’Tis the season for high school and college graduations. Proud parents and family members watch with tearful eyes as the young people—and some not so young, admittedly—walk across the stage to receive their accolades and diplomas. It is a time of joy and a chance to look back at life’s accomplishments so far.
For institutions of Catholic learning, another tradition is the baccalaureate Mass. This Eucharistic celebration usually takes place within a few days of the commencement ceremony, the students wearing their graduation robes in procession into the church. Seen as a blessing on their future and a reminder of the core source of all blessings and knowledge, these special Masses are filled with pomp and circumstance—and more than musically.
Attending a baccalaureate Mass recently, I noticed something that rather troubled me. While some of the girls wore dresses that would have been censured for being far too short back when I attended Catholic school, I detected a rather TK attitude toward the liturgy itself. The altar servers—young men in black cassocks and starched white surplices—walked through the church with their hands perfectly placed in a prayerful pose. Students genuflected toward the sanctuary, their knees not yet ravaged by athletic injuries or arthritis that makes such movements difficult. The celebrant used ample incense during the proceedings, which can irritate some with asthma or allergies.
All these symbols—while in and of themselves are not bad—are not the foundation of faith. These graduates, who have been instructed in the doctrines and practices of their religion, need also to be taught about faith. That seems to be lacking, if I may say, in some more conservative Catholic institutions.
The first problem is when instructors equate faith and religion as the same thing. Faith is one’s set of beliefs. Religion is the communal and accepted expression of those beliefs. It is possible, especially in this modern era, to have faith without religion. So many these days claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” which is becoming distinctly more popular.
The Catholic institutions of which I write are trying their hardest to keep that from happening. They are training their students to be “good Catholics,” to practice their religion. But what about their faith?
Catholicism, from a religious and church-based perspective, abides by canon law and a strict set of doctrines. Faith, on the other hand, takes things as they come and applies what Jesus taught his disciples to daily life and to every human interaction.
For these young people, faith is promoted as something that “feels good” when it’s properly practiced. Attending Sunday Mass makes an individual feel good, because he or she has fulfilled his obligation to religion. Kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in an adoration chapel or praying a rosary can make one feel good, a sense of satisfaction in doing the “right thing.”
But faith is not just about feeling good. Faith is living the truth every second of every day. As St. Benedict wrote in his Rule 1,500 years ago: all are to be welcomed as Christ. That doesn’t mean a person can pick and choose who they interact with, like some clique in school or at the local parish. Faith takes the positives and the negatives of each moment and bathes them in Jesus’s love. There is no roller coaster ride with faith.
Faith does not criticize or judge others, as religion can judge those who differ in their beliefs from the established doctrines. Faith sees everyone as sinners, and everyone as loved equally by God. None of us are without sin; none of us should cast the first stone.
The Covid-19 pandemic tested the faith of billions. When the churches closed their doors, faith survived to weather the storm of suffering, job loss, absence of family and friends. Hope remained alive, charity remained active—albeit in different forms—and faith thrived.
As graduates move from the classroom into the real world, they will be exposed to influences from which they were sheltered in Catholic schools. If they are grounded in faith beyond the mere practices of their religion, they will learn from these events and grow. They may find comfort in the pre–Vatican II Latin Mass, but that will not strengthen them for the challenges ahead. Only a mature and grounded faith—capable of sustaining a soul through the endless grind of an office job where co-workers can be aggravating, or in a fast-food or service-oriented field where customers can range from pleasant to offensive, or raising a family where unscheduled surprises occur every five minutes—will make it possible to work toward healing the divisions in our society, to feed and house the poor, to bring justice to the oppressed.
This is the prayer I offer for the graduating class of 2022: “May your faith mature and deepen. May you see Christ in every human you encounter, and treat them with compassion and a listening ear. May you gain an understanding heart to see that mere ritual is only a fraction of living a truly Christian life.” Amen. ♦
Julie A. Ferraro has been a journalist for over 30 years, covering diverse beats for secular newspapers as well as writing for many Catholic publications. A mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Atchison, Kansas.