Marquette was not a man of this world, but a citizen of heaven, one about to receive an award at his return from an embassy on which he had served his master brilliantly.”
It is certainly this wisdom that is the mission statement of this great university we now claim as our alma mater. This is a university dominated by the spires of a church called “Gesu”, with a tiny chapel to Joan of Arc at its heart: where every brick on this campus exists, not only to prepare us for this life, but also for the next; where every theology and philosophy course reminds us of what Pope John Paul II calls “the most sublime romance ever”, that God, since your very conception, has loved you so much that He longs to enjoy your company forever; where every history course points to the culmination of all history, God's kingdom; where every literature class hints at the most gripping drama ever, that of our salvation; where even every math class points to the most profound of equations, that “God-plus-me-equals-infinity”; where every exam actually prepares us for the only one that really counts, when we stand before the judgment seat of God.
So, my classmates, as today we commence, I invite you to think of the end, our eternal destiny, and to thank our God who passionately desires us to spend eternity with Him. As the novelist, Walker Percy, wrote,
“This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it, and then have to answer, 'scientific humanism'. That just won't do! A poor show! Life is a mystery, love a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic, that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, that is, God. In fact, I demand it.”