I was honored to deliver the Commencement Address at my high school alma mater, Seton Catholic Central, in Plattsburgh, NY, on June 18. Since I "dressed up" my remarks a bit, I've included a couple of illustrations. (And what were the chances that the Valedictorian would actually begin her address with the advice, "Life's tough; get a helmet"???)
My dear graduates:
Nineteen years ago—
which, I hate to acknowledge,
was before most (if not all) of you were born—
at just the third Commencement Exercises of Seton Catholic Central,
I was in your shoes.
Or maybe I’d better say, I was wearing your hat:
the time-honored (but rather funny looking)
mortarboard of the graduate.
It was a powerful (if awkward) symbol of academic achievement—
of all that I had accomplished during four years of high school;
a reminder of good times with close friends,
of cheering at big games and learning to drive,
of junior prom and secret senior parties. (Please don’t tell my parents!)
That hat was an emblem of my diploma…and also of growing up.
As you can see,
I’ve traded in one strange looking hat for another.
This one—the biretta of the priest—
though rarely worn these days,
is likewise filled with meaning for me.
During my eight years of seminary study,
and the nearly eleven years since my ordination to the priesthood,
I earned three degrees in philosophy and theology;
I spent five years studying in the shadow of the Vatican;
I had the opportunity to visit more than a dozen countries;
I was assigned to fourteen different North Country parishes;
I’ve been privileged to share some of the most joyful
and the most heartbreaking moments in people’s lives;
I’ve served under three bishops
and have personally met two popes—
all of that building upon the intellectual and spiritual foundation
which Seton Catholic had helped me to develop;
all of that (and so much more)
tucked proudly under this funny black pompom.
While my priestly résumé may be somewhat intriguing,
it is admittedly rather predictable, potentially pretentious,
and dangerously prone to becoming absolutely boring!
So there’s another piece of headgear
that I’d like to recommend to you today…
As a member of the last freshman class
to enter the former Mount Assumption Institute and St. John’s Academy,
I admittedly have a residual bias toward blue…
…but I brought along both school colors, lest I upset or offend.
It all started innocently enough,
when some friends asked me to go out snowmobiling
back in March of 2009.
Just about a month later,
at the invitation of the neighboring Presbyterian pastor,
I was whitewater rafting down the Moose River—
shooting rapids with menacing names
like “Mixmaster” and “Elevator Shaft.”
Late May found me riding on the back of a motorcycle
after “blessing the bikes” at an annual biker rally.
That was three months, three helmets.
I wondered: Could I do this for an entire year—
a different helmet-wearing activity every month?
The challenge was on!
I next went rappelling off a fifty-foot cliff.
I then went mountain biking and horseback riding.
I drove a genuine racecar on the open road
and tore through a giant mud hole on a four-wheeler.
I spent a day logging in the Catskills
and an afternoon downhill skiing in the Adirondacks.
I took a motor scooter around Vatican City
and a bobsled half-a-mile down an Olympic run.
It was a year of thrills—praise God, without any major spills.
And I have the pictures to prove it all!
I had a blast doing all of this…
…probably because the only person
to whom I was trying to prove anything was myself
(although many of my friends enjoyed the monthly email updates).
And while my “Year of Helmets” is now well behind me,
I haven’t quite gotten over it.
I spent last Sunday not in church,
but rafting the rapids of the spectacular Hudson River Gorge.
I share this crazy tale with you today, dear graduates,
not as devious encouragement
to make your mothers as nervous as I made my own,
but because these twelve helmets
brought some important lessons home to me
in ways that high school and college,
seminary and ministry, had not been able to do.
(1) Take risks.
Some of these helmet-requiring feats
were certainly more dangerous than others,
but all of them caused me
to stretch beyond my usual comfort zone—even if just a bit.
Continually push your limits—
whether in the classroom, in the military, in the workplace…
…and, yes, during some much needed playtime, too.
Take some risks, and you’ll find yourself
doing things you never thought possible.
Yes, you’ll stumble and tumble on occasion—
that’s why helmets were invented, of course—
but there’s some mighty fine scenery even on a detour.
Be safe—carefree, but not careless.
And remember that, while you can set your sights too low,
you can’t possibly aim too high.
In fact, for those who claim to follow Jesus Christ,
who have any hope of heaven,
it’s our duty to not merely shoot for the moon,
but even far beyond the stars.
(2) Have fun.
Those twelve helmets reminded me
to never surrender my sense of adventure.
Planet earth already has plenty
of overly serious, sour-faced citizens.
Now, having fun doesn’t mean being lazy or irresponsible.
Nor ought it come at the cost of another’s wellbeing.
But recall that the “pursuit of happiness”
was intended to be one of the building blocks of America.
Happiness was God’s original plan for the human race.
So smile, and laugh—a lot.
If your heart finds real joy
in whatever path you choose to follow,
in whatever hat you’re wearing,
then that’s a pretty sure sign
that you’re on the right track,
that you’ve found your true calling,
for joy—it’s been wisely said—
is the infallible sign of the presence of God. (cf. Leon Bloy)
Not to mention that having fun and being happy
will make folks quite suspicious about what you’re up to.
(3) Get real.
In a video documentary
which recently got my helmet-loving juices flowing again,
I heard an extreme whitewater kayaker say of his sport:
“This isn’t a video game. It’s real.” (cf. WildWater, Forge Motion Pictures)
In an age and in a culture where it keeps getting easier
to be pulled in by a “virtual” world filled with cheap imitations,
choose instead to get out in the real world and to live a real life.
Read texts that don’t only appear on the screen of your cell phone.
Put down that iPod and instead make some music.
Build social networks that exist outside of Facebook.
With one exception, all of my helmeted adventures
took place right in my own backyard.
So don’t wait for things to happen
in some other time or some other place.
Live fully in this present moment.
After all, when God revealed his name to Moses,
it wasn’t “I was” or “I will be,” but “I AM.”
Which means God is to be found in the here and now,
and there’s nothing more real than God.
Keep it real by avoiding the artificial, by shunning all substitutes,
and by following the advice of that ancient Latin proverb:
Carpe diem—“Seize the day.”
Or, as I like to reimagine it:
Carpe galeam—“Seize the helmet.”
Yes, a graduate sees the world differently
when looking out from under a mortarboard.
A priest, too, sees the world differently
when looking out from under his biretta.
And crazy as it sounds,
I certainly see the world differently
for having dared to look out so often
from underneath a helmet.
Whatever you may choose to wear on your head,
I encourage you:
take healthy risks, have some honest fun,
and always keep it real.
Congratulations, Class of 2011!