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Charge to the Class

Reflection for Senior Visit to the Grotto

Rev. Mark L. Poorman, C.S.C.

For the past four years, Dean Carolyn Woo of the College of Business and I have had the distinct pleasure of team-teaching a seminar titled AThe Character Project. Each spring we’ve gathered with about twenty students—mostly seniors—to discuss the substance of character—values, decisions, habits, virtues, vices and faith. Those discussions have been some of the richest I’ve known at Notre Dame, and both Carolyn and I consider ourselves blessed to be a part of them. Through the years, students have offered their perspectives on some weighty matters B how they view the moral formation they received as they grew up; what they consider to be turning points in their moral maturity; how they distinguish themselves morally from their peers; what the role the Church has played in shaping their moral lives. I mention that gathering tonight as a backdrop for this wonderful privilege I’ve been given at your kind invitation to pose a brief “Charge to the Class of 2009.” I suppose this is my opportunity to offer you a piece of Commencement wisdom, of which you will hear so much this weekend. Tonight I lean on four years of those conversations with the best students anywhere to offer not so much a charge, as just a few things I hope you will take on the journey ahead.

First, remember where you came from. It’s amazing how many of the things we were taught growing up still serve as our guideposts for leading a good life. This should be especially heartening for parents and other mentors, who sometimes wonder if any of their efforts to provide a moral compass paid off in the long run. From the class, I now have four years of treasured anecdotal evidence that allows me to tell you those lessons are lodged firmly in the souls of people, and those simple early moral teachings are the ones that often have the greatest impact: “Share your things.” “Treat others with dignity and kindness.” “To have a friend, be a friend.” “Respect yourself.” “It’s not all about you.” Indeed, it is when we have sometimes strayed from that homespun, down-on-the-ground moral counsel that we have later discovered and rediscovered its enduring value. My hope tonight is that you will always have fresh and lively memories of those early teachings, and a deep appreciation for the examples of virtue that you=ve witnessed in so many loved ones along the way. We owe those parents, teachers, friends and mentors a debt of gratitude and a life of integrity.

Second, make every decision count. One of the challenging insights that emerged from the class is that when it comes to the moral life, there is no such thing as a trivial decision. If decisions shape our habits, and habits form our virtues and vices, then even the everyday decisions mean a lot. The decision to lie “just a little” can set us on a moral path toward becoming a liar; the decision to steal “just a little” can set us on a path toward becoming a thief. Likewise, the decision to give even a small amount of ourselves can begin to shape a generosity of spirit; and the decision to be patient with minor frustrations can pave the way for heroic endurance in adversity. So every one of those choices has consequences that end up sculpting a life. We spend lots of time and energy on the big choices—majors, vocations, jobs and spouses—but we tend to downplay the importance of quietly encouraging a friend, of reaching out to someone out on the margins, of using discretion in what we say about other people. It all means something; it all counts. My hope for you is that the powerful goodness you have known in this place will illuminate and guide all of the decisions in your days to come, so that you’ll be keenly disposed to make every decision count.

Finally, live in a story larger than your own. One of the great heresies of our time is that we are masters of our own destinies B that life is about exercising strong wills and seizing golden opportunities and realizing audacious goals. But for believers, it’s difficult to offer the narrative of your life without perceiving that the underlying meaning is not personal strength, it’s Grace; it’s not chance, it’s Providence; it’s not fulfillment, it’s Salvation. All the people participating in our class told personal stories of moral formation and transformation, and remarkably, almost to a person, the stories were of weakness and vulnerability—and profound hope. Why? Because somewhere on the way to moral maturity, true Christians realize that their own life narrative has been incorporated into a much larger story of God’s faithfulness and the power of Christ to provide truth, to heal wounds, to raise up new life. Last Sunday’s gospel portrait of Jesus captures it well: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” My hope for you tonight is that you will always live in a story larger than your own.

Remember where you came from. Make every decision count. Live in a story larger than your own. And God bless you always. Love thee, Notre Dame.

Rev. Mark L. Poorman, C.S.C.
Charge to the Class of 2009
Senior Last Visit to the Basilica and Grotto
May 14, 2009