The homily of Bishop Edward Malesic of the Diocese of Cleveland at the May 21, 2021 commencement of Saint Vincent Seminary, where he received an honorary doctor of divinity degree.
“Good afternoon everyone. Congratulations to those awardees just receiving those awards right now. Thank you Archabbot Bartel and Father Mazich for your kind invitation to be here this afternoon. I’m honored. And I also want to say just how good it is to be back at Saint Vincent’s here in Latrobe. This place has played such an important part in my life. First, when I was a priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg, this is where I made many of my priest retreats, those annual retreats. The monks, you monks, were always so hospitable and the atmosphere always so charged with mystical grace. And the food wasn’t too bad, either.
“When Pope Francis named me the fifth Bishop of Greensburg, and by the way it’s good to see the sixth Bishop of Greensburg here this afternoon, my good friend, Bishop Larry Kulick, when I came to Greensburg as the bishop in 2015 the monks of Saint Vincent welcomed me with open arms and once again, hospitality. The Benedictines are known for that and here it is done so well. So I am back to what is familiar, comfortable, and I am reminded of the deep roots of the faith here in western Pennsylvania of which the Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey and the mission of this Seminary are such a huge part.
“But we are here to talk about the graduates, those receiving degrees. I want to congratulate all of you for making it to this day, with all the papers to write, books and articles to read, classes to attend and a myriad of other responsibilities to juggle, along with everything else over these last years, here you are ready for yet another degree, either master of divinity, master of theology or Catholic philosophical arts degree. Good for you.
“I know this has been an unusual year. I hope that God used the cross of the pandemic to bring about some greater good for you. I believe he did if you allowed it. Perhaps it brought you closer to each other as a community. It certainly taught all of us the need to row in the boat together, as Pope Francis reminded us last year at the beginning of this pandemic. I hope the pandemic taught us the value of life and the need to protect it, sometimes at great cost. I hope it helped us to slow down a bit and appreciate the good things that are all around us.
“We certainly have more time to read. At least that’s what your professors hoped you would do with the extra time. Maybe this last year taught us greater patience and we developed a spirit of perseverance.
“I hope we come out of this pandemic better than when we went into it. In whatever way this pandemic affected you, you made it through to today.
“Before I move on I want to also your parents, your siblings, your friends and your professors, the administration and staff at Saint Vincent and all who had a hand in your formation, and also had a hand in who you have become as men of faith. You are theologians after all, having come to some expertise in matters of God and the Christian life. But don’t forget who helped you to get to today. Commencement is not simply an individual event. It is also a team sport.
“There’s the story of an elderly lady who had heard a certain distinguished guest being addressed as doctor. She found her way to his side and asked shyly, ‘doctor may I ask you a question?’ ‘Certainly,’ he said. ‘Lately,’ she said, ‘I’ve been having a funny pain in my side.’ The guest interrupted uncomfortably and said, ‘I’m terribly sorry madam, but the truth is I’m a doctor of theology.’ ‘Oh,’ she said with disappointment. ‘I’m sorry.’ She turned away but then overcome with curiosity, she turned back, ‘just one more question doctor, tell me what kind of disease is theology?’
“Yes, indeed what kind of disease is theology?
“Adapting what someone once said, ‘perhaps theology should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ My guess is that one or more of your professors made you feel uncomfortable along the way as they stretched your theological imagination beyond what you thought capable. My suggestion is that you be more like Job than the Pharisees. Job stood in awe at the wonder of God’s nature that is without limits. The Pharisees tried to keep God in a bottle of their own limited minds.
“Always remember that God is much bigger than you are and a bit brighter too. No matter how much you know God knows more. Perhaps that is why in the end Saint Thomas saw all of his writing and knowledge as nothing more than straw when compared to the revelation of God. Saint Paul says in his letter to the Romans, ‘oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unscrutable are his judgement and how unsearchable his ways. For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Do not think you know God’s mind on all subjects just because you studied in the Seminary.
“All of us here believe that God has an amazing plan for you—a plan that you might not yet fully grasp. If you have learned one thing studying theology and philosophy it is that people are required to trust God over human beings, which means you must trust God even above yourself and your plans for yourself.
“The Old Testament book of Proverbs has a way of pointing this out for us. The author says ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence do not rely, in all your ways be mindful of him and he will make straight your paths.
“Some of you already know my story. As a young man in the Seminary I felt called to be the pastor of a parish. That’s all I ever really wanted and hoped for. So as I was preparing to be ordained and leave the Seminary I decided not to pursue the master of arts in theology degree, the more academically focused degree. Not to brag, but my grades were pretty good in the Seminary.
“My professors were a bit taken aback that I did not want the more academically focused degree. In fact, they were a bit angry with me. But despite that, I wanted to receive the more pastorally focused master of divinity degree without adding the academic degree on top of it, which I certainly could have done. When my professors asked me why I did not want to pursue the M.A. in theology, I told them that I did not want anyone from my home diocese to notice my grades because it might lead me to work in the chancery or the Bishop’s office, which I never wanted. You can see how that worked out. It’s a common quote, ‘if you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.’ And for those of you receiving your M.Div.s today, who knows? You might be on the episcopal track. Pray not.
“And that’s the point. You are being blessed with degrees in pastoral ministry, theology and philosophy. Where will these degrees lead you? Some of you are coming back for more. I know that. And I’m sure you have some plans for yourselves like I did but really who knows except God and perhaps the Bishop and the Archabbot. What I do know is that everything you learned here, everything you experienced at Saint Vincent, and in your pastoral assignments, were part of God’s plan for you. He will use them for the good he has planned for you.
“As proud as you should be about attaining your degree, with all the work you put into it, God does not define your future or limit your capacities by the initials that you can now write after your name. Now here’s where my pastoral sense comes in. You are getting a degree from a Seminary, a Catholic Seminary. You have already oriented yourself to a life within the Church. You are all disciples of Jesus himself who tells us to seek to serve, not to be served. Get ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Use that knowledge you have gained and the experiences you have encountered to build up the body of Christ in his Church, so that the people of the Church can also come to know, love and serve God as they are called to do.
“As you do that, continue to discern God’s voice to you, coming through the Bishop, the Abbot, and other ways God speaks to you heart to heart. Life is a dance. Let God take the lead.
“Today there is much talk about the New Evangelization. It is a clarion call to bring the Gospel to our culture with new methods, ardor and style. You must also be a part of the new evangelization. In many ways, gentlemen, you must become translators of what you know about God, God’s Church and God’s world so that the people in the pews and those who never think to venture into a church can come to know the Gospel message in its simplicity and its beauty. Bring your head down to your heart. Then draw people to deeper faith with what you have learned or to first faith for those who do not yet believe. Yes, become translators of the Gospel for the culture of the modern world.
“Let me try to explain it this way. In a few weeks I will be having lunch with Kevin Stefanski and his wife. Now don’t throw me out when I tell you that Kevin is the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. I know nothing of football. Except that a football is brown and oblong and a baseball is white and round. So I said to someone ‘I’ll need a translator at my lunch with Kevin. I don’t speak football.’ Football people speak a foreign language to me, holding, halfback, offsides, nickel back and other words simply don’t make sense to me. It’s like what happened after the fall of the tower of Babel. When I hear people who know football speak to each other I have no clue as to what they are talking about. But I’ve developed a face that makes me look like I do.
“But Jesus sent the Holy Spirit and when Pentecost the confusion of languages was reversed and the Gospel of Jesus Christ could be understood by people of all races, nationalities and languages, Peter stood up and said, ‘God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Messiah.’ Help people understand what that means.
“So if you want to be useful to the Church at large, when you go out into the world, degree in hand, avoid using the language of the specialists without concise explanations. Trust me I’m not telling you to dumb down religion, I’m not. Father Damian Ference, a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, is finishing his doctoral dissertation in Rome. On Memorial Day he will defend his dissertation on the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, born and raised last century in Georgia. She once described herself as a ‘hillbilly Thomist.’
“In his dissertation Father Ference writes of her ‘she knew that it was her duty and her vocation to study, to read, to think, to be both theological and philosophical. But O’Connor was also convinced that engaging in such intellectual activities should make one more human, rather than less human, understandable rather than confusing, concrete rather than abstract, plainspoken rather than tangled up in jargon, and simple, in the way God is simple, rather than unnecessarily complex.
“Gentlemen at times you will need to translate a three credit Seminary course on the Eucharist into something that the average second-grader can understand before receiving first Holy Communion. A good theologian should be able to talk to children about God, Jesus, the Church and salvation, and that might be the hardest theological thing you ever do. If any of you have any computer programming skills, I challenge you to develop a Duo-Lingo like app for theology. How you do it, make your theology in Catholic philosophy accessible to many people, as many people as possible. However you do it, just do it. There are people out there who are doing great work in this already. Bishop Barron and Word on Fire, Curtis Martin on FOCUS, Tim Gray and the Augustine Institute, Father Casey from Breaking in the Habit, and more, including Father Boniface Hicks and the Institute for Ministry Formation. Father Boniface thank you for paying me for that commercial.
“I encourage you to find. Your voice in what you do in the future and develop your own unique style to spread the Good News of the Gospel to others. You are now considered somewhat expert in it. You have everything it takes to do just that. You are gifted men and now degreed men too.
“I often tell the eighth graders that I’m confirming that confirmation is not an ending, it’s a beginning. The same with commencement. You aren’t ending your career in learning; you are just commencing it. So remain informed. Keep up to date. Go to those seminars that continue to stretch your mind and get together to talk about the finer points of your particular training with each other. Keep your minds stimulated. And don’t ever be like one of those people, priests and others, who say that the last theology book they ever picked up was in the Seminary. No, would you go to a doctor who has never heard of an MRI? I wouldn’t either.
“The people expect you to stay on top of modern events, and how we as Christians must respond to them with the constant message of the Church in an ever-changing complex and currently divided world. You are being sent to proclaim the unchanging Gospel message to a world that lives in our parishes, Christian movements, abbeys, schools, other religious communities. The world that needs your knowledge of God and Christian teaching works in our factories as well as in our business suites. Remember that the basic saving message of Jesus Christ isn’t known by all persons anymore. It’s not just that they don’t believe it. They don’t even know it exists.
“Before getting too lost in the clouds, remind everyone, including the most devout believers, that Jesus Christ was God’s only begotten son, who emptied himself of his divinity to live among us. On the Cross he suffered and died for us. He forgave our sins. On the third day he walked out of the grave, with a glorified body, never to return to that grave again. And if we believe in him, and eat his flesh and drink his blood and follow him, that will be our trajectory too. We can move from death to life too and come to find eternal life and happiness with God.
“Perhaps that is why John 3:16 is such a beloved verse. It is beautiful and rings true to the human heart in its powerful simplicity. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.’
“This is the Good News. And everyone in the Church is given the mission to proclaim it. You are too. That is the foundation for every teaching of the Church, for God so loved us. Remember the words of Jesus to you, ‘as I have loved you, so you too should love one another.’ For that is your mission with your special gifts that are certified in the degrees you are receiving tonight. As God has loved you, you should love one another.
“Go with the zeal of the first disciples of Jesus, armed with all the knowledge you need and more about the Trinity, epistemology, the hypostatic union and the social teaching of the Church, and those other subjects related to your field. Use your spiritual, human and pastoral formation here to do good. Become men of service. Use it all for God’s people, especially for those on the fringes of faith. In fact, go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”