This Ad Rem is a brief introductory speech I gave at IHM School’s graduation on Trinity Sunday. As Prior, I am expected to say something; mine is not the main feature. Readers should know that our school in rural southern New Hampshire is very small, hence the two graduates.
Good afternoon, Reverend Fathers, Brothers, Sisters, Ladies, and Gentlemen. It is my task to welcome you to this year’s commencement exercises.
It is a tradition here at IHM School that our graduation ceremonies are not very long and drawn out. Being a traditionalist and loath ever to change things — especially good things — I shall do my part to retain our customary brevity.
The fourth-century Bishop of Barcelona and Father of the Church, Saint Pacian, famously wrote these words in his first Epistle to Sympronian: Christianus mihi nomen est, catholicus vero cognomen — “Christian is my name; Catholic is my surname.” (“Surname,” is the equivalent to our “family name,” or “last name.”) In the context, Saint Pacian was defending the use of the word, “Catholic,” to distinguish orthodox Christians from the adherents of the many heresies of the day. After saying, “Christian is my name; Catholic is my surname,” he goes on: “The former gives me a name, the latter distinguishes me. By the one I am approved; by the other I am but marked.”
I quote Saint Pacian for a reason, which I will summarize in one word: Identity. As fundamental essences and natures of things are being denied more and more in our time, our dear graduates, Angela and Joseph find themselves entering a world whose denizens are increasingly on a quest for an identity. Supported by the latest in revolutionary music, whose message is often “your parents do not understand you because you are way too complex and beyond what they ever were,” a host of corresponding revolutionary identities present themselves like so many garments to put on.
Angela and Joseph may choose one of the identities that the world, the flesh, and the devil have crafted for them. They can be goths, punks, emos, or metal heads. If they do not fit into those, they might try on nerd or geek — labels that have amazingly survived to this day from my own adolescent years. They may assume the identity of any number of morally or ideologically aberrant collectives, who vie with one another for first place in the arena of victim status. They could associate themselves with one of the many genres, sub-genres, or sub-sub-genres of music, dress, body piercing patterns or makeup applications that will give them an identity — all of them generally bad.
Or, they may realize that their natural identity was given them by God when they were conceived in their mothers’ wombs. (As God says in the Prophesy of Jeremias, “Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee.” [Jer. 1:5]) They may further realize that, in Baptism, that identity was stamped with the image of Jesus Christ. Supernaturally elevated and ennobled, God’s rational creature became God’s son and God’s daughter by grace, with Faith, Hope, Charity, and the Gifts of the Holy Ghost giving an eternal purpose to the creatures’ finite powers.
Now in Angela and Joseph here, all these faculties of nature and grace inhere in absolutely unique persons, with particular temperaments, attractions, aptitudes, and virtues. As I like to say, “You are totally and absolutely unique… just like everyone else!” And while my intention in saying it in this ironic way is to combat the narcissism of the age, the truth contained in the utterance remains. The Catholic does not lose his non-transferable personality in Baptism; rather, that personality is now made to participate in God’s own Nature — to live the life of the Trinity.
Now there is an identity for you!
Ven. Emmanuel d’Alzon, the great apostle of 19th-Century France, said that “Education is the formation of Jesus Christ in souls.” It is my hope and prayer that our little school did that for our beloved graduates, and that, wherever they go and whatever they do, they live in accordance with the Law of Christ, who has been formed in their souls.
In many different ways throughout their lives, our graduates will be asked to render an account of themselves — to give their identity. Whether it be a simple question, like “Who are you?”; “What are you?”; or a trial, test, or temptation that comes their way, they will be compelled to identify what they are deep down in their souls, in their flesh, and in their bones. And whether the question comes from friend or foe, from kind benefactor or hostile persecutor — or from our Lord Jesus Christ Himself at the Particular Judgment, may their answer ever be the same:
“Christian is my name; Catholic is my surname.”