Bishop Ronald Gainer’s message to the Class of 2020 opened with an honest recognition of their loss at the end of their senior year, and the words on many of their minds: It’s just not fair.
“It’s not fair that every graduating class gets to walk to Pomp and Circumstance, and the Class of 2020 graduates, minus the pomp and under the most unconventional circumstances,” he said.
“I recognize and I sympathize with you, that almost all of the normal senior activities – activities that you looked forward to for years – were lost during this pandemic. Even the normal informal opportunities to say goodbye to classmates and friends have vanished during this time,” he said.
“It’s not easy living through a period of time totally unparalleled in any of our lifetimes. In many ways, it’s just not fair,” Bishop Gainer told the seniors.
He celebrated a Baccalaureate Mass via livestream for the graduating classes of the Diocese’s seven high schools, on the evening of May 27 at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg.
Banners and flags bearing the seals of the schools – Bishop McDevitt, Delone, Lancaster Catholic, Lebanon Catholic, Lourdes Regional, Trinity and York Catholic – could be seen in front of the Cathedral’s side altar of St. Joseph.
An organ prelude of “Pomp and Circumstance” bellowed through the empty Cathedral, a sign of the continued social distancing measures in place.
Bishop Gainer acknowledged the loss the seniors are experiencing, but told them: “This is not a time for sour grapes over what did not happen. Today is a day for congratulations and good wishes, a time of giving thanks to God for what has been, and a time for renewing our trust in God for what is yet to come in each of your lives. This is a time of seeking God’s blessings on you, on your families, and on your school families, as you graduating seniors prepare to embrace the next phase of your lives.”
Among those connecting to the Mass virtually was York Catholic High School’s valedictorian, Lorraine Schlosser.
“I am disappointed that Baccalaureate Mass had to be celebrated virtually, but I am glad the Diocese and the bishop did it virtually rather than not at all,” said Lorraine. She said she had hoped that a Mass would have been celebrated in person, as things opened up in time, but understands why the bishop elected do it via video stream.
The Baccalaureate Mass is a significant showing of community support for this year’s graduates.
“I feel the community really coming together because everyone has lost something from the pandemic and we are all in this together,” Lorraine said. She expressed gratitude for the teachers, coaches, bus drivers, loved ones, neighbors and even strangers who have rallied to offer congratulations and support.
“Everyone in my class has all learned a similar lesson during this time: never take anything for granted. The experiences we had in high school, whether ups or downs, were unique to this time in our lives and to our school community. Many of us feel cheated, but we also have grown in gratefulness for the blessings we do have and we are hopeful and eager for the future and our next steps to begin,” said Lorraine, who will study at Elizabethtown Honors College and major in occupational therapy.
Goal of Eternal Life
The word “Baccalaureate,” which comes from the Latin words for “laurel berries,” holds significance for graduates, the bishop noted. In Greco-Roman times, laurel wreathes were placed on the heads of scholars and athletes as a recognition of achievement, just as mortar boards do today.
“By celebrating this Baccalaureate Mass, we are thanking God, who is the source of all of our gifts, for all that you have achieved in your high school years, and we ask God to continue to shower his graces upon you, so that you will continue to strive to reach your fullest potential in the world as a person, as a gifted person, a baptized person,” Bishop Gainer said.
He cautioned the seniors, though, to resist “resting on their laurels.”
“We ask God to spare you from the mistake of resting on your laurels at any stage of your lives. In particular, you cannot take your spiritual growth for granted. Do not rest on your laurels spiritually. Growth in the spiritual life will require your attention and your effort,” he said.
“With just pride and deep joy, you have earned the graduation cap of your success and your achievement: the baccalaureate,” the bishop told the graduates. “By being a faithful disciple, by always remembering who is really in charge of your life, by deep friendship with our Lord, by loving others as Christ loves you, by seeking true and lasting joy, you will be living in such a way that the Lord himself will one day place on your head the ultimate and unending sign of success and achievement – the crown of eternal glory in heaven.”
Lorraine said she took the bishop’s message to heart.
“I enjoyed his homily, especially the part about not resting on our laurels,” she said. “We can’t just stay in our comfort zones; we need to reach our full potential and that journey never stops, even after big accomplishments such as graduation.”
Classmate Moses Krueger agreed.
“[The homily] was an excellent tying together of God’s call for us all to live out our lives in faith and an inspiration to take our experience of a messed-up graduation and turn it into a positive force,” he said. “I felt that when the bishop spoke about our own personal call to holiness, it really spoke to the fact that we, as people in faith, must remember that graduation is an important goal in one’s life, but it is not the goal, which for all of us should be to live in eternal life with Christ in heaven.”
“One of the main things that I really do take away from this whole crazy graduation experience is that it has really given me time to think about what my own goals are, and especially what makes me happy,” said Moses, who will attend Dickinson College to study history and economics.
“I’m not going to lie, I was ecstatic about graduating, mostly because I have tried to work as hard as I could these past six years, and the fact that it was pulled out from underneath me in a heartbeat really made me think about what I value going forward,” he said. “Yes, it is absolutely important to set goals for yourself and strive as hard as you can to achieve what you want, but even when you do achieve great things, there is always a day after, and I have found that this graduation experience has really shifted my attitude towards seeking things that will ensure my own happiness and fulfillment, not only on one day, but for the rest of my life and beyond.”
Addressing the Class of 2020 at the conclusion of the Mass, Daniel Breen, Diocesan Secretary for Education and Superintendent of Schools, told the graduates they are “desperately needed in this world.”
“The world needs people like you, who have been formed as whole persons and who will see the world through the lens of the Catholic faith, and through rigorous reason,” he said. “Even if the world rejects you and your perspective at times – and Jesus told us it world – that is a sign of how much it needs you.”
“You’re needed not just for the way you see things, but the way you do things,” he added. “Our faith is a faith of action, and you have had a chance to see that in abundance in our Catholic high schools,” including in the examples of educators and alumni.
“The world desperately needs people who have been formed as you have been formed. Now, you must choose to use that formation to do things not because they serve your interests, or they’re nice, or get more love on social media, but do things because they are right, and moral and just,” Breen said.
“I offer congratulations and also a challenge – to reflect on the formation you have been given, and to put that formation into action for the good of the world around you,” he said.
(Learn more about Catholic schools in the Diocese of Harrisburg, and find a school near you, at www.hbgdiocese.org/catholic-schools/.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness
Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness