Commencement weekend at the University of Portland is packed with many ceremonies and formal celebrations in addition to the main exercises on Sunday afternoon. At the Baccalaureate Mass on Saturday evening, the graduates with their families, the faculty, and the whole Holy Cross community gather to give thanks for the graduates’ achievements and to ask for blessings in their lives ahead. The nursing school, following a ritual with roots in the late Middle Ages, formally “pins” its graduates on Saturday morning. And UP’s Army and Air Force ROTC programs hold both joint and separate commissioning ceremonies as the graduates become officers in our armed forces.
I was honored a month ago when a UP junior in Army ROTC, who organized their commissioning ceremony, asked me to serve as the chaplain for the event. I neither had participated in nor even seen a commissioning in the armed forces before, and I was eager for the experience. What I didn’t expect was how familiar the whole ritual would be.
In many ways, I was taken back to our Holy Cross celebrations of First Vows, Final Vows, and Ordination. As part of the Oath to the Constitution, each graduate swore to be making this commitment “freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.” Immediately upon hearing that line, I remembered countless conversations in our formation about the essential requirement of freedom for making vows of religious life and for receiving the Sacrament of Ordination.
After that Oath, the new officer received his or her “shoulder boards” signifying the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the Army, and most of them invited their parents or siblings to affix those symbols on their uniform. Most of these family members, of course, were not members of the military; however, the act recognized that not only did the family first give this new soldier life, but also probably first instilled the values essential for total service to country.
I thought about how many of our Holy Cross priests – myself included – invite our parents to bless us publicly during our first Mass. Of course, our parents are not priests or religious, but many of our vocations to the religious life and priesthood grew out of our families’ faithfulness and love for Jesus and the Church.
Finally, each new Lieutenant exchanged salutes with a non-commissioned officer (NCO), often the sergeant who trained the class, and that NCO addressed the Lieutenant as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” That sergeant, of course, possesses much more experience and knowledge, has done far more to earn respect, than the new officer he saluted. But that sergeant was saluting something bigger than any individual’s resume and expertise; he was honoring the great brotherhood and sisterhood of the U.S. Army to which they now both belong.
One of my favorite moments in our Ordination celebration comes when the ordaining bishop asks for the new priests’ blessing. It is a sign that the holiness of priesthood is not about rank or experience, is not something earned, but is a grace that flows from the one High Priest Jesus Christ.
After witnessing this ceremony, I understood a bit better why our Catholic tradition has drawn some similarities between the life of faith and the military life: why St. Paul commands Christians to “put on the armor of God” (Ephesians 6:13), why Catholics of earlier generations learned as children that we must be “soldiers for Christ.” I now felt a kinship with these young soldiers that I wasn’t expecting, even when I agreed a month ago to serve as the event’s chaplain.
And so, it only seemed fitting when, after the ceremony was over, a remarkable fact dawned on me: The Benediction that I had “composed” for the event was something I unwittingly had stolen; it was, more or less, the blessing my mother prayed over me on the day of my first Mass.
Fr. Charlie McCoy, C.S.C., is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Portland. He is a monthly contributor to the Spes Unica blog, reflecting primarily on the work of Holy Cross in education. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross priests and brothers in the field of education to bring hope to the Church and world.