The Catholic University of America

2005 Homily for the Baccalaureate Mass
by Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M.
University President
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Friday, May 13, 2005, 4 p.m.

At the Last supper on the night before he died, Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times. The account of his prediction is in every one of the four Gospels. Before the dawn, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times, he said to Peter. Of course Peter in typical Peter fashion blurted out, "never, Lord. I am prepared to die for you. Even if everyone else's faith is shaken, mine will never be. I would sooner die than deny you."

And the morning came, and with the dawn, the cock began to crow. By that moment, Jesus had been led away and Peter had already denied him three times. And while Jesus lay dying on the Cross, where was Peter? Hidden away in fear and trembling, this man of whom Christ said, "you are rock and I shall build my Church upon you."

Jesus died and three days after he had been denied by Peter, the rock, three times, he rose from the dead and walked among his disciples again. And that is where we find him, after his resurrection, in tonight's Gospel passage from St. John.

Can you just imagine how Peter must have felt in that moment, during that conversation described to us? John tells us that Jesus appeared to his disciples - "revealed himself" were the words he uses - and, after breakfast, he turns to Peter, and looks him in the eye and asks, "Do you love me more than these?" Peter blurts out his enthusiastic "yes, Lord, you know that I do," to which Jesus responds, "feed my lambs." And Jesus asks it again, but "do you love me?" Again, Peter answers "yes," and Our Lord instructs, "tend my sheep." A third time, Jesus poses the question to Peter, "do you love me" and by now it begins to dawn on Peter what Jesus is doing. The Gospel tells us he is "distressed." "You know everything," Peter shouts, "you know that I love you." "feed my sheep" is Christ's simple reply.

Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to redeem himself. Through it all, however, Jesus never wavered in his love for Peter and in his confidence in him. He gave him a second chance. For all his weakness and cowardice, despite all his faults and failings, Jesus gave Peter a second chance and more than that, he gave him incredible responsibility to go along with it. "Feed my sheep. Follow me."

Did you ever feel like you needed a second chance? Another chance to prove yourself, to put behind you what was in order to embrace what is and what will be? Then you have come to the right place. For us as Christians, as believers, our whole faith is based upon a belief in the second chance. Isn't that why Christ came to earth, to give humanity a second chance? Isn't that why he performed his miracles and preached his Gospel message, to give people a second chance? Isn't that why he died on the cross, a horrible suffering and death, to redeem us sinners and give us a second chance? Isn't that why he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit upon us at Pentecost, to give us a second chance? We, as Christians, are the beneficiaries of the second chance, over and over and over again. We would be making a terrible mistake if we listened to tonight's Gospel, believing it was only intended for Peter. Its message is for us.

When Jesus asks, "do you love me," he is asking the question knowing our history, our weaknesses, our failures, our sins. And when he says "feed my lambs, feed my sheep," he is giving us a second chance, a responsibility to do something for him, despite those same failures. Remember his words, "whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me." It's a second chance. Remember his words, "if you love you will keep my commands, even as I have kept my father's commands. And the command I give you is this: love one another." It's a second chance. Remember his words, "Greater love than this no one has than to lay down one's life for one's friends." It's a second chance. The message is for all of us here tonight but within it is a special message for those of you about to graduate.

Commencement is both an end and a beginning. It is a second chance. For this graduation class, for you, the time you have spent at Catholic University since your arrival here four years ago, has been unlike any other time in recent history.

Four years ago, on a bright Tuesday morning in early September, the world changed. None of us will ever forget the eleventh of September of your freshman year. Who could have imagined, when you left home for CUA, how different the world would be just a few short weeks later. The world would never be the same. It would, in fact, become defined by that day.

I remember walking out of my office after an emergency meeting of the administration, stunned as we all were, feeling so helpless, feeling afraid, thinking and praying, "My God, what am I going to do?" Suddenly, I felt responsible for everyone on campus in a way I could never have conceived or have been prepared for. And yet, with all the confusion and fear, we stood together. We cried. We prayed. We put our arms around one another. It didn't matter whether we were freshmen or faculty, administrators or staff, workers or graduate students. Suddenly, we belonged to each other like never before. We all did. And we made it through. The world changed that day. We got a second chance.

When we look back over these past years, so much has happened while we have been together on this campus. At times, it seemed, the world would spin off its axis as quickly as our heads were spinning. Terrorism. Anthrax. Enron. Stem-cell research. Cloning. Wide-spread scandal in the Catholic Church. Pre-emptive strike. War. Same-sex marriage.Tsunami. Afghanistan. Palestine. Iraq. Northern Korea. Pro-choice. Pro-life. Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI. These were the "stuff" of your college years and you had a ring-side seat to it all. Again, through all the confusion and uncertainty; through all the things that were and could have been, we stood together. We cried. We prayed. We put our arms around each other. We belonged to one another, together, here at Catholic University. Again and again, we got a second chance.

You will graduate tomorrow from The Catholic University of America. You are not the same young women and men who arrived here four or five years ago. And whether you will receive a bachelor's or a master's or a doctoral degree tomorrow, you cannot help but look back on your years here as an incredible opportunity for you. Whatever your experiences, good or bad or a mixture of both, may have been, graduation is your time for another chance. Will you take it?

And Jesus asked, "do you love me?" And again, "do you love me?" And again, "do you love me?" What do you say to him this night? How do you reply?

As you began your time at Catholic University, class of 2005, the world changed and you have changed with it. Now, as you leave Catholic University, with all you have heard and learned and read and shared and done together here, it is your responsibility, members of the Class of 2005, it is your time to change the world.

And "after Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples," my sisters and brothers --- as, indeed, he has through all that we have experienced together here --- "after Jesus had revealed himself, he said … 'do you love me?'"

"Yes, Lord, you know I love you!"

"Then feed my sheep and follow me."

Very Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M.