Father Joseph W. Bongard

With the month of June comes a yearly rite of passage: Hundreds of young men and women, members of the Class of 2018, will graduate from our diocesan high schools.  Catholic schools are known for their academic rigor, stress on personal responsibility and as communities where faith can be nurtured, fostered and embraced. As students enter our schools, they begin a journey of self-discovery, learning to appreciate the richness of diversity, to acknowledge their God-given talents, and to discover their place in our world.

Over the course of their study, students are reminded that it is in the person of Jesus, that each of us finds the pattern for becoming fully human ourselves. In his Incarnation, saving life, death and resurrection, we receive both the pattern — and the means — to become more like him. Our mission, as a people of faith, is to build a culture of life in a society which in many ways has forgotten God and actually embraces a culture of death.

Graduates: on the day of graduation, your minds are naturally on your accomplishments and your personal plans for the future. Your families have the greatest sense of pride, witnessing their child on a path to realizing their dreams. As you look across the sea of caps and gowns, with very happy and proud faces, each of you can reminisce on all the hard work, the sleepless nights, the papers, exams, projects, the sacrifices and the courage that made your graduation day a possibility. The gowns that are worn are symbolic of your achievements.

Now, what if you refused to remove your gown and decided to wear your graduation attire for days, weeks or even years after the ceremony? Bizarre and ridiculous would not even begin to describe you. Yet, as soon as you removed your cap and gown, there really was no longer any distinguishable feature to identify you as a graduate of a Catholic high school. You looked no different from anyone else, you just blend in.

So the question that is now raised: how will you stand out? How will you differentiate yourself in your neighborhood, in our city, in your new school? Or are you willing to just blend in? Are you comfortable settling with just being ordinary? The Gospel of Jesus Christ challenges you to be on the offensive, to actively witness with boldness, passion and drive to the love of the Sacred Heart. You are being called to live extraordinary lives, because you have been given something that many have not — a values-based education rooted in the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

While over the last four years you have grown physically, intellectually and emotionally, if you have not grown spiritually, then our Catholic schools have failed and failed miserably. Spiritual growth involves becoming men and women of integrity who unabashedly practice fully and live the Catholic faith. For unlike what many people will say, our faith, our belief in Jesus, is not a personal thing — it must be a very public thing. For we bear Christ’s name — we are called Christian and we live in the world.

When you peel away everything else, this really is what matters most. This is really why a Catholic high school exists at all. And as you already know, and will learn even more personally as you enter your college years or the work force and the varied directions these roads may lead, being a committed follower of Jesus is not easy. He was mocked, ridiculed and rejected in his day, so we should expect nothing less today.

A story about your peers makes this point. Several years ago, members of a Chicago high school quiz team stole the test of a statewide academic contest and memorized the answers. When their unusually high scores raised red flags in the minds of the competition’s sponsors, an investigation ensued. Eventually the truth came out and the students and their teacher-moderator were stripped of the prestigious first-place title.

But despite the facts and all the evidence, they always maintained their innocence. Several team members, many years after the incident, still see their actions as OK. “Apologize for what?” one student asked, “I would do it again.” The teacher, who lost his job over the incident, took several years before he finally expressed remorse for his part in the fraud. He had actually told his students, “Everybody cheats, that’s the way the world works and we were fools to just play by the rules.” “We were just fools?” How sad, how tragic!

The drive to win, to be successful, to be number 1, led these students to lie, cheat and steal. Some of them are sorry, not so much for that they did, but for getting caught doing it. Even the passing of time has failed to teach them the real lesson about the meaning of victory, the meaning of success, making them even bigger losers. As graduates of a Catholic school, it cannot, it must not, be this way for you.

For the fact is, a lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right, and evil doesn’t become good just because it is accepted by the majority. Jesus teaches us that success or failure is not to be measured or judged by the material wealth we accumulate, but rather on the type of people we become, on the love we share. We are called by Jesus to be people of faith, disciples of conviction. Either we stand for something, or we will fall for anything.

Many people will say, “Well I think this” or “I think that.” Yet it really does not matter what people think, or what is popular. What is more important is not so much even what we think, but rather, what Jesus taught us. And what exactly did Jesus teach us?

  • That the 10 Commandments are not the 10 suggestions;
  • That it is important to pray daily and attend Mass every Sunday;
  • That marriage is a sacrament that unites one man and one woman in a bond of unconditional love;
  • That sexuality is a beautiful, sacred gift from God, reserved for a couple united in marriage — and anything that cheapens or degrades or lessens this beautiful gift is wrong, is sinful;
  • That life is a gift of God, and begins at conception and ends with natural death;
  • That every life has value, that racism, bigotry, hatred is a manifestation of evil;
  • To defend the life of the unborn, protect the life of the disabled, widow, stranger and orphan in our midst;
  • To turn the other cheek, to forgive one another as we want to be forgiven;
  • To share our resources with the less fortunate, to be honest and truthful in our speech;
  • To be of service to those around us, to love one another as Jesus loves us.

People will say we are fools for following and believing such things. And perhaps they are right. But our mission is, as St. Paul would say, to be a fool — a fool for Christ!  These are the ways we live dangerously, extraordinary lives, and if we do, we definitely will not just fit in.

Graduates, don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams, and strive for the very best. As you graduate fully prepared, fully alive, this is now your opportunity to live the truth of Christ, to live a life filled with, and motivated by, compassion and love for others; and to do something extraordinary for your family, in your neighborhood, our city and our country.

Be fearless. Be bold. Speak with clarity. Live in love. Our society and our world desperately need your words but more importantly, they need your personal example. Jesus started a revolution with only 12 apostles. Just think of the enormous potential that the members of the Class of 2018 hold to rebuild, to restore all things in Christ.

Graduates, evoke positive change, and always remember that you don’t just represent yourself, your family, or even your high school. You represent Christ. May his Sacred Heart be reflected in the person you are, in the person you are called to be — a person who is in fact a fool, a fool for Christ.

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Father Joseph Bongard is president of Roman Catholic High School for Boys, Philadelphia.