Fr. Damian Ference is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland and is a doctoral student in philosophy at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Italy. He was invited by Holy Name High School, his alma mater, to give a reflection to this year’s graduates as part of their “virtual” ceremony, and shares his remarks with Word on Fire readers.
My Dear Young Friends of the Holy Name High School Class of 2020,
I know that this isn’t how you imagined your graduation. I know that it’s weird and even sad to be in front of a screen this evening, rather than sitting in the pews of St. Columbkille church next to your classmates in your caps and gowns one last time before heading your separate ways to begin the next chapter of your lives.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be. Even though you had a pretty normal three and a half years at Holy Name, you finished your last semester of high school online—without spring sports, without prom, without seeing the green come back on the trees that surround Holy Name, without the all-school gatherings in the gym, and without enjoying all of the normal activities that you’ve witnessed every other Holy Name graduation class experience over the years. For the past two months you have been physically apart from your classmates, teachers, staff, coaches, classrooms, hallways, cafeteria, locker rooms, chapel, and the community that you now know is so much more than just a high school; it is what you will very soon call your Alma Mater, which literally means your nourishing mother.
I want to take a few minutes this evening to reflect on the life of another nourishing mother—Mary, the Mother of Jesus—because her experience is very similar to yours. Recall that when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that God had chosen her to be the Mother of God, her initial reaction was not joy or celebration. No; St. Luke tells us that “she was deeply troubled.” (Luke 1:29) This was not her plan. This was not how she thought things would be. This was not something she imagined or anticipated for herself. And so she was deeply troubled. You know that experience.
She asks the angel some questions, receives some clarification, but she does not receive a complete picture of her entire future. She receives just enough information to move ahead in faith, one step at a time. She gives her fiat and moves forward in faith, even though these new waters are deep, and kind of scary, because they are uncharted waters. But she trusts and she keeps moving. Again, you know the experience.
Nine months later Mary miraculously gives birth to a baby boy, who is also God, and she names him Jesus, a holy name. But it’s not like everything went back to normal for Mary after that, because it didn’t. For starters she wasn’t even able to give birth in a house, but in a barn, or cave, or stable, something she would have never expected or planned for herself. She had to adapt. Not to mention that the night she gave birth she was visited both by angels and shepherds who wanted to see the newborn baby. What the heck? Again, nothing that Mary could have expected or prepared for herself, and again, you know the experience.
So what does St. Luke tell us that Mary did with all these experiences that caught her off guard—that threw a wrench into her plans, that changed everything and set her life on a trajectory that she never would have planned for herself? St. Luke tells us, “Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). And that, my dear young friends, is Mary’s invitation to you. Even though this year has not at all been the kind of year you imagined for yourself, treasure all these things and reflect on them in your heart. In other words, sit with reality as it is and trust that God is doing something very special and unique with it, even and especially if you can’t see it now. God is good and he keeps his promises. Mary is a model of that. She is our model.
It has been noted that you, the Class of 2020, entered into this world during a time of global chaos—around the time of 9/11—and that you are graduating high school during another time of global chaos. It’s in your blood. It’s your experience. It is what marks your class and sets you apart.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, you are learning at a young age what a lot of us learn only much later in life, and that is that life is hard and suffering is unavoidable. You know this is the truth. But I hope you also know that suffering doesn’t have the final say, just as Good Friday doesn’t have the final say. Easter Sunday does; the Resurrection does. But you get to healing, you get to redemption, and you get to Easter joy not by ignoring the cross or running from it but by going through it. You get to life through death. You get to joy through sorrow. You get to the sunrise but waiting through the dark night.
So, Dear Holy Name Class of 2020, here were are in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a dark night, in the middle of Good Friday, and you are graduating from high school. What a time to be alive! Blessed are you! God wouldn’t allow this to happen if he didn’t have a plan to bring good from it—lots of good, an enormous amount of good. He has a plan for each of you, and for all of you. May you come to know that plan, as it slowly unfolds in your life; and like Mary, may you follow it, even if you don’t know exactly where it will take you, and may your soul and your entire life proclaim the greatness of the Lord. In the meantime, may you treasure all these things and reflect on them in your hearts, and may you forever be assured of the support of your Alma Mater, your nourishing mother, which is Holy Name.