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Commencement Address at Holy Ghost Preparatory School - June 1, 2013

A good commencement speech should begin with a couple of amusing stories.  I know you graduates are off to college in the fall.  Your parents are filled with a mixture of pride and anxiety about it.  So here is a story that you may find interesting, perhaps even useful.

A freshman, let's call him Brian, leaves home for college and is in fairly regular contact with his parents until about half through the first semester.  Then there is a brief lack of contact, until Brian's parents get this disturbing email.

Dear Mom and Dad,

You remember meeting my roommate, Jake.  He is a great guy.  He was raised a Catholic too, but recently he became a Buddhist.   He has convinced me that this is the right way for me to go too.  So I have stopped going to Mass and begun studying Buddhism with him. 

Jake and I are also into the same video games.  We have so many great ideas about developing new games.  It seems like a waste of time and money to stay in college for four years when the real money is to be made in video games.  So, Jake and I are thinking of dropping out of college after this semester and starting our own video game company.

Your son, Brian.

You can well imagine the state of shock that Brian's parents are in as they reach the end of his email.  But then they see that Brian has added a postscript at the bottom of his message.

It reads:

Don't worry, Mom and Dad.  Jake is not a Buddhist and neither am I.  We don't waste our time on video games and we are not leaving college to start a company.  However, I did get a D in Chemistry at midterm.  I just wanted to put this small academic problem into a larger context for you, so you can appreciate how well everything else is going for me.

Now I offer you a second story with a bit more of a spiritual overtone.  A Spiritan priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim prayer leader go into a bar.  The bartender says, "What would you three like?" 

But before I finish this story let me tell you a bit about why I am thrilled to be here with you today and to have the honor of addressing you at your graduation.

Holy Ghost Prep and Duquesne University share the same Spiritan tradition-the only educational institutions to do so in the United States. We have the same commitment to the highest academic standards.  We strive to keep ourselves affordable to all qualified students, because we both care for the less well-off.  We both provide a liberal education as the foundation for critical thinking and the search for truth in all areas.  We treasure our Catholic tradition even as we open ourselves to respect and partner with persons of all faiths.  Sometimes the point is captured this way: we do not partner with others despite the fact that we are Catholic, we partner with others precisely because we are Catholic. 

Everything we do is motivated by our common mission.  That mission is to serve God by serving students and so inspire each of our students with a sense of commitment to serving others, especially the poor and least well-off.  Most of all, we believe that the Holy Spirit is the motive and guide for all we do.  Your dedication to the Holy Spirit is plain in your name.  Ours is less so--unless you know that our full and proper name is Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit.

As alums, you now have this proud and important Spiritan tradition to take with you as a foundation no matter where you go to college.  For most of you, Prep has been a formal education that made explicit the values you learned from your family, your Church and your community.  By now, it is an essential part of who you are.  The next four years, no matter how different and exciting, will not change these fundamentals about you.  You may never have a moment in your college career in which you say to yourself explicitly, "Now I will make this important choice this way because of my Holy Ghost Prep education."  Nonetheless, your Holy Ghost Prep education will unconsciously shape all your important choices-and in every case the Prep impact will be for the better.

I hope that sometime during this celebration of your graduation, you will find a moment to say thank you to those who have had a hand in shaping who you are today and who you will become because of Holy Ghost Prep.  This includes the Spiritans, the faculty and the staff here, of course.  But it also includes your parents.  There were easier and cheaper alternatives for your high school education.  But your parents put your future interests ahead of their own and chose the best for you.

By far, the best thank you can give to everyone who helped you at Prep is not one expressed in words.  A story is often told that St. Francis would say, "Always preach the Gospel-- and, if necessary, use words."  So your best gratitude to Holy Ghost Prep is not expressed in the occasional praise you may give it to others as the great high school experience that it was for you. The best thank you you can give is to live your live according to the values that Prep reinforced in you here.  Then, through you, everyone will see what Holy Ghost Prep stands for, what our Spiritan tradition is all about.

Some of you, like classes of graduates before you, are coming to us at Duquesne University.  We do our best each year to attract the largest number of Holy Ghost Prep graduates possible.  Over the last six years, for example, 61 Holy Ghost Prep grads have enrolled at Duquesne.  Our experience shows their value to us and the fit they feel with us. 

They know our common Spiritan heritage before they arrive and need little orientation on important matters about our mission.  They are always outstanding students, working hard and achieving great grades.  Invariably, they become leaders in our student organizations-student government, fraternities, our newspaper.  They are active in our Campus Ministry organizations, including our many service projects.  If any of you planning to go to college elsewhere are having second thoughts about your choice, see me after the ceremony and we can talk more about Duquesne!

Our shared Spiritan worldview has another new element of historical importance.  It is also one that has garnered worldwide attention and is celebrated in the Church around the word.  I mean the election of Pope Francis.

There are important links between the Spiritans and Pope Francis.  As you know, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit recognizes two co-founders.  The Congregation literally began through the efforts of Claude Poullart des Place in Paris in the early 1700s.  Later, the Spiritans struggled considerably during and after the French Revolution because of widespread hostility to religion.  Then they were refounded in Germany in the 1840s by Jacob Libermann, who took the name of Francis at his conversion to Catholicism.

Claude des Places was born into French royalty but gave up his life of privilege to dedicate himself to three passions-education, service to the poor and missionary work.  The state of education in France in his day, particularly among the clergy, was abysmal.  Many priests could not even read.  So des Places studied with the Jesuits himself and then began his own educational efforts on behalf of others.  When he did, he demanded the very highest educational standards in his schools.

Through des Place, therefore, we share the very same Jesuit tradition in which Pope Francis himself was formed.  And the rigorous academic standards of this high school and my university come from that very same source.

Des Places also worked among the poor in Paris.  He was especially dedicated to caring for the orphan boys who were homeless on the streets.  They were often exploited as chimney sweeps.  Cleaning chimneys was a filthy, toxic, and highly dangerous job.  Many small boys died or were maimed by getting stuck in the chimneys they were forced to climb up into or were lowered down into.  Education was a way out of this extreme poverty.

Des Places also began the missionary tradition of the Spiritans in France itself by working among freed slaves.  He sent missionaries to French colonies overseas, including North America.  Many believe that the first Catholic mass held at the French colonial Fort Duquesne, where Pittsburgh stands today, was celebrated by Spiritan missionaries. 

The intersection of these Spiritan commitments: education, service to the poor and missionary work created both Holy Ghost Prep and Duquesne University.  Both our schools began as educational services by Spiritan missionaries to poor immigrants and their descendants.

Libermann came from a German Jewish family and was a highly educated student of the Torah or Old Testament.  After a period of drift from his own Jewish beliefs, he became a Catholic.  At his baptism, he took the name Francis, just as our Pope has, and for the very same reason: to symbolize the humility of St. Francis of Assisi and his commitment of service to the poor.

Just as our new Pope's election represents an historic shift of attention to the Southern Hemisphere and the developing world, Libermann began a major Spiritan commitment to Africa and to the descendants of Africans around the world. 

In the 1840s, Spiritans were the first Catholic missionaries to go into East and West Africa, despite the fact that they died in large numbers from local diseases.  They also went to Haiti and other islands with large African populations in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean.  Then they followed African populations into North and South America, serving parishes and communities in poverty.   

Libermann told his missionaries to have the utmost respect for the people and cultures they encountered.  He instructed them to change nothing about local cultures except what was directly opposed to Christianity.  This attitude of humility was not every missionary's point of view at that time--nor is it even every missionary's attitude today.

Spiritan missionaries frequently reported back to Libermann on the impoverished conditions of the populations they met.  Faced with such overwhelming assignments, the missionaries would ask his counsel on how to set priorities in their work.  Should they build churches first and concentrate on converting the population to Catholicism?  Or should they build schools first and concentrate on setting examples through good works? 

Libermann answered without hesitation:  Schools and examples of service to the poor are the priorities.  Schools give people the tools they need to end poverty.  Good works show the truth of the Gospel.  The wisdom of these priorities is reflected in the inspiring spread of the Church in the Southern Hemisphere and the growing number of Spiritan vocations coming from Africa.

So we have two sources in both Des Places and Libermann for our schools' shared Spiritan commitment to the best in education and service to the poor.   We can also participate, even if it is indirectly, in contemporary Spiritan missionary work.  At Duquesne, expanding our educational and service relationships with Africa is at the heart of our current Strategic Plan.  At Prep, you have developed your own links to Tanzania and the Masai community.  We can both, of course, support all Spiritan missionary work through prayer-just as St. Theresa did, the patroness of missions.  And Holy Ghost Prep and Duquesne can celebrate together a new Pope who is making our values the center of the Church's attention.

So now I owe you the end of my second story.  You'll remember that we have a Spiritan, a rabbi and a Muslim in a bar.  The bartender asks what they would like.  The Spiritan answers.  "We'd all like the same thing: one heart and one spirit." 

How did he know that they all wanted the same thing?  Maybe it's because the three of them go to a lot of bars together.  More likely, it is because Spiritans around the world know, respect, and work closely with people of all religions.  And they know, particularly, that the spiritual descendants of Abraham all want the same unity of heart and spirit in their love of God and neighbor.

Unity in heart and spirit is your motto at Holy Ghost Prep, Cor unum, anima una.  That was the aspiration of the early Christians as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.  And that is the positive way forward for all of us, with the Holy Spirit, in our own lives and in this diverse and challenging world.

So my congratulations for all your accomplishments here at Holy Ghost Prep.  My prayers and good wishes that you will take our Spiritan tradition into all you do in your life--and that the Holy Spirit will always be your guide and inspiration. 

My advice to you, until you are 21, is to stay out of bars-especially those popular with Spiritans, rabbis and Muslims.  And I hope you never get a bad grade in college.  But if you do, it is best to be honest with your parents about it from the start.  They will find out anyway.