Baccalaureate Homily
Fr. William Byron, S.J. - May 12, 2005

“When You Were Young”

Homily Delivered by William J. Byron, S.J., of Loyola College in Maryland, at the May 12, 2005 Baccalaureate Mass, Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska.
Fr. Byron was given an Honorary Degree at Commencement the next day.
Read the citation.

The Texts: Philippians 4:4-9; John 21:15-19

There’s a lot of good advice available to you in the readings you have for today’s Baccalaureate Mass. Let me take as a theme for this homily a phrase from the words you just heard Jesus speak to Simon Peter: “When you were young.” They fit nicely on this occasion—so many happy young people, capped and gowned tomorrow, ready to take their diplomas and run with confidence into an unknown future. Some perhaps not all that confident, but the words from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians are there for you:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! . . . Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.

That’s why we’re assembled here before the altar in this Baccalaureate liturgy—to make your requests known to God “by prayer and petition.” It is all for you, this liturgy, all for you graduates. And we who are not graduating from Creighton today are with you in prayer and petitions; and doing it all, as Paul directs, “with thanksgiving.”

There is so much to be thankful for today. I won’t enumerate the reasons, but I invite each one of you to look within your hearts today and read the words of thanks that you have written there. I believe, by the way, that if you had to reduce the meaning of all religion to just one word, that word would be thanks. You could make a good argument that that one word should be love, but I would remind you that John the Evangelist once pointed out it is not that we have first loved God, but that God has first loved us (1 John 4:10); and since that in fact is true, we can be nothing but grateful, we can give nothing back to God really but thanks. So be thankful today. Among other things, you can be thankful that you have the Eucharist—the word means thanks-saying, thanks-doing, thanksgiving—be grateful that you have the Eucharist, on this great day and always, as the liturgical vehicle to deliver your thanks to God.

But back to my theme--“When you were young”—the words Jesus spoke to Peter. If you have a moment today (or if not today, take a quiet moment one day soon) to read the full but short 21st chapter in the Gospel of John; that’s where today’s Gospel reading is found. Just before the portion of that Gospel account that you heard proclaimed in this Mass, you will find a beautiful story of Jesus appearing to a small group of his disciples on the shore of what is called the Sea of Tiberias or the Lake of Galilee.

You’ll remember that this is post-Resurrection time, the time after Jesus rose from the tomb and “showed up” from time to time to visit with his disciples, his closest friends, who were severely shaken by the events that we associate with Holy Week—the arrest, beating, and crucifixion of Jesus. Most of the disciples deserted him; all of them were puzzled and confused over what happened after the crucifixion; only gradually were they opening themselves up to receive the gift of Easter faith—to drop their doubts and simply believe.

His occasional appearances--in the Upper Room, on the Road to Emmaus, by the Lakeshore—apparitions, as we sometimes call them, were intended by Jesus to shore up their spirits, strengthen their faith, and boost their confidence in themselves to deal with whatever lay ahead in an unknown future. Let these apparitions work that way for you.

As I said, he would “show up” from time to time and they were never sure where or when. What would you do if you were in that situation? You had committed yourself to following Christ; you were known as one of his disciples. You were ashamed about your cowardly desertion, perhaps; you are now surely thrilled at the news of his resurrection and victory. You are trying to assimilate this wonderful reality: Not only did you pick a winner when you answered the call to follow Jesus, but now you are experiencing the dawning awareness that a winner had picked you! The risen and victorious Christ wants you to continue following him, wants you somehow to radiate to others the joy of the Resurrection. What would you do if you were on the scene in those days of post-Resurrection joy? Where would you go in the unarticulated hope that he would appear to you again?

Well, here’s what Peter decided to do. “I’m going fishing,” he says in that 21st chapter of John. He’s not talking about recreational fishing. He’s saying, in effect, “I’m going back to work. I’m a fisherman; that’s what I do for a living. I’ll try to meet up with Jesus in my work.” And he did. And so indeed will you.

You remember the story. “So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Hey, fellows, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.”

Notice their monosyllabic reply when he asked these discouraged professionals if they had caught any fish. No. And then imagine their annoyance when this stranger (remember, they did not yet recognize him to be Jesus, their Lord and Master), when this stranger offered some advice—“toss your net over on the other side of the boat.” But they were humble enough to take a suggestion from a voice they did not recognize. They cast their nets as suggested and lucky for them that they followed this stranger’s advice! As the Gospel story tells it: “So they cast [the net], and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved [that would be John] said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment. . . and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only abut a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.”

And this brings us up to the part of the Gospel proclaimed in today’s Mass. They had breakfast with the Lord. And after that breakfast on the shore, Jesus turned to Peter and asked him three times, “Do you love me?” You might hear him ask that same question of you this afternoon. You might also consider that the only correct answer to that question is, “Not enough.” Sure, you love Jesus, as Peter did, but you could love him more and you could show your love for him better and more effectively. How? “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my lambs.” And it’s up to you to figure out what that might mean in concrete, real, 21st century terms for you in business, law, religion, social service, military service, in family life, wherever your call, your vocation, takes you in the future that opens up for you as you take your Creighton diploma and move on..

“Amen, amen, I say to you,” Jesus said to Peter, “when you were young, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. (What he said indicated the sort of death by which Peter was to glorify God.) When Jesus had finished speaking he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

“Follow me” is his message to you this afternoon. While you are young, you have to be attentive to the call of Christ. You have to cultivate an attentive disposition, you have to practice the art of listening. “Follow me,” says Jesus to each one of you. “Where?” you might well ask. “Listen,” he will say, “and you will learn my will. Be carefully attentive,” he will urge you, “be attentive to the signs of the times, to my will written in your hearts and played out in the lives of others with whom your own life will be entwined.” And that attentive posture, my young friends, is a description of prayer—a habit that it is up to you now to cultivate, if you have not already done so. It doesn’t mean reading words that someone else wrote and printed in a prayer book (how can anyone know what you want to say to God, or, more important, what God wants to say to you?) It does mean consciously putting yourself in God’s presence, becoming mindful of God’s power, opening your ears and heart to God’s will.

Years from now, you will look back on these days “when you were young” and you will give praise and thanks to God for the disclosures of his will to you in prayer, in Scripture and tradition, in the lives of those who gave you life, in the competent care you received from faculty and staff here at Creighton, in the love and encouragement you received from friends along the way. While you are still young, you can listen and be attentive, all the while laughing a lot and enjoying life. You can make the choices that will define you as a wise person, if you refuse to confuse the pursuit of pleasure with the pursuit of happiness. And “when you grow old,” you will be able to thank both God and Creighton for teaching you that the easy life is not the happy life, or to put it more positively, that the happy life is a life lived generously in the service of others. That’s Creighton. That’s you.

That’s what the words of St. Paul in the reading you heard from the Letter to the Philippians are saying to you this afternoon:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me [and I would reverently add: “at Creighton”]. Then the God of peace will be with you."