It is a great pleasure and honor to address you this evening: honorees, trustees, faculty, staff, graduates, students, family members and friends Graduates, as I look at you I am filled with amazement and hope, not only at your academic accomplishments and your pastoral expertise, which you offer to the church with astounding generosity in your varied ministries, but what amazes me is that you would have the faith and courage to do so at a time when we are in such deep crisis in the church. I suppose every age thinks that there have never been crises like the ones they face, but this is, indeed, a most distressing time in which we live.
The clergy sex abuse crisis has rocked us to our foundations, not only draining the church of its financial resources, which affects every ministry in every diocese, but even worse, it has shattered trust and confidence in priests and bishops, and has eroded the moral authority of our leaders.
Another great concern is the increasing polarization in the church, as those who embrace a Vatican II vision of church confront a new generation of Catholics whose vision differs sharply. And our struggles over the place of lay ministers, especially women, have intensified as the education level and ministerial competence of lay women & men has increased at the same time that there are movements to restrict the exercise of their ministry.
And if our internal church struggles were not difficult enough, we find ourselves mired in an intractable war, with 35,000 Iraqis and more than 2,400 U.S. service members dead, and no peaceful end in sight. And we still have 798 million people in our world suffering from chronic hunger while some of us chronically over-consume. And the gap between rich and poor keeps growing, while all of us struggle for life and dignity on our beautiful planet whose ability to sustain life grows more fragile each year. We are amazed that in the midst of such a church and such a world you have the courage and faith to offer yourselves in hope-filled ministry. Some of your friends & family may have told you that you were crazy, throwing your life away—not to mention your money!—to do such a thing as to work for a degree in theology and ministry at such a time as this.
So why are you doing this? There’s only one reason: It is because you have let yourself be caught up by the call of Christ, who has befriended you and has shown you that there IS another way. Without fully able to explain why, you have let yourself, like Mary of Magdala (in the reading we heard from the Gospel of John), be befriended by Jesus; you have let yourself be taught and formed into a different way of thinking, of being, and of doing——a way toward peace and fullness of life for all, a way that you offer as gift to our fractured world and church.
It is really a very simple thing that Jesus is asking you to do as you minister: 1) Imagine Peace 2) Pray Peace; 3) Teach and Preach Peace; 4) Live Peace.
1) Imagine Peace. When we let our imaginations become unleashed, to see before us the real possibility of a world living in harmony and peace, collaborating with God’s plan for our world, then we are able to teach and preach and live peace.
To cultivate this imagination, our cosmos is the best teacher: The cosmos teaches us what is true about everything on this planet: that we are all intimately connected to one another: every aspect of creation, and every creature is bound up in the intricately interconnected web of life.
Our cosmos teaches us that if any of us are to thrive, all must thrive. All will have life to the full together or none will.
Here at Aquinas Institute of Theology you have been well-schooled in unleashing your imagination. Imagine that an old factory could become an award-winning space for building faith! Imagine, at a time when the realities of who is ministering in the church are shifting radically, that a school such as AI can reshape our imaginations as to how ordained, vowed religious, and lay persons can learn together in circles of wisdom in which all voices are heard and valued, testing out models of ministry that show that all can work together collaboratively, in ways that enhance each one’s varied gifts. Imagine, at a time when the health care system in our country is so broken, that a school such as Aquinas Institute creates a Master of Arts in Health Care Mission to unlock crippled imaginations and prepare leaders who know that there IS another way to Re-Image the Future. Imagine that when the state of preaching in the church is so dismal, Aquinas, unique to all other theological schools, has placed preaching at the very heart of its curriculum! And not only that, but Imagine that a student could do an entire Doctorate of Ministry in Preaching online! Graduates, you are well schooled in unleashing imagination; you can help us imagine our world at peace.
2) Pray Peace.. Along with imagining peace, we also Pray Peace. There is a power far beyond any other when people of faith intently pray and fast for peace. This is part of your daily prayer, is it not?
3) Teach & Preach Peace.. Graduates, you are ready now to teach and preach peace. Your only real final exam, you know, is that you preach peace. Whether in formal pulpit preaching, or in teaching, or in any of your varied ministries, you preach always. St. Francis is reputed to have said, “Preach always; use words if necessary.” [we Dominicans wish we could claim that it was Dominic who had said this!] Preaching & Teaching Peace does not come easily. Our first instincts usually move us in the opposite direction: retaliation, retribution, and striking back come more naturally. We have to be schooled into the way of peace, as Jesus schooled his disciples: at his arrest, Jesus was still instructing his disciples: do not take up arms, for “Those who live by the sword die by the sword” (Matt 26:52) and he taught his followers not return injury for injury, not to respond to violence with violence, but rather, to love the enemy & pray for persecutors (Matt 5:38-48). Jesus also modeled how to how to move from enmity to friendship, how to cross boundaries of difference in religion, culture, and gender. In his encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4, for example, he shows how to forge a new relationship with those whom his people regarded enemies. He did not approach the Samaritan as one to be converted to his way of thinking, but rather, in a genuine dialogue, they both each reveal themselves to one another, each listening intently to the other’s perspective, and both are changed by the encounter. For genuine peace with the one who is different from us, we seek not simple tolerance, but this kind of mutual transformation.
To become teachers and preachers of peace, our best teachers are those who are poorest and most oppressed. One such learning experience I had was last January, when I was privileged to visit Acteal, in the state of Chiapas, the site of the massacre of 45 indigenous people, mostly women and children on Dec. 22, 1997. They were part of a group called Las Abejas, “the Bees,” so called because they consider themselves all equal workers, around one queen bee: Jesus and his reign. Las Abejas, although they agree with the aims of the Zapatista rebellion, refuse to use violent means. These 45 were fasting and praying for three days in a little wooden chapel in the remote village of Acteal when they were gunned down by paramilitaries. Eight years later we met the current leaders of Las Abejas, most of whom are related to the martyrs. We asked the leaders how they had the strength to carry on their nonviolent teaching and preaching of justice and peace after the murder of their mothers and sisters. The leader, a young, articulate lawyer, looked at us intently and said, how could we do anything else? Jesus was very clear: we must love our enemies.
As you teach and preach peace, graduates, you are also well trained in critical thinking. It is crucial that all your skills in biblical and theological interpretation & pastoral praxis be measured by the rod of whether your preaching & teaching is freeing for those most oppressed.
One example of this: Some of our sisters in rural Chiapas have taught me the tremendous importance of how we teach and preach about the cross. They have recounted to me how they were socialized from day one to spend their lives serving everyone else: first their fathers and brothers, then their husbands and in-laws, and then their children. When there is not enough food they give their portion to their husbands and children. They rise before dawn and work in the house, in the fields, sell what they can in the market, and never have a day of rest, as they serve everyone’s needs but their own. Thinking that God has ordained that they should be humble & sacrifice themselves and even submit to abuse by their husbands, as their way of carrying their cross with Jesus, they felt trapped, with no sense of value in themselves, unable to make free choices, powerless to change their lot, thinking that all this suffering was what God willed for them, for that is how the cross had been preached to them all their lives. They told me how women religious who had a different interpretation of the cross had formed bible study groups for women, and how the way these women religious helped them interpret the Scriptures in light of their experience, radically changed their lives. They learned that when Jesus spoke of carrying our cross with him he was speaking of a very specific kind of suffering—that which came as a result of proclaiming and living the gospel, and that some kinds of suffering, such as beatings from their husbands, were never meant to be borne as their cross, and that Jesus would want to lift that burden from them, not have them simply endure it. They learned that if Mary Magdalene could leave her home to go and proclaim the good news and minister with Jesus, why couldn’t they? Their cross now, they say, consists of the hardships that they endure to be able to come and learn about the Scriptures and minister to others; some walk six hours through the jungle to come to a meeting; some endure slander from neighbors who wonder, “Where’s she going now?” “She must be having an affair, she must be meeting someone.” But the freedom and joy they experience as they willingly lay down their lives for their friends out of love, is a very different cross from the unjust abuse they formerly suffered.
Graduates, as you teach and preach, you, too, have been schooled to hear the voices of the poorest, and to measure the effects of your interpretations. If your preaching does not announce good news to the poor, if it does not bring true peace, then it is not the gospel of Jesus.
4) Live Peace.. Lastly, we must Live Peace. We become the very transformation that we hope for our world. In whatever capacity we can, we become oases of peace: demonstrating by our very being, our very life: There is another way.
Permit me, if you will, one more example of a minister who lives & exudes peace. Last year I had the opportunity to meet again with Don Samuel Ruiz, the retired Archbishop of the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, I was very moved as he recounted how he had been converted by the indigenous people of his diocese. And because of his unwavering defense of the poor, and for his adamant stances in favor of the indigenous who are about 80% of his diocese, he has endured opposition and vilification from other church leaders, and has received many death threats from political and other opponents. I asked him to tell me how he has been able to become a person who is so clearly able to love his enemies. He looked at me puzzled, and responded, “I have no enemies. There are some who have tried to make themselves my enemies, but I have no enemies.”—this from a man who had arrived for our meeting in a bullet-proof van with three beefy armed body guards, supplied by the Mexican government, who does not want another martyr bishop! Such a way to live peace!
Conclusion: Graduates, by now you may be thinking that we are all going to hold you responsible to bring about world peace. While in fact, this is your mission, it is not up to you alone. Each of us here gathered is entrusted with this same mission of Jesus. In whatever capacity we can, we imagine Peace, Pray for Peace, Teach Peace, Preach Peace, Live Peace.
In the reading we heard this evening from the Gospel of John, Mary of Magdala can show us how to do this. First and foremost, your mission, our mission, like hers, is to be faithful to the One who has first loved us. Like Mary, we continually seek our Beloved in all of our changing circumstances. Like the lover in the Song of Songs, she will never let go her beloved. She seeks him whom her heart loves, trying to find the way to abide with him beyond the doorway of death.
Mary also let the Risen One turn her around from the way in which she knew him before,
She cannot cling to him as friend who was embodied in flesh and blood like her own. All her sureties are deeply shaken as she stands at the empty tomb and hears him call her name and invite her into a new way of knowing him present with her.
Graduates, in your studies at Aquinas Institute, I’m sure there have been empty tomb and resurrection moments, when everything you were very sure about concerning God, Jesus, the Spirit, the church, its mission, our world, and your place in it, has been shaken, perhaps to the point where you wondered if anything you knew so well before or believed so firmly, was true.
In our ongoing schooling in peace, this will happen many times. What courage it takes to let ourselves be turned around, as we search for new language, new images, new ways of understanding, new ways of preaching what cannot fully be grasped of Holy Mystery! And what courage it takes to proclaim, even to our own, a message of peace that sounds incredible in this violent and broken world.
Graduates, your faithfulness in seeking the One who has entrusted to us this mission of peace increases our faith; Your imagination that there is another way, sparks our own, Your dedication to praying, teaching, and preaching peace, gives us the courage to do the same. Your determination to live peace enables us to be and do together what none of us can be and do alone.
Go now, in that peace of the Risen One.