Off the Stage and into the Future
Michael J. Graham, S.J.
On Saturday, May 13, Xavier University launched 886 undergraduate and 931 graduate students out into the unsuspecting world—and if anybody should know that, it’s me, because I shook each and every hand.
I’ve long since learned that it is it’s me, because I shook each and every hand. I’ve long since learned that it is the only way to go through a graduation ceremony, because the list of names becomes instead a parade of bright eyes and smiles—and, yes, handshakes—as one after another each graduate has their moment on the stage and in the sun.
And like it or not, each one is met by a customized cheer beamed their way from someplace or another in the Cintas Center, a vivid reminder that there is no accomplishment we can claim that belongs entirely to ourselves alone. All those cheers inside seemed to have worked a little bit of a miracle on the outside as well, as the rain clouds that had been with us for about a week finally parted and let a little sunlight stream down on the crowds that swirled around for photo opportunities—and more handshakes—afterward.
Three wonderful commencement talks sent our graduates on their way. Bishop Herbert Thompson—recently retired from the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Ohio—spoke of his own unlikely journey from his African-American working class origins into the Episcopal Church and ministry in Harlem (among other places) before finally coming to rest here in service to the Episcopal Church in Cincinnati.
A few moments later, Xavier alumnus and House Majority Leader John Boehner recounted his own version of that same journey and along the way paid a remarkable tribute to a Xavier professor who encouraged him, while providing an exceptionally inspirational message to all of our commuting and non-traditional students who try to balance the demands of the classroom with all the demands of the rest of their lives in a manner that John himself once did.
And later that afternoon, at the graduate commencement, Academic Vice President and Provost Roger Fortin cribbed a chapter from his upcoming history of Xavier University to describe the origins of the various programs—M.B.A., M.Ed., and so on—represented in all the proud graduates before him. This, too, was a story of journeys from small beginnings to great things, and of the women and men who helped to shape these programs here at Xavier, which in turn have shaped countless graduates so they could in turn shape the world around them.
This general theme of great things growing from humble beginnings gave me a lot to think about as I stood there greeting these students as they passed by one by one—this kid who shook my hand and then struck the Heisman Trophy pose for the TV camera; that woman who just could not stop bubbling “thankyou,thankyou,thankyou,thankyou,thankyou;” that other woman who seemed to have brought her entire neighborhood as a cheering section, complete with air horns; the kid who used his cell phone to capture the moment I shook his hand. Who knows exactly where they will end up, long after stepping from the commencement stage and into the rest of their lives? Future bishops or legislators or program founders and directors? Or teachers or scholars or businesspeople? Perhaps some will wind up back on the graduation stage itself as trustees there to greet future generations of Xavier students as they make their own way into futures all their own.
But whether their futures will be big and public or smaller and private, here is the simple truth, it seems to me: Each of us is called to a greatness all our own, just as each of us is sent to transform a corner of the world that we alone can touch. The whole wide world is not exactly ours to change. That task belongs to God.
But I can’t shake the sense that God will accomplish it in the way He usually does: step by step, bit by bit and piece by piece, using our hands and our hearts to remake it into the Kingdom He originally fashioned it to be.
And so the Class of 2006 has now gone where classes have gone before it for 175 years of Xavier history—into the future to find the glory that is theirs and the service to which they are called. And may their bright eyes, warm smiles and eager handshakes inspire us all to do the same.