The commencement season is upon us, and TV news and social media will feature clips of commencement speakers’ funniest, snarkiest, most political,and yes, most inspiring lines. I have never been asked to give a comment speech, but I can imagine how difficult it is. How do you say something inspiring that doesn’t sound like a cliché? How many people actually listen to the address in this day and age of smart phones loaded with Facebook, Twitter and Candy Crush? If it were me, I’d go with Catherine of Siena! What, you might ask, does a young woman who lived in the 14th century have to say to the graduating class of 2015?
If Catherine were living today, she might be introduced as someone on the front lines of the Ebola fight, in the way she was on the front lines of caring for those dying of the Black Death. She might be singled-out for her contributions to peace building in the Middle East for the way she made contributions to peacemaking in Italy in her time. In 2015, she would be cited for being one of the most influential women in the Catholic Church who is in Pope Francis’s inner circle, as she was both a confidant and consultant to Pope Gregory XI and Pope Urban VI. It is Catherine who is credited with keeping the Church from schism following the move of the Papal court to Avignon.
Catherine would be described as the epitome of a missionary disciple as Pope Francis envisions it. Catherine was a joyful woman, who witnessed to the joy of the Gospel in every part of her life. Catherine saw the failures of the Church, was horrified—once even quoting the Gospel of Mathew calling the hierarchy a “brood of vipers” (Mt. 23:33). And yet, Catherine loved the Church for knowing it was instituted by Christ. Catherine discovered in the midst of living in the world how to nurture a deeply contemplative life. Though she desired to spend her day in adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus called her out into the chaos of a community touched by the plague and a church rocked by scandal, and she discovered Christ was with her in the “cell” of our soul.
What would Catherine say to the Class of 2015? To their delight, she would be short and to the point. Catherine would say “Be who God made you to be and you will set the world afire.” In Catherine’s experience, she learned that she was most herself and her most effective when God was her reference point. In fact, she once wrote that separation from God ends in confusion. In Catherine’s book called The Dialogue, God shares with Catherine this image of how united his sons and daughters are to him.
It is, as if a circle were drawn on the surface of the earth, and a tree, with an off-shoot joined to its side, grew in the center of the circle. The tree is nourished in the earth contained in the diameter of the circle, for if the tree were out of the earth it would die, and give no fruit. Now, consider, in the same way, that the soul is a tree existing by love, and that it can live by nothing else than love; and, that if this soul have not in very truth the divine love of perfect charity, she cannot produce fruit of life, but only of death. It is necessary then, that the root of this tree, that is the affection of the soul, should grow in, and issue from the circle of true self-knowledge which is contained in Me, who have neither beginning nor end, like the circumference of the circle, for, turn as you will within a circle, inasmuch as the circumference has neither end nor beginning, you always remain within it. “This knowledge of yourself and of Me is found in the earth of true humility, which is as wide as the diameter of the circle, that is as the knowledge of self and of Me for, otherwise, the circle would not be without end and beginning, but would have its beginning in knowledge of self, and its end in confusion, if this knowledge were not contained in Me. (Dialogue, 10)
Happiness, Catherine would say, is found in a life of integration. Happiness is found in relationship with God, the one who knows you best, and rooted and nourished by this love, a life lived pursuing truth and serving the good of our community. Catherine would confidently say that with God, you, the Class of 2015 can change the world!
Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.