The Catholic University of America

Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M.
The Catholic University of America
Delivered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Washington, D.C.
May 15, 2009

The words we have just heard from the Gospel of John were spoken during Jesus' "last supper" with his apostles. They were part of what has come to be known as Jesus' "farewell discourse," his final earthly conversation with those closest to him. In ancient literature, recording these kinds of conversations was very common. A great man gathered his friends around him to let them know that he would be leaving them, perhaps to repeat or emphasize what he had said before and to tell them what he hoped for them once he is gone. And, so, for several chapters in the Gospel of John, Jesus --- whom John tells us "knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father (John 13: 1)" --- speaks intimately with his apostles about what he believes is most important for them to know and remember. It should surprise no one that he chose to speak of love.

This evening, we gather here in the Basilica, to re-enact Jesus' "last supper" --- roughly two thousand years after it occurred --- and we still remember what he said and did that final Passover night in Jerusalem. And he continues to speak and give witness to love.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, members of the graduating class of 2009 of The Catholic University of America, I cannot imagine a better way to begin our commencement celebration than by joining ourselves to the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. In a very special sense this is our "last supper" together. He gathered with his apostles in the Upper Room, we gather with him and one another in the Upper Church. He offered them a "farewell discourse" and, tonight, he includes us in that same conversation. He gave his apostles an instruction for their future lives and he does the same for us.

All over our nation, students just like you are engaging in the "rite of passage" known as "commencement" these days. Excited parents and families travel to campuses to be present for this special occasion. Universities and colleges "pull out all the stops" to look their very best as the seats are taken for the ceremonies. The faculty assembles and processes proudly behind their former students to the familiar strains of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance." Commencement speeches are given, honors are awarded --- some places are getting a little more attention than others --- and graduates are sent on their way into the world with a flood of emotions welling up inside … excited for the moment, surprised at how quickly time has passed, relieved that it's finally over, a little weepy to be leaving best friends, grateful for their parents' sacrifice, uncertain about tomorrow and the day after that.

With all that is on your minds and in your hearts this commencement weekend, let me bring you back again to the "last supper;" to the Gospel of John; to the "farewell discourse" of the Lord Jesus and to these words: "I have called you friends."

After all is said and done, after all your classes and all your papers and all your exams and all your experiences and all your years in this, The Catholic University of America, I hope you can sit quietly for just a moment during this "last supper" and hear the Lord Jesus saying to you, "I have called you friends." Do you hear that? Do you feel that? Do you believe that with your whole heart and soul? Do you know what that means? That is why The Catholic University of America exists: to bring you and all our students ever more deeply into Jesus' circle of friends, into his intimacy, into his love. "It was not you who chose me but I who chose you." Do you hear that? Do you feel that? Do you believe that with your whole heart and soul? Do you know what that means? There is a profound purpose to life, even if we miss it or ignore it, at times. Jesus never, never forgets his friends, even if we forget him. "I have appointed you," Jesus tells us, "to go and bear fruit that will last."

When Jesus calls us into friendship with him, at one and the same time, he calls us into friendship with one another. "You are my friends if you do what I command you … this I command you: love one another." He gives us the example of what that means. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." The friendship he offers us, the love he offers us is total. He did not love us just a little bit or only when it was convenient. He literally laid down his life. Can we, as his friends, expect to do any less? In every sacrifice we make for the good of others, we lay down our lives. In every service we perform for the benefit of others, we lay down our lives. I every act of kindness, in every expression of concern for others, we lay down our lives. In every risk we take, in every act of courage, in every challenge we make to complacency or selfishness or injustice when we see it in the world and even in the person closest to us, we lay down our lives. That is what friendship means. That is what love means. That is what Jesus means when he says to you tonight in this, our "last supper" together, "I have called you friends."

The Catholic University of America has always had the reputation of being a place where our students made life-long friends. Look to your left. Look to your right. Look all around at those with whom you have shared this great university journey. Now, close your eyes and quiet your hearts so that the One who has called you friends and who laid down his life for you may enter once more. Now, graduates of the class of 2009 of The Catholic University of America, "go and bear fruit that will last." Amen.