Divine Mercy University Commencement Address – June 20, 2020
Thank you Mr. President, the faculty of Divine Mercy University, members of the board, and most of all, thank you graduates for the honor of standing alongside you, in a virtual format to be sure, but beside you nonetheless. Of all the degrees and professional certifications and honors I’ve been fortunate to receive over the last 50 years, this one is very, very special to me. That’s because of what Divine Mercy University stands for, of what everyone of you stand for, which is curing people by integrating faith into what we do, understanding that matters of the soul and of spirituality are not something we can compartmentalize neatly and deal with separately, but in fact are integral to the whole person. And whether the whole person needs temporary help getting through a short term crisis, overcoming a lifelong addiction, or coming to terms with some long ago abuse that they endured in their youth, Divine Mercy understands—you understand — that to cure that soul, you can’t leave out the role of God in their lives. None of this excludes understanding fully the secular precepts and treatment protocols of modern day psychology and counseling. To the contrary, it enhances and enriches, or to use a New Testament term, it “fulffills” and “completes” these skills. You are armed with both.
This truth– that we are first souls made in the divine image of God, and only secondly creatures of this world that on the surface are all unique but underneath all the same, is one which is broadly foundational to success in this world and the next. Yes, many claw their way to the top of their professions by ignoring the call of God in all our lives, and focusing solely on the tangible, the here and now. But sooner or later this one dimensional approach withers in the heat thrown off by the high speed train of today’s internet driven world, or is choked by the weeds of all the sparkling earthly treasures which lure us off course. I know this from my own personal spiritual journey, from altar boy growing up in working class Newark to “indifferent agnostic” by the time I left university to Wall Street investor with God a remote part of my very Steve-centered world. It worked ok, for sure, but it left me far from the person he wanted me to be, either as a husband, a father, or leader of an investment organization. About 20 years ago now, he gave me a pretty hard knock on the head (actually, an electrical jolt to my heart), and that crisis led to the spiritual journey I am still on, from sinner to missionary and hopefully, one day, to saint in heaven. (Ok, to be fair, I’m actually aiming for purgatory, but it’s a start.) And here’s what I can tell you so far: being a husband, a father, and a leader on Wall Street, succeeding in the world, if you will, comes a whole lot easier with God as part of my life. Gradually at first and then more profoundly as the journey continued, He has made me better at what I do. And I think fundamentally the reason for that is that I’m closer now to “whole”. Closer to understanding who I am and who I’m not, and more appreciative therefore of who I need to be for others. I wish I could say I’m a “Servant Leader” in His incredible mode, but that is a tall standard for a guy who’s at best a cracked rock. I still fall down. I am determined, however, with His help and guidance, His Spirit, to at least get an A for effort in “Servant Leadership 101.” Or as St. Paul said, to “finish the race.”
Our missionary work on the streets of New York, which Evelyn and I have been engaged in for over a decade, has reinforced this truth that the great endeavor you are about to embark on, curingthe whole person, is more needed than ever in today’s rapidly secularizing culture. Over the course of our years on the streets,in good weather and bad, we’ve greeted over 3 million souls. Rich people and poor people, white, black and every color in between, heterosexual and LGTBQ. More than you’d expect–some quarter of a million or so –have actually stopped to talk with us or one of our hundreds of missionaries on the streets. Each soul had their own story, their own unique struggle in their attempts to connect with, or more commonly to run away from, God. But this much they had in common: all, in one fashion or another, were pursuing what you might call the un-integrated life. Some had God in a designated box, often the Sunday morning box, and their own life completely separated from Him. Others had God as a remote impersonal force that they assumed had no knowledge of them or interest in their lives; and others feared God and were running from Him, either consciously or sub-consciously. As missionaries, our goal has always been singly to bring them back to God, through the instrument of Reconciliation, so that He could heal them. Often, we’ve failed at this task, or at least, failed temporarily, planting a seed of love that we hope will sprout at another day. But whenever we’ve succeeded, whenever we managed to get someone who was hurting or unhappy or disconnected, who thought they were incurable, unlovable, and unforgiveable, back to God through a holy priest in the sacrament of reconciliation, 100% of the time they emerged from that meeting visibly transformed. Lightened. Joyful. Loving. Beaming. Yes, He is capable of healing in a far deeper way than any of us can imagine. I don’t pretend to have any special insight to the Divine, (and not surprisingly have never been able to squeezeany details from the confessionals out of Fr. Sikorsky or any of the other holy priests who’ve helped us on the mission), but I believe deep in my heart that the way He does this is that He appeals to their eternal soul, made in His divine image. He appeals to their whole. He re-integrates their brokenness.
The story of the mission in New York, as told in The Missionary of Wall Street, has many beautiful and inspiring stories of souls that were healed by God, made whole. I’m not going to relateany of them here today. Let me tell you instead a short story from the mission from many years ago, early on, that was less successful, and in fact still haunts me to this day. It was late on a cold December night, and I found myself alone on a street corner at the northern end of Little Italy, under a streetlamp. A group of young people, seemingly on their way to a trendy bar, passed through my station. “Hey, are you all Catholic?” I asked hopefully. “Nooo, wee r nut Catholeek!” one of them remarked, in a strong French accent. “Not Catholic? Come on! You must be Catholic! All French people are Catholic!” “Nooo, we are nottt!” This may not sound like a very hopeful start, but weseasoned missionaries know that if someone even counters our ‘ask’ at all, with almost any reply, it’s a sign that deep down, something is troubling them. It’s an S.O.S. However, the group was moving quickly through my circle of light, so I only had time for one more question. “Well if you’re not Catholic, what are you then?” Instinctively, the answer came back, ice cold, “We are nuuthing.” At that moment, the young man who’d been speaking with me was being literally dragged out of the light, into the darkness, by his friends. But we could still make eye contact. With my eyes, I simply gasped, tearing up a bit, asking, “Did you just say you are nothing?” I could see he understood, I could feel his pain at that understanding, his need for love, for God. And then, he was gone. Into the darkness. Back then, frankly, I didn’t have the courage that I needed to have, I didn’t have the faith in God that I needed to have, to chase after him, into the darkness, to try to bring him back. I was afraid. I’m left to this day wondering about him, praying for him.
The world you are entering today is clearly broken. Perhaps worse than ever, or least worse than in a very long time. And it is moving and changing at an accelerating pace, which more than ever is increasing the stresses and strains on everyone trying to lead their lives within the whirlwind. Worse, many souls out there have given up on God, and are trying to lurchforward without Him. From my perch, they are making a difficult challenge into mission impossible. And that is adding to the brokenness.
My work on the streets as a missionary, however, gives me great optimism for the future, and particularly for the graduates in this virtual room. With the help of God, skilled professionals like you can help put humpty dumpty back together again. You can help make people whole.
More than ever, the world needs you. The world needs healers.
Congratulations to the class of 2020. This year will always be marked on the calendar as a very special one, perhaps as one of those great turning points in human history, or at least a big asterisk on history’s timeline. Somehow, within the eye of the storm, you’ve completed your course of studies here at Divine Mercy University. You’ve earned your degree. And now, your job, which you’ve already accepted, is to help make that turning point one which leads to a better future for us all.
Go find that lost Frenchman.
Bring him back from the darkness.
He’s out there. Waiting for you.