In His Words

A Message of Hope

Photo: Fr. Schlegel delivers his baccalaureate sermon in 2011.

Below is a slightly edited version of the Rev. John P. Schlegel’s final baccalaureate sermon as president of Creighton University, delivered to graduates and their families in May 2011.

We gather today as a praying community in the afterglow of Easter, awaiting Pentecost and the gift of the Spirit of God. At the same time, nature is renewing herself as a fresh springtime of hope.

We gather as parts of many different communities, faith traditions and backgrounds, coming from across the city, the country and, indeed, the globe to join in this prayerful commissioning of Creighton graduates as they leave the University to assume new positions, responsibilities and lifestyles.

With the graduates I, too, am departing Creighton; unlike them, however, it has taken me 11 years to get my “exit visa.”

Like the early Christian community, we await God’s Spirit with our fears, doubts and uncertainties. We are hesitant about leaving a place where we felt secure; leaving friends and those who made Creighton a second home. Also, like the early Christians, we know amidst these concerns there is a place for hope, for confidence in the active presence of God in each of our lives. The poet Christopher Fry wrote in Sleep of Prisoners:

“Dark and cold we may be, but this is no winter now. The frozen misery of centuries, breaks, cracks, begins to move. The thunder is the thunder of the floes. The thaw, the flood, is the upstart spring. Affairs are now soul size. The enterprise is exploration unto God.”

I find these words haunting yet consoling. They speak to our own day, our national mood, our political temperament, the economic reality. Yet, these words also speak of hope, of courage, of a new springtime, of bringing God into the affairs of his people. It is of hope and courage and God that I will briefly focus upon.

The simple truth is that Christian life is the result of hope. Hope is the essence of this life because it is essentially prospective and forward-looking. The life we lead as Christians is concerned with what is still open, what is still to come.

Jesus has gone before us, that is the heart of our Easter faith. Hope is a native element of the Christian life. Hope is the handmade of the Resurrection, the wellspring of our humanity. Hope is not passive or static; rather like faith and love, hope is dynamic, a quality of living which is ceaselessly moving in the patterns of human life.

Hope and courage go hand in hand. They have a symbiotic relationship. Hope engenders courage and courage calls hope into action.

One of the many things we all have in common is the ability to hope; the ability to aspire to what is not yet, what is unachieved, what is unfulfilled. In that, we all live creatively. We can do that because, as St. Paul tells us, we are all gifted; gifted in so many wonderful and different ways.

Teilhard de Chardin noted: “Our duty as women and men, is to proceed as if limits to our ability do not exist. We are collaborators in creation.” Each of you shares in the diversity of God’s given gifts for the sake of your own perfection and the greater good of society.

Many of our graduates have discovered over these Creighton years just how gifted they are, evidenced not just by earning a degree, but by their growth — spiritual and emotional; the service performed and the relationships made across race and cultures. These are the experiences that enflesh your hopes, give you direction and map your future.

You have a hundred alternatives, a thousand paths, and infinity of dreams. Hopeful you are halfway to where you want to go, for without hope you are lost forever. Life without hope is empty, boring and useless. Hope is a gift as big as life itself. And because hope tells you that challenges can be met, obstacles overcome and aspirations realized, it emboldens us and gives us courage.

Hope and courage go hand in hand. They have a symbiotic relationship. Hope engenders courage and courage calls hope into action.

Just as a Creighton graduate possesses an enlargement of mind, so too, you should possess an enlargement of heart – leaving here with a more developed awareness of your social responsibility. To activate that awareness takes courage, a profound courage that is part of your God-gifted nature. While education empowers, it can also encourage! For each of us courage means finding the spiritual and mental determination to bear discomfort, to persevere despite danger or difficulty, to look fear in the face and do the things you think you cannot do!

It is my hope that our graduates and, indeed, all of you, are emboldened enough, courageous enough to ask the unpopular question, resist peer pressure, strive to build a truly inclusive society; to confront prejudice, to do the work of justice; to protect your Christian values when maligned, to take a stand, to risk being unpopular for the sake of God’s kingdom; to truly be salt of the earth and light to the world.

Hope is a gift as big as life itself. And because hope tells you that challenges can be met, obstacles overcome and aspirations realized, it emboldens us and gives us courage.

Here I invoke the 18-inch rule. Did you know you can miss heaven by 18 inches? Eighteen inches is the distance between the head and the heart in most people. Our national priorities are flawed, America’s social fabric badly torn. It takes courageous women and men to understand this and to do something about it – to claim those 18 inches between heart and head.

If Jesuit education means anything at this point in a new decade it means being dedicated to mediate change, to read the signs of the times, to do something about transforming society. We educate for leadership and for service. Rooted in Christian values, this education is radically hopeful, future-oriented and empowering. But it takes women and men of hope and courage to give it life and make a difference – an 18-inch difference!

Today’s readings exhort us to be grateful for God’s many gifts to us and encourage us to embrace those gifts — unique to each of you — to build God’s Kingdom among us. They challenge us to be the salt of the earth, to do what salt does — to be preservers of what is good in society; to be healers of a broken society, a broken person, a broken spirit; salt – to give zest to life.

And we are to be a light to the world – beacons of safety in darkness and distress; providers of warmth and welcome to the alien, the lonely, the estranged.

As you leave this place and enter into all of those areas where your personal hopes are taking you — into health care, business, law, education or service, leave here as women and men of action; women and men who are fundamentally joy-filled because you know your destiny, because you are free of the despair of those who have no faith, no hope, no courage.

Be open to the future, confident that Jesus has gone before us and that the spirit of God intercedes for us as God desires.

Be open to the future, confident that Jesus has gone before us and that the Spirit of God intercedes for us as God desires.

Never forget the 18-inch rule: be women and men of hope and courage so that in word and deed you bring to life our Gospel: “Let your light shine before all, that they may see your good works and give glory to your God, the Father.” Recall that the most satisfying thing in life is to have been able to give a large part of one’s self to others.