Bishop Foys, Fr. Maher, Reverend Fathers, Superintendent Clines, Esteemed Faculty, Parents, Friends and Dear Graduates, each year I am privileged to be a part of a Latin School graduation, the occasion is sweeter. It’s because there is one more year to get to know the graduates.
It has been a joy to serve you as Headmaster for three years. In the few words I have here tonight, I would like to do two things. I would like to congratulate you and I would like to give you a charge.
To help me do these two things, I want to tell you a story about a boy who grew up in Poland. This boy was born on May 18, 1920 in a small Polish town called Wadowice. To his family and friends he was known as Lolek.
Lolek began secondary schooling at age ten. It was here that he began his studies in Latin and Ancient Greek. This path was not too out of the ordinary for children in Poland at that time, but Lolek’s embrace of early responsibility also included extra hardship and sorrow. Lolek’s mother died when he was 9 and his brother died when he was 12.
Lolek’s father worked hard to put his son through school and Lolek carried out his obligations with diligence and grace. Lolek’s early embrace of responsibility also meant that at an early age he set out on a course of Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge.
It was easy to see the virtue of goodness in Lolek. Wadowice was a town of about 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews. One of Lolek’s best friends, Jerry Kluger, was Jewish. Jerry recalls a part of their childhood that speaks volumes about the goodness of Lolek. In his book Jerry remembers that there was always a disparity between soccer teams when the kids would form teams for pick-up play after school. Lolek always volunteered to play on the Jewish team to make up for their numbers. At an early age, Lolek recognized the seeds of anti-Semitism and he was willing to risk himself to correct that injustice.
It is at this point where I want congratulate you Covington Latin School Class of 2015. Very much like Lolek, you chose to embrace responsibility at an early age. In a concrete way you started a path like Lolek’s. Like Lolek you embraced a course of intensive studies that has included Latin, and for some of you Ancient Greek. You have started a path to leadership and started developing the necessary skills, like critical thinking, clear writing and eloquent speaking. You have represented your school and your faith in so many ways like competing on our sports and academic teams, giving yourselves to your neighbor through community service and serving our Shepherd as a Pontifical Server.
You have embraced and fulfilled responsibility at an early age. For this you truly deserve credit and congratulations. Indeed, you deserve a well-earned celebration.
In giving something to take with you as you leave Latin School, I want to continue the story of Lolek. However, at this point in his life he was no longer known by the diminutive name Lolek. Instead, he now was known by his Christian name Karol. Karol’s university career was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of Poland. During this very tense and dangerous time, we can see the virtue of discipline in Karol’s life and actions.
The discipline Karol displayed was not simply working hard and fulfilling his obligations. The Nazi occupation demanded a kind of discipline that involved not lashing out in response to atrocities when it would have done no good, courage in offering peaceful and symbolic resistance to Poland’s oppressors and correct judgement in knowing when one should risk his life in order to save another person. From 1939 to 1945, the Germans murdered 5.5 million Poles. 3 million were Polish Jews. The Germans killed thousands of priests and nuns, as well as teachers and professors. It took intense prudential discipline to live and to live according to conscience.
During this time period, Karol was forced to work in a stone quarry for four years. By night, he participated in several different clandestine activities. One of the activities was a secret theater group where he and fellow thespians wrote and performed plays to remember and celebrate Polish independence. It was their way of inspiring hope in one another. He also decided to begin secret seminary studies to become a priest despite the danger.
There was also a moment where he had to decide to risk his life to save another. Towards the end of the Nazi occupation, Karol came across a 14 year-old Jewish girl who had managed to escape from a Labor Camp. She had absolutely no strength left. Karol got food for her and somehow he managed to get her on a train and took her to Krakow, where he left her with friends who would help. Her name was Edith Zierer and the next time she heard about Karol was when he became Pope.
So my charge to you or my challenge to you as you go forward is to learn more about Karol Wojtyle, St. John Paul II, and follow his example. You have already started a similar path of Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge. You have already embraced early responsibility like young Lolek. It’s time to follow his example as an young adult.
To conclude, let us briefly consider what St. John Paul II said about knowledge. This is a passage from his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, the Splendor of Truth.
In the depths of everyone’s heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it. This is eloquently proved by man’s tireless search for knowledge in all fields. It is proved even more by his search for the meaning of life. The development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of the human capacity for understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask the ultimate religious questions. Rather, it spurs us on to face the most painful and decisive of struggles, those of the heart and of the moral conscience.
Knowledge is more than information. Knowledge is the judgement of ideas because ideas have consequences. Karol Wojtyle knew intimately about the ideas that were behind Nazi Fascism and Soviet Communism. These ideas justified the slaughter of millions of innocent people. There are ideas today in our society that justify to killing of innocent people.
Graduates, as future leaders, it is up to you to continue to cultivate your knowledge so you can rightly judge the ideas that compete for rule in our society.
Most importantly, knowledge should be inspired by the light of God. And so dear graduates I leave you with the words of St. John Paul II given at World Youth Day in Toronto 2002. You should consider this as John Paul II speaking to you. This is what he says.
“People are made for happiness. Rightly, then, you thirst for happiness. Christ has the answer to this desire of yours. But he asks you to trust him. True joy is a victory, something which cannot be obtained without a long and difficult struggle. Christ holds the secret of this victory.” (World Youth Day 2002 Toronto, Canada, Welcoming Address, 2)
Dear graduates, may God bless you and keep you always.