Baccalaureate Mass Reflection

President Peñalver's reflection at the 2024 Baccalaureate Mass.

Baccalaureate Mass

Good afternoon.

Members of the Class of 2024, this weekend is a time to celebrate your many accomplishments during your years at Seattle University and to mark your important transition from students to graduates.

Considering the festive reason for our gathering, today’s readings – especially that first reading – might seem like something of a downer, maybe even just a little bit inappropriate for this happy occasion.

In the first reading, we hear from the well-known story of the fall in the garden. Among the consequences of the this first sin are human suffering and death. 

A few lines after today’s reading, God tells Adam, “you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.” This is fairly dark stuff.

Is there a lesson for us in these sobering words as we celebrate the joyous occasion of your graduation?

Bishop Schuster offered an inspiring answer to that question in his homily today, and we are grateful to him for being with us to celebrate your graduation this afternoon. His hopeful message echoes today’s reading from Second Corinthians. In that passage, Paul reminds us that our “outer self is wasting away” and that everything we see around us is “transitory.” But he couples that reminder with the promise of something more – the eternal that is “unseen,” our future “dwelling not made with hands.” This reminder that our mortality is coupled with a promise of something greater stands at the center of our Catholic faith.

The close connection between our recognition of the transience of this world and the promise of eternal life is reflected in the concept of “Memento Mori.” Memento Mori, which translates literally as “remember your death,” has deep roots in Catholic spirituality. Among other things, it is pervasive in our iconography. Portraits of saints often depict them holding or contemplating skulls. (What could be more Catholic than that?)

But Memento Mori extends well beyond the Catholic imagination. In fact, it would be fair to call it a pervasive feature of spiritual traditions throughout history and around the world. It is present in the Jewish scriptures. (We recognize it, for example, in Psalm 90’s prayer that God might “teach us to number our days so that we can gain wisdom of heart.”) We also see it in the Buddhist concept of “maranasati” as well as in the Sufi practice of dancing in graveyards. Socrates discussed it, as did the Roman Stoics. We even see it in that other great spiritual tradition: country music. Tim McGraw gives it a tip of his cowboy hat when he sings that “someday I hope you get the chance to live like you are dying.”

Although Memento Mori might at first sound morbid, on reflection, we can appreciate the way it encourages us to recognize the importance of not wasting our time on what is not life-giving. The purpose of Memento Mori is not to wallow in fear or sadness at our mortality but to remind us of the preciousness of life and to encourage us to make the most of our limited time. It also pushes us to deepen our understanding what making the most of our time actually means.

In a 2015 essay, “The Moral Bucket List,” NY Times columnist David Brooks described an interesting distinction between what he called “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” “The resume virtues,” he says, “are the skills you bring to the marketplace,” the virtues of expertise and professionalism. In contrast, “[t]he ‘eulogy virtues’ are the ones that are talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love.”

People who attend to the eulogy virtues, Brooks says, are full of joy and generosity of spirit. They radiate an inner light that comes from having their 
priorities in order. Most of us know at least some people like this. Although the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues are both important, Brooks laments that our educational system tends to spend far more time cultivating resume virtues. I suspect that Brooks has this impression because he graduated from the University of Chicago.

Had Brooks attended Seattle University, he would have recognized in the eulogy virtues the great aspirations of the Jesuit educational tradition – mixing as it does the goals of imparting technical excellence with the pursuit of moral and spiritual depth; the encouragement it offers our students to become people for and with others.

As you transition from your time as Seattle University students to the next phase of your lives and careers, there is no better occasion for reflecting on all the virtues you want to cultivate. My hope is that, as you recall your time at Seattle University, you will conclude that it has helped you to buttress your resume virtues. (I’m sure the parents who are present this afternoon agree with me on this.) They are crucial to your future success as professionals. But your eulogy virtues are crucial to your far more important success as human beings. And so, my deepest hope is that – as you reflect on your time with us – you will conclude that Seattle University has helped you to attend to both.

Congratulations, graduates! I look forward to seeing you all at Commencement tomorrow.