It is my great privilege to be here with you, Bishop McManus, teachers and staff of Notre Dame, parents, family members, members of the board, and especially with you class of 2021 on your graduation day! Thank you so much for having me.
It is remarkable when I look out on this scene just how familiar it is. I graduated 46 years ago and it is a strange déjà vu I'm having right now: same diplomas, same yellow roses, same Sister Ann, same Sister Evelyn, same Patty Provost…
However…I don’t mean to suggest that nothing has changed: as a matter of fact…(presented school uniform) I wore this every day for 4 years!
Uniform notwithstanding…The familiarity of this place is a wonderful and affirming segue for the message that I chose for you today and that is: in this wildly changing world, there are some constants in life, and if we can discern them amidst all the noise and chatter we are in a much better place to frankly maintain our personal sanity be a nurturing presence for those we love and make a positive difference in this world.
Just the fact that this school exists (and a women’s school I will add) based on a tradition begun almost 220 years ago attests to constancy in a real way. The reason I want to talk about things that don't change, is because as citizens of the 21st-century we are led to believe that everything is up for grabs everything is in constant flux all is changeable and that truth is relative in the sense of your truth and my truth, And what a year we've had! It's just hard to discern what is real never mind what is true! Is it real news or fake news? Is it mask / no mask / double mask vaccine / no vaccine / which vaccine? There's just so many voices to listen to! It’s very confusing! absurd even! We do well to remember what Voltaire said when he warned us: “those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.
So what we need is a rock to cling to, a little patch of ground, a little country on which to stand amidst all the earthquaking chaos that surrounds us. And this is especially important as you go forth from Notre Dame, as you enter the larger world and as you sort out your place as mature women within it.
So I’m going to share some big ideas, rocks to stand on, that come to me from my family, my education, from my work with people with disabilities, from my community life in offering our home to people who don’t have a home and certainly from my faith as a Roman Catholic.
There is indeed objective reality and such a thing as truth with a capital T. Not only religions, but most ancient and current wisdom traditions acknowledge absolute truths. They describe them as gifts provided by a creator divinity for our own good and for the good of all humanity. Yet even a notion as basic as this one has been called to question.
But this is my point: truth about how the world works and about what is important in life is accessible to us, we just need to know where to look for it. If we focus on the popular and the powerful we will miss it, because the powerful have a vested interest in perpetuating deceptions to keep themselves in power. So if not from the powerful then from where? From the poor, the impaired, the vulnerable, the lowly. The least among us are so often in the best position to teach us about important truths, especially the ones that the world spends much time, talent, energy, and money trying to deny. One big truth is suffering is a part of every human life.
Now I know that suffering is not a typical topic for a graduation speech! But bear with me: when we can unflinchingly stare suffering in the face, so often what we find hiding in the pain is wisdom and love. I speak from my experience of opening our home and sharing our life with homeless people, and from my work with people with disabilities, but I learned it first here at Notre Dame first.
In the early 1970s the Love In Action program at Notre Dame was relatively new. My best friend Sharon O'Connor and I decided that we would volunteer at the Saint Francis home, each one of us adopting a grandmother to spend time with. We met Sharon's grandmother first and she was charming! They planned on going shopping and having lunch and they just really enjoyed one another's company right away. And then I was introduced to my grandmother. Mine was severely mentally affected. She talked constantly, I couldn't understand a word she was saying and probably the worst thing was, she couldn't make eye contact with me, she looked at me, but beyond me and frankly I was afraid of her.
So I resolved to get a new grandmother: someone nice, someone witty like Sharon’s. Well that night at dinner, my father as he always did went around the table and asked each one of us what did you do today? So I told him I was at the Saint Francis home but I got a kind of a loser grandmother and so I was planning to frankly trade her in for a better one. My dad just looked at me. Made me uncomfortable. Obviously, he didn’t get it. I said she didn't even know whether I was there or not! My father then said: “Oh. I thought the name of the program was love in action. It's hard to love when you're not even in the same room.”
So I went back and I stayed in the room and I listened. And as the weeks went by I could discern a pattern in her constant monologue: I heard her say her grandfather had lost his mind in World War I and her husband had lost his life in World War II. She lost her son in Vietnam. She was singing the song of suffering and I just witnessed it.
And one day she greeted me! Another day she told me she liked my company! We never really had what you could call a conversation but we definitely had a connection and for me that was formative.
You see the word compassion means a sharing in another’s suffering. This woman taught me that compassion is not so much something you give as it is something you receive and share. That is an essential lesson that I cannot stress enough.
So my first piece of advice to you (because I get to do that from up here) is don't run away from suffering people. Even seek them out. And even if you can do nothing for them but offer your presence as a gift - that is love, true compassion. Not a small matter! Now you're going to get busy in life and this will not come naturally, to spend time with suffering people. But if you can manage to regularly make that time even for just a few hours here and there, your life will be richer than if you spent those same hours gainfully employed, making only money.
Another big truth that has been passed down from the ages since ancient times, by every culture, in every place, until now, is that we human beings have a transcendent nature, a spiritual nature, we are more than our material physical bodies. Therefore our souls, along with our bodies, need to be nourished or else we perish the same way we would if we were being starved of food.
And so when we make time for prayer, reflection, silence and contemplation it brings forth an understanding that we are not the center of the universe but at the same time it provides the certain knowledge that each one of us is of inestimable worth, a unique and an unrepeatable and therefore precious entity, infused with a spark of the divine.
And therein lies our beauty and our dignity - a dignity that can never be destroyed
not by a bad boss
nor an abusive relationship nor a catastrophic illness
not by the betrayal of a friend nor by a failed marriage
nor by our own weakness and sinfulness not by anything.
Our dignity as human beings is a given whether we know it or not. But when we cultivate our inner life we develop an appreciation for it, a certain knowledge of it - and that we can take to the bank - that carries us through life.
I was evaluating a human service agency that runs living arrangements for people with psychiatric problems. One of the people served joined our final administrative interview. This guy had had enormous suffering in his life: he had lived in a mental hospital for 40 of his 60 years, he had gotten beaten up and lost the use of his left arm, he was experimented on with all kinds of drugs… when I asked if he wanted to make a statement for the evaluation team he stood up, straightened his back and said in a steady and powerful voice: “many call me mentally ill, but no one, no one, can call me morally ill.” This man understood his inherent dignity and it got him through extreme adversity.
So my second piece of advice is to take the time to nurture your soul. Spend time in silence, alone. Turn off the screens and take out the earbuds. Spend time in nature. Put it on your bucket list to go on a silent retreat that lasts longer than one day. Cultivate a habit of contemplation and reflection, and in doing so appreciate your beauty and your dignity and the dignity of those around you.
And as I wrap up here I'd like to speak to you as a woman. Don't let anyone tell you that the only difference between men and women is anatomy, or preference, or sensibility. All wisdom traditions tell us that there are deep-seeded aspects of our souls as women that complete us. Our spiritual identity as life-bearers, present in us whether we have children or not, is what distinguishes us as necessary beings in the world and distinct from men.
Yet so often we are encouraged to be caricatures of men: the high powered businesswoman,
the hard-bitten politician, the gun-toting detective, the fists-swinging lawyer…
These are the archetypal images we are told make up the successful woman.
Certainly strive for excellence in whatever you do, but bring compassion with you. Appreciate your womanly nature as life-bearer in the broad sense, as sister, as auntie, as listener, as gentler, as healer, as nurturer, all so vital in this iron-bound, chilly and troubled world. Dostoevsky said “the world will be saved by beauty” and that is us!
So appreciate that. And one another. Cherish the friends you have made at NDA. Stay close to one another and to the school.
And hang onto your NDA artifacts.
Who knows? Maybe in 40 years, you’ll get to be the graduation speaker…
Thank you, and God bless!
Jo Massarelli is a 1975 graduate of Notre Dame Academy and a 1979 graduate of Georgetown University with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Comparative Theology. She is the Director of the SRV Implementation Project, a human service training and consultation concern. She divides her time between teaching and working with families, human service staff and people with impairments to bring about positive change, one person at a time. She is the founder of the Medical Safeguards Project, teaching physicians and nurses about the particular vulnerability of impaired people in medical settings and how to provide them state-of-the-art care. She has taught at workshops and lectured at conferences across the United States, Canada, Japan, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand to a variety of human service workers serving a wide range of people devalued due to mental impairment, mental disorder, physical impairment, age, and poverty. Ms. Massarelli has evaluated dozens of human service programs for children, adults and elders, including residential, day and work programs, schools, hospice, services, prisons, and homeless shelters. Jo Massarelli and her husband Marc Tumeinski are members of the Catholic Worker in Worcester, responding to the needs of homeless people in the downtown neighborhood where they live. Appreciating the ideal of voluntary hospitality, they welcome homeless people to live with them and share their lives together as valued members of their household.