Recently I had the distinct privilege of returning to my home parish, St. Teresa of Avila Parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, to celebrate and preach the Eighth Grade Graduation Mass of the parish school.
Now it’s somewhat unusual to have a visiting bishop officiate at such an event, but my presence was occasioned by the fact that this year marks the 50th Anniversary of my graduation from the eighth grade of the same school.
Prior to the evening Mass I had the opportunity to visit some of the classrooms and have brief discussions with the students. As I usually do on such encounters, I asked the kids about their favorite subjects, and their least favorite ones, encouraged them to study hard, and reminded them that they were laying a foundation upon which they would build the rest of their lives. All of this led to a discussion about the importance of studying religion and I reminded them it was their faith in God that would enrich their lives now and lead them someday to eternal life.
The kids were great – respectful, relaxed and engaged. The only disappointing moment came at the end of one visit when I asked them if they were all Pittsburgh Steelers fans and of course they unanimously agreed, save one young man who bravely and proudly professed that he loves the New England Patriots. I was crushed. A Pats fan, right there in the heart of Steelers country!
Just walking the halls of the school building was a wonderful, nostalgic trip for me. The classrooms I was now visiting as a bishop are those in which I sat and studied fifty some years ago. As a seminarian I worked several summers in that school to clean the windows, walls and floors. There have been lots of changes and improvements of course – the school is furnished with a variety of computers and great science labs, and what was the cafeteria in my day is now the “Tobin Library,” named in honor of my mom and dad. Visiting that space was especially meaningful for me.
In the evening I returned to the church for the Graduation Mass. The eighth graders, about 30 of them, were quite impressive. They were beautifully dressed and presented themselves as respectful, polite, confident and competent young men and women, fully prepared to take on the next phase of their lives. In meeting them I had no doubt that they would be quite successful in the future and would represent their families, and their school and church, quite well.
In preparing for the graduation of the class of 2012 the parish also made an attempt to reach out and welcome the graduates of 50 years ago, my classmates, the class of 1962. Only a handful showed up, however, and I quipped that the rest of us were probably deceased or too infirm to attend. I enjoyed visiting with my classmates, however, and we readily agreed that we wanted quality, not quantity, anyhow.
In my homily to the graduating eighth graders I spoke of the importance of faith. I quoted Pope Benedict’s wonderful words from World Youth Day last year: “Let me urge you to strengthen the faith which has been handed down to us from the time of the Apostles. Make Christ, the Son of God, the center of your life . . . Having faith mean drawing support from the faith of your brothers and sisters, even as your own faith serves as support for the faith of others.”
The Pope’s words remind us that faith is not an abstract virtue – it has real consequences. Without faith in God our lives are incomplete – there’s something missing – there’s a hole in our hearts. It’s our faith that instills in us permanent values in the midst of a rapidly changing world. Our faith is the strong foundation on which we build our lives, the harbor that shelters us from the storms of life, the North Star that always points us in the right direction. And it’s our faith that opens for us the door to eternal life when, eventually, our journey on earth has ended.
The Pope also pointed out that living our faith makes a difference for other people, too. In seeking to lead good, moral lives “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation,” (Phil 2:15) we need to constantly support and encourage one another. “Peer pressure” can be a negative force and, indeed, it often is. But “peer pressure” can also be a positive influence. If we lead good, moral lives and act properly it can encourage others to do the same; it can inspire them and lift them up.
In the Gospel for Mass that day, the Feast of St. Justin, Jesus urged His followers to be the “salt of the earth and the light of the world.” And, in fact, that’s what faith does for us. It’s the salt that improves the flavor of the world in which we live, and the light that illuminates the path to eternal life.
I was thrilled to return to my home parish and school, to be part of this year’s eighth grade graduation ceremony. And I will continue to pray for the fine young people who graduated that night. May God bless them with much health and happiness, and with grace and peace. May all of their future endeavors be successful. And most of all, may they be people of faith – men and women who are grateful to God for their gifts and work hard everyday to live Gospel values and proclaim the Kingdom of God.