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You Are Not Called to Be a “Gender-neutral, Generic Person”

[Dr. Morse’s Commencement Speech to Providence Academy High School, Delivered June 3, 2011 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.]

Faculty and Students of Providence Academy; Class of 2011; parents, friends and benefactors: this is a wonderful and memorable day. For many of you, graduating from high school was always a foregone conclusion. So maybe you feel this day is no big deal. For some of you, graduating from high school is the result of a significant effort. For all of you, this day is an important milestone, the first step away from the world of your childhood and into adulthood.

Many of you will leave home for the first time within the next few months.  You will undoubtedly come home for visits.  In your absence, your family may preserve your room like a shrine. Or, your younger brothers and sisters may acquire instant squatters’ rights to your room and your possessions.  Whatever the case may be, your first visit home will be a milestone too, for you and your family. You will be not quite back in the family, but not entirely gone either.  You will have a series of round-trips between your family home and the rest of the world, until you finally leave for good to establish your own homes.

And when you come back to visit, you can be sure that your family will anticipate your arrival with great love and care. You may become a minor celebrity to your younger brothers and sisters.  They will scurry around in excitement, arguing about who gets to sit next to you at dinner.  Maybe your dad will make the drive to your college to pick you up. And your mom will surely freshen up your room, change the sheets, put out clean towels, and prepare your favorite meal.  My mom always made spaghetti and meatballs for me when I came home.

It is customary for commencement speakers to talk about what you are going to do with your lives. But you are all going to go in different directions. I can think of just two things that truly apply to all of you.

The first thing I know about you is that each of you is called to become a mother or a father.  How can I say that with such assurance?  Each and every one of us is called to give of ourselves and to be a gift to other people.   Giving birth and taking lifelong responsibility for the care of children is only the most obvious way in which people make gifts of themselves to others.  And some of you no doubt will do exactly this: get married and have children. But even those of you who never give birth to or father a single child, have the opportunity to act as spiritual parents to those around you.

By spiritual parents, I mean people who care for the young, as well as the helpless and the needy of any age or station of life.  Your teachers are the most obvious examples of people who have acted as spiritual parents to you. They have done much more than just deliver knowledge to you.  They have provided you with guidance, direction, limits and dreams.  They have given their hearts to you.

You may have already acted as spiritual parents to your younger siblings, to friends in distress, to teammates trying to master a skill. If so, you know that giving of yourself in this way is one of the most satisfying things you can do. Teaching the lesson to a struggling classmate can be more rewarding than mastering the lesson yourself. If you have had experiences like these, then you have already experienced spiritual parenthood.

Actually, I shouldn’t use the generic, gender-neutral word, “parents.”  There is no such thing as a generic parent, any more than there is such a thing as a generic person.  There are only men and women, mothers and fathers. You are not a gender-neutral, generic person and you won’t become a gender-neutral, generic parent either.  Male and female are two different and complementary ways of being human.  And mothers and fathers are two different and complementary ways of caring for the young, and the needy of whatever age.

Now you might think this is a little far-fetched, to think that even single people or infertile people or religious people are called to spiritual motherhood or spiritual fatherhood.  Actually, I got the idea from one of the great celibate men of the twentieth century: Pope John Paul the Second, and his Theology of the Body.  And he certainly wasn’t a generic parent: he acted as father to the whole world.  He told us the truth, called us to be the best we could be, and defended us from error. And we called him Holy Father.  How odd it would be to refer to him in some gender-neutral way, like our Holy Progenitor.   And think what the world would have missed if an unmarried woman, a nun from Albania had not realized her calling to spiritual motherhood. The poor of Calcutta knew her as Mother Teresa, not Parent Teresa.

Thinking of physical parenthood allows us to see some of the differences between spiritual mothers and spiritual fathers. Our mothers give us life.  Our mothers are our first connections to the rest of the human race. They nurture us, feed us, comfort us, and encourage us.  Our mothers let us know that we are loved.  When we women do this for others, no matter who they may be, we are acting as spiritual mothers.

Our fathers protect the life they have planted within our mothers.  At times, it may seem as if they are more distant than our mothers. But they have stepped back, to allow our growth.  They protect us, both physically and spiritually. Our fathers hold us accountable for our behavior and performance.  When men do these things for us, no matter how old they are in comparison with us, they are acting as spiritual fathers.

We can think of some of the iconic figures of manliness in our culture: the Marines storming the beach; the sheriffs in the Old West; the firefighters running into the crumbling Twin Towers on Nine Eleven. These men are not just performing random acts of aggression and violence.  They are heroes because they are standing up for what is right, keeping order in the community and defending the weak. I think every young man, in his heart, wants to be a sheriff in this spiritual sense, courageously standing up against evil and protecting the innocent.

So this is one thing I know about each one of you: every one of you are called to spiritual motherhood or spiritual fatherhood.

The second thing I know about each of you is this. In less than one hundred years, each and every one of us will see God face to face.  That sounds a lot more appealing than saying “we’re all going to die.”  (I have a reputation for telling it like it is!)  But both those statements are true.  It is a sign of a mature Christian mind, to be able to think about death, without becoming either morbid or frightened.

And you want to be ready for that face to face encounter with God Himself.  It should be a beautiful and glorious moment.  You don’t want to be shuffling around and staring at the floor and loooking for the exit.  You want to be ready.  So how can you order your lives in order to be ready for the ultimate graduation day, when you graduate from the temporal to the eternal, from the material finite world to the realm of the spiritual and infinite?

We are all made in the image and likeness of God.  (Actually, that is another thing I know about each and every one of you: you are made in the image and likeness of God.  That is something to think about when you are in a crowd.  Look around at all the people in the airport or at the football stadium or in the Mall of America and realize: God made every one of those people in His image, to share eternal life with Him.  That will keep you from getting impatient in line!) In order to be ourselves, we need to be like Him. Jesus told us frequently, “Come follow me.” You could say that we are programmed to imitate somebody, or more accurately, we are programmed to imitate Somebody with a Capital S.

A lot of people in today’s world have the idea that we are supposed to be completely independent, and that being ourselves means being as weird and offbeat as possible.  I’m sure you know people who try to express themselves by calling attention to themselves through wearing strange clothes, getting weird tattoos and piercings. (Do people do those things here in Minnesota, or is that just in California?)

In spite of this modern emphasis on individuality, the urge to follow and to imitate cannot be driven completely from our minds.  But many of our peers, our friends and neighbors have never had an encounter with Jesus Christ, the God Man.  So, they can’t figure out whom to follow.  They follow pop stars or sports heroes or political figures, all the while going to great lengths to distinguish themselves and demonstrate their uniqueness.

The irony of this pose of independence is that Jesus is the one person we can follow and not lose ourselves or our identity.  In fact we become more ourselves than ever.  We can become the best versions of ourselves, by following Jesus.  And that is the key to being ready to see God face to face.

If you keep that final end in mind, then your life will make sense to you.  The confusing situations you may face; the disappointments you may experience; these will be bearable if you realize that you can follow Jesus through them all.  The difficult choices you make, such as where to go to school and what to study, what jobs to take, where to move, whom to marry, how to treat your spouse and your children: all of these decisions will be much easier to make when you make them with reference to that final end of seeing God face to face.

Jesus told his disciples  “In my Father’s house are many rooms….  When I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know they way where I am going.”  (John 14:2-4)  This quotation is from His Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John.

Even now, Our Lord and His Blessed Mother are preparing your room for you.  She is pulling back the curtains, opening the windows, freshening the sheets, and planning your favorite dinner. Let us all strive to be worthy of that room, and to be ready for that encounter.

May God bless you all. Keep the faith!


Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute, and the author of Love and Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village and Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World.