As with so many other special events this past year, St. John’s University’s Baccalaureate Mass took on a different look, but its purpose remained the same: to bestow God’s blessing on the Class of 2021, celebrate their achievements, and wish them well as they embark on the next chapter of life’s journey.
The Mass was held on May 22 in St. Thomas More Church on the Queens, NY, campus; due to pandemic restrictions, a small representation of graduates from the Queens and Staten Island, NY, campuses were in attendance to represent their fellow classmates. The Mass was livestreamed for graduates and their families, as well as all members of the St. John’s community.
The principal celebrant at Mass was Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., President of St. John’s University. Fr. Shanley also delivered the homily, in which he discussed the need for graduates to go forth and become beacons of understanding in a polarized world.
“The Tower of Babel represents yet another deeper alienation of people from God and from each other,” Fr. Shanley noted. “It is a continuation of pride and presumption in a now fallen world. In response to the townspeople of Babel, who in their arrogance thought they could build a tower to get to heaven, God confuses their language. They all spoke the same language until they tried to erect the tower.”
Fr. Shanley observed that we live in a post-Babel world, where the reality of multiple languages is still real. “We have a hard time understanding what other people are saying. Our country is polarized between red and blue, and they speak different languages.” He added that many people do not even try to understand the other person’s point of view. “It’s just posture, and shout, and yell. They can’t understand each other, and they don’t seem to want to understand each other.”
Pentecost Sunday was celebrated the following day, and Fr. Shanley noted that God sending the Holy Spirit to the Apostles counteracted the effects of Babel. “God gave the ability to those who proclaim His word the ability to speak of God in every language.”
Fr. Shanley asserted that it is the work of a Catholic university to teach students how to understand multiple perspectives.
“One of the hallmarks of your St. John’s education, no matter what you majored in, is that you learned to communicate across differences: to dialogue, to listen, to come to a common understanding.”
He hopes that as students make an effort to understand different points of view and cultures they realize that underneath all that divides us is a common humanity possessing common aspirations, needs, wants, and loves.
“When we can negotiate multiple languages, we can build community,” Fr. Shanley stressed. “We can find common ground. Today, we send you forth from St. John’s, and you’re ready for what comes next. You are not yet perfectly formed in other languages, and you will never stop trying to learn multiple languages. It is the task of our life to continually become fluent in different ways of experiencing and speaking to people’s experience of the world in which we live.”
The more we become fluent in many different perspectives, Fr. Shanley said, the more the Holy Spirit acts to build a community that God wants: one that overcomes the effects of Babel in our world. “You go forth from St. John’s with what God wanted to give you while you were here: the capacity to speak of God and everything else in multiple languages to multiple people and build up the human community as the antidote for the Babel that we experience.”
Student speakers at Mass were Dana Livingston, an English major from the Queens campus, and Santo Tiralosi, a History major from the Staten Island campus. Dana spoke of her abiding gratitude for her St. John’s family. “Being part of a community gives you an opportunity to grow, to share, and to live through a common experience with those around you: helping, loving, and accepting each other.”
Santo explained that being part of the St. John’s community helped him become the man he is today. “Because of my St. John’s community, I have grown in my faith and been challenged to critically look at the world around me—and to care for that world.” He noted that the pandemic gave him an opportunity to reflect and discover new and different ways to encounter the St. John’s community.
“The St. John’s community never abandoned me,” Dana stressed. “We value communication in any way, shape, or form, and we stuck with each other to the end. It will forever shape us as graduates of the Class of 2021.”