Dear class of 2017,
Through the years, I have been to many baccalaureate ceremonies and graduations. I have handed out many diplomas, and as I did so I was reminded of the diplomas I received at various levels of my education. My seminary diploma is in Latin, but it says basically the same thing as my college diploma, which reads something like this:
James Peter Sartain, having satisfactorily completed all academic requirements duly required by the authorities of this college and the state of Indiana, is hereby awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts and is entitled to all rights, honors, and privileges proper to an alumnus of this institution.
I always wondered what the “rights and privileges” of an alumnus of my college were, but to this day no one has ever told me.
Most of the terms we use about graduation find their roots in Latin. In fact, for Romans a diploma was a government document indicating that the bearer was entitled to certain privileges. The Latin origin of the word graduation has to do with moving to the next step; and baccalaureate refers to one who is awarded a crown of laurel leaves for having accomplished something great. We speak of our alma mater, meaning “nourishing mother.” And graduates are referred to as alumni, which means “foster children.”
As St. Paul liked to remind the authorities of the Roman Empire, he was a Roman citizen and was thereby entitled to all rights and privileges of his citizenship. This citizenship was of great help when he was hauled into court or when his rights were being threatened; he couldn’t be treated as a foreigner or as a non-person in the Roman Empire, for he was a citizen; he had rights, and he might have carried a diploma to prove it! He made use of this image when preaching and reminded us Christians that “you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19)
Paul made use of a similar image to describe those who have been baptized. He called us “adopted sons.” He didn’t choose the image of foster children nourished temporarily by kind foster mothers, and he knew that baptism is much more than receiving a crown for having reached a goal or having completed certain training. Instead, he taught that through the Holy Spirit we are adopted sons and daughters and therefore heirs with Christ and citizens of heaven.
He compared our status as Christians to what happened when a household slave became an adopted son. In Roman society, a childless couple who wanted an heir would sometimes adopt their favorite servant. Thus a former slave became a member of their family and suddenly had an inheritance. The newly adopted son had no personal claim on his new status, for he had done nothing to merit it — it had been freely bestowed upon him purely out of love.
St. Paul found this image a good way to explain what God has done for us in Christ at baptism. Through no merit or accomplishment of our own, but purely out of the Father’s love, we are adopted into God’s immediate family: We are sons and daughters of God the Father, brothers and sisters of God’s only Son, who will receive the same inheritance as the Son — life at the Father’s right hand for all eternity. Not only that: Because we are brothers and sisters to Jesus, the Son of God, we can even call the Father by the name Jesus himself uses: Abba. After all, we’re no longer slaves; we’re members of the family.
We have the rights and privileges of heirs. God has made that possible through the death and resurrection of his Son. But we also have the responsibilities of sons and daughters. Paul taught that our new status demands that we act a certain way, a way that shows we aren’t slaves to anyone or anything, especially to sin, but that we are God’s free children, disciples of Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit.
Imagine how one of those Roman slaves adopted by his owners must have felt! Freedom, an inheritance, a family, a future. It must have changed his outlook on everything.
Your graduation is a good opportunity to reflect on how you will live out your “heavenly citizenship” from now on. Your diploma will describe certain earthly rights and privileges, but your baptismal record is much more important, because it is a record of your heavenly citizenship. As you “move to the next step,” make a resolution to be a deliberate, joyful and faithful disciple of Jesus — in other words, a resolution to live in a way that is consistent with your baptism into heavenly citizenship. Jesus will never abandon you, and the more you live consciously in his presence, you will be at peace.
Did you know that the word parishioner comes from Greek and refers to our status as “resident aliens”? Our true home is elsewhere, but even now we are to live that citizenship fully.
You have my prayers always, not just at graduation, because together we are heirs to an inheritance that no earthly diploma could ever describe.
Sincerely in Christ,
Archbishop Peter Sartain
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - May 2017