Column | Looking beyond graduation to see opportunities amid difficulties

Bishop Bonnar


Bishop of Youngstown

It is that time of the year when yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows intersect and are worthy of celebration. I am speaking about graduations and commencement ceremonies. In these moments we behold the many yesterdays of study, discipline, and hard work of the student and anticipate with them the many tomorrows filled with challenge, mystery, adventure, and surprise. This convergence of the past and future happens in the present.

Recently, I had the honor of addressing the 2022 graduates of Walsh University, which is in the southern portion of our diocese. Prior to my address, I was humbled to have received an honorary doctorate from this prized institution of faith and learning.

If you had to address the graduates of today, what would you say to them? For months I thought and prayed about what message God wanted me to share with students who stood on the threshold of a new chapter in their lives. For me it was not so much about words but about an image around which to build the words.

Having come from Pittsburgh, known as the “City of Bridges,” I was drawn to that image of the bridge. Bridges are not exclusive to Pittsburgh or cities. Bridges are everywhere. In fact, bridges exist in institutions of higher learning. They are not the conventional type of bridges we are accustomed to seeing, but they are bridges nonetheless because they connect people to new vistas.

Walsh University is all about building bridges over various gaps and gulfs toward a path of discovery in an array of disciplines. Because Walsh is a Catholic university, it has afforded its students many opportunities to cross the bridge to a deeper relationship with Jesus and His Church. The relationships formed through shared dorm living, studying together, praying together, eating together, being teammates and participants in extra-curricular activities have all been a bridge to personal growth and maturation.

When speaking to the class of 2022 as they prepared to exit the bridge of Walsh University, I invited them to pause and look back and be grateful. Every expression of gratitude is but another bridge to God, who is the source of all our gifts. We are not entitled but blessed. All is gift! A consistent attitude of gratitude is an antidote to sadness and doubt.

I then encouraged the graduates to look beyond the bridge of Walsh. While I am not a prophet or prognosticator, I did tell the class that they will soon see that we live in a world of harsh conflict and deep division fueled by the isms – individualism, skepticism, pessimism, cynicism, relativism – and with the pandemic, we can add isolationism. How these graduates deal with this reality of conflict will reveal much about them.

In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis states, “Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed. It has to be faced. But if we remain trapped in conflict, we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink, and reality itself begins to fall apart.” (#226)

The Holy Father views conflict not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. He writes, “It is the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it, and to make it a link in a chain of a new process. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’! (Mt 5:9)” (#227). Essentially, the pope is saying that the best way to embrace conflict is to become a bridge, “a link in a chain of a new process.”

In the face of conflict, it is imperative to behold the goodness in everyone. I am reminded of the words from Genesis in the creation account. After every act of creation, the author states, “And God saw that it was good.” With dignity and respect, we need to behold the goodness in all.

One of the best ways we come to appreciate and understand conflict with another is through what Pope Francis calls “the art of accompaniment.” The Holy Father likens this experience to taking off our sandals before the sacred ground of another. The Holy Father writes, “The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates, and encourages growth in the Christian life.” (#169)

A key piece in the work of accompaniment is perfecting “the art of listening.” Pope Francis writes, “Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the path of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives.” (#172)

Inevitably, the practice of accompaniment leads to mystery. Pope Francis states, “One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without.” (#172) Quite simply, we are not sent here to judge mystery but to enter it.

True accompaniment does not mean that one must throw all their values and principles over the bridge. Accompaniment demands faithfulness to one’s roots and beliefs. There is an old saying, “If you do not stand for something, you will fall for anything.” Accompaniment is not about compromise or concession but rather about reverence, compassion, and a conviction that unity is greater than conflict.

Before Jesus left this world, he offered His own commencement address. It is found in John 17, which is often referred to as “the great priestly prayer.” Jesus prayed, “That all may be one.” That is Jesus’ prayer for us especially in this time of discord in our world. But we all must do our part by becoming agents of this unity. It means that, wherever we are and whatever we do, we have to build a bridge.

While the heights one faces in this effort may be riveting, the gaps terribly frightening, and the people along the way so different, we must not fear. Let’s get to work and fill this world with more bridges so, “That all may be one.”

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