The Real You Is Saint You: What St. John Paul Would Say to High School Graduates

St. John Paul II High School in Windsor, Colo., was founded in 2020 with Benedictine College alumnus Blaise Hockel as headmaster. The school has been housed at Our Lady of the Valley Parish and has just purchased land to build a new school. The senior class this year is the first to have had all their high school years at the school and wanted their graduation to be on the new land, in a tent, so they could have had part of their high school experience on the new site.
Commencement Address
by Dr. Edward Mulholland, Benedictine College Sheridan Chair of Classics
St. John Paul II High School, May 18, 2024

I am truly honored by the invitation to speak to you today, an honor tempered by the humbling realization that, as commencement speaker, my best-case scenario is for my name to be a challenging tie breaker in a trivia quiz at your 10th high school reunion. I stand between you and your diplomas and whatever tasty treats await you. I stand on dangerous ground. But this ground is also a land of promise. We stand on this land, the land of the new school, with the OG students who will regale future generations with tales starting “but when we were in the old building…”

Now, a person of my generation cannot speak at St. John Paul II High School and not remember Pope John Paul, who became pope shortly before I started high school, back in the last millennium, back in the 1900s. I look at these graduates and this young and vibrant faculty and observe they have fewer gray hairs collectively than my left sideburn — the headmaster’s glabrous pinnacle notwithstanding.

St. John Paul II gave a homily in Wembley Stadium in 1982, like today, on the eve of Pentecost, during a mass for the renewal of baptismal promises. I didn’t hear it until the VHS tape of the Pope’s trip to Britain came out the next year, my senior year. There was this thing in the 1900s called “waiting.” But the words with which he ended his remarks and the tone with which he ended them struck me then — and still now — as a perfect compendium of a Catholic education:

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, realize the greatness of your Christian vocation. Christ has called you out of darkness into his own wonderful light. Consider what God has done for you in Baptism, and lift up your eyes and see the final glory that awaits you.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
O Lord how manifold are all your works.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 104, 1. 24. 30). Amen.”

He said it like that. That strong. That “Polishly,” but also that powerfully, that triumphantly. (Check it out on Youtube John Paul II: The Pilgrim Pope – Pastoral Visit to Great Britain May 1982 minute 48.)

And for a few moments now, as you wait for your diplomas like we used to have to wait to hear our favorite song on the radio, let’s take a look at those last key verbs from Psalm 104: Send Forth and Renew.

What does it mean to be “sent forth”? 

Anyone or anything that is sent forth necessarily is also sent from.  To leave, you must leave somewhere. And the strength of your push-off will be proportional to the firmness of your base. Trust me on this. You will probably realize this more fully later after you meet others who lacked such solidity in their foundations. You come from good families. They are your rock. That doesn’t sound like a comfortable place to sleep. But we say “rock” because they are solid and strong, and, when you take your next step, though mom will cry and dad will pretend not to, they know that the reason they made your base rock-solid-strong is for you to push off confidently from here toward the future. As we celebrate you today, dear graduates, we also congratulate your parents.  The fact that you take this step, this graduation, means you have stepped off from a firm foundation.

As well, anyone who is sent forth is nurtured and provisioned, equipped. Today, you go from being students of St. John Paul II High School to being alumni. From being eager for and desirous of what is offered here (studēo studēre, studui, takes the dative) to having been nurtured (alo, alere, alui, altus).  You’ve got all your basic nourishment for the journey in an education that has been both elementary and alimentary. It is a metaphor that goes back millennia. You take all the good you have received from the mother who nourished you, your Alma Mater, food which now has become your muscle and sinew, and you build with it.   So as we celebrate you today, dear graduates, we also congratulate your teachers and formators. For you leave here well-equipped and provisioned indeed.

But most importantly, anyone who is sent forth is commissioned.  Christ’s Great Commission, “Go forth and make disciples of all nations” is the declared mission statement of your school.  You are sent forth with a goal, a task, a destination.  And while that mission is the same for all of us: the call to holiness, or in the words of the Baltimore Catechism “to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next,” it will express itself in as many ways as there are people.  You leave here today for the workforce, for the military, for seminary, for university.  Live out the truths you have learned and assimilated here. Be yourselves, with the understanding that the real you is Saint You. You have a role to fulfill that no one else has.

Close to ten years ago, when a fully coiffed Blaise Hockel and the ever lovely Taryn Dennis — back in the day — were students at Benedictine, I was interviewed in the student newspaper and was asked for my two favorite quotes.  The student interviewer was unaware that asking this of a Classicist was a particularly painful sort of torture, like asking which of your children you’d save from a sinking ship.  But, when pressed, I was able to give two quotes, one ancient and one modern, emerging from the quite different pens of St. John the Evangelist and Roger Waters of the band Pink Floyd.

The first is “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).  That is your mission.  Get a life. A Christian life, which is a life of supernatural grace and therefore more abundant than a merely natural life. Your goal is not one for this life only. As John Paul II told Wembley stadium: “Realize the greatness of your Christian vocation.” “Realize” in the double sense of be aware of it, and also make it real, like the realization of your dreams. The greatness of the Christian calling only becomes real in you if you become St. You.

The second quote is my one question conscience exam: “Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”   Having taught a course in the History of Philosophy during my time in Rome, I will be kicked out of the union for this, but there really are only two ways to view our human world.  The first is to see the entire arc of human history as Salvation History and the struggle for the souls of mankind.  The second is to imagine your own reality and cast yourself as the star of the movie.  You either live out the role for which you were truly created by God, or you live in some alternative Lala land chose-your-own adventure head-space scenario. Now, in Salvation History, lots of the big roles have already been cast. The Savior, his Mother, the 12 apostles. Maybe one of you graduates will found a religious order or be a Doctor of the Church. Who knows?

My own Alma mater, the Pontifical Gregorian University has the world’s most pretentious college newsletter that lists episcopal ordinations and beatifications as tabs under “alumni news.”  But for most of us, we have walk-on parts in the war. But this war is the only true reality there is. And walk-ons can do great things. We are still indispensable. To deny that is to declare God unintelligent. Nobody else was assigned to take the hill you are assigned to take in this war.  Get it done, or it doesn’t get done. We can fight for that each day, or, we can give up on it and conjure our own pseudo-reality. But that would be one that is untrue. It is not freedom. It is a cage. “Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage” today? NO, great. You’re on your way to St. You. Yes, well try better tomorrow, go to confession if needed and start again.

“Renew” (already in progress)

At this point, people are checking their watches and saying, I was with him for the whole “send forth” bit but we haven’t even hit “renew” and he’s down some mid-70’s classic rock rabbit hole.  Have faith and patience, people. Through some rhetorical ninjary, I’m already in “renew.”

To renew the world, we first have to renew ourselves. So, dear graduates and all ye present whether awake or fading fast, do that conscience exam each day. Am I living as a Christian, or am I living in the fantasy that I can live apart from the God who created me and who knows what’s truly best for me because He made me for Himself and my heart is restless until I rest in Him?   Just as any attempt of ours to disprove the law of gravity (or any physical law) will only further confirm it, and we will pay the price in physical pain, so, also, any attempt to disprove the laws of the Spirit will further confirm them, and we will pay a worse price in spiritual pain. You go forth now into a world of walking wounded, amidst pain that is as intense as it is tragically unnecessary.  Living the truth of who you are will be light and warmth for those around you. And you’ll no doubt be hated for it.

This is, in fact, the only way God ever renews the world. He renews it by renewing people from within by his Spirit. I was across the river from the grotto in Lourdes late one night. It is a miraculous place of grace and pilgrimage. And it hit me. There are other grottoes along that idyllic river, the Ousse. but only one of them now generates enough tourist revenue to support the entire region. Only one has a major Basilica. And God renewed and transformed this area by transforming the life of one young girl. A girl who allowed Him to transform her, who took a ton of flack to let God work in and through her.

God renews the face of the earth by renewing those souls who let Him work in and through them.

So, my dear graduates, OG alums from the old sod, esteemed class of 2024, do that. Be Saint You by letting God work through you. Live a sacramental life through a sacramental vision. It isn’t easy, because our fallenness rebels and the minions of the culture we live in whisper to us that it is all folly. And we start to agree with them because we start to rely too much on ourselves and retreat into that cage of self-inflicted wounds. Be humble and bold and seek renewal when you feel that “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.”

My friends, God has sent forth his Spirit who works as silently and efficiently as the dewfall.  Renewal is always possible because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Allow me to close by punctuating the words of Psalm 104 and St. John Paul II with the end of a Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet to which I have already alluded.  My dear graduates, you are sent forth today into a world that yearns for renewal. Be faithful to your life in Christ, allowing his grace to work in you, and you will have the only success that matters. Because, even when our lives seem dark and it seems that night has forever fallen,

… for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Thank you.

Image: John Paul II High File Photo

Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is the Sheridan Chair of Classics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he co-directs the program: Great Books: The True, the Good and the Beautiful. Born in the Bronx, New York, he earned his master’s degree in classics from the University of London, England, and received both a licentiate and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1996-1998 he served as the head of the Humanities Department and the dean of the Journalism School at the Centro Universitario Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain. From 1998-2005, he was Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood Education and Training Center in Thornwood, New York and Professor of Classical Languages at the Center of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. From 2005-2011 he headed the Departments of Catholic Formation and Classical Languages at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.