Home » Articles & Documentation » Commencement Address of Fr. William M. Abbott SJ, MA, SSL at LST’s Graduation Rites on 25 May 2022

Commencement Address of Fr. William M. Abbott SJ, MA, SSL at LST’s Graduation Rites on 25 May 2022

May 26, 2022

First of all, I’d like to thank LST, and especially Fr. Eric, for the invitation to speak to  you. It’s the first time for me to do one of these, and quite unexpected after my being away from LST and teaching for more than two decades

Congratulations to both students and faculty for the academic achievement you mark today. But most especially for having done this while negotiating such unusual and challenging academic hurdles. It has not been easy over the past two years . . . online and hybrid learning variations have often been a trial. Kudos to the professors for adapting their presentations to online platforms; I’m happy to have been spared that kind of ordeal, even if I’m now feeling like a dinosaur coming from a bygone age of teaching.

And real admiration and empathy for you students who’ve had to endure long hours staring at a screen, suffering isolation deprived of peer companionship and being asked to adapt to a new way of getting theological formation.  Your patience, resilience and perseverance have to be acknowledged with much praise.

Which leads me to some reflections as to what lies ahead. For commencement talks usually include a look to the future and traits needed to face it. A first consideration stems from the kind of experience you’ve been dealing with during this pandemic. It’s upset many an apple cart and called for radical rethinking of approaches and attitudes. That you’ve handled this with success—at least with respect to addressing the demands of LST in trying times—is a good omen for your constructively dealing with the kind of situations that will likely be more and more part of what used to be called ‘routine.’ Climate change, political instability like we are witnessing in Ukraine and elsewhere. polarization of societies, the rampant proliferation of fake news and media influencing—we could go on and on as the list is long. But what seems clear is that you are going to need a good measure of the resilience, adaptability and perseverance that you’ve shown already amid Covid. Rather than merely complaining, lamenting and feeling self-pity, what will be called for is a readiness to roll up your sleeves to face the unexpected, even the undesirable. It’s the hard-headed realism and commitment of a leader like Volodymyr Zelensky. Offered a helicopter to escape Ukraine under attack, he told his benefactors, “I don’t need a ride out; I need weapons to stay with my troops to defend my country.” I suspect that will be more and more the spirit you will need as you move ahead. And, thankfully, it’s some of what you’ve already shown, mustering the determination and resolve to finish, despite a pandemic, the programs from which you are graduating today.  Ituloy pa ninyo nang ganito ang paghaharap sa kinabukasan.

A second thought has to do with what might be seen as your own growth and development in the context of the serious issues you will be facing. Let’s face it, you’ve been given opportunities that most people do not get. You mark today what has to be seen as an increase of vision, becoming now more aware of and better equipped for important things than you were when you started. Hopefully, that means more wisdom, and not just accumulated knowledge of facts. And even more than sophia, the biblical hokmah—a wisdom that implies grace and gift from the way the Lord sees things. Seeing more widely and deeply is going to be much in demand in a world suffused with fake and polarizing disinformation.

On Palm Sunday, the Inquirer ran an article dubbed “Sins of the times: Church concern grows over fake news.” Various Filipino theologians and clergy were cited in their denunciation of the moral depravity involved in subverting the truth and deceiving people to believe lies. On 5 May, just after World Press Freedom Day, the Star’s editorial was entitled “Information Chaos.”  It noted that the Philippines in a list of 180 countries had dropped from 138 to 147, and in Southeast Asia—no bastion of press freedom—we were ahead of only Vietnam and Myanmar. Quoted were Reporters Without Borders, who lamented “the disastrous effects of news and information chaos—the effects of a globalized and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda.” Their record showed a twofold increase in polarization amplified by information chaos that fuels divisions within and between countries. The Star went on to state that “the depth of the problem is evident in the ongoing campaign that will be remembered for the pervasiveness of fake news, trolling and lies to promote candidacies—and the inability of about half of the population, according to a study, to recognize fake news.” Little wonder why Prof. Randy David, in his perceptive op-ed piece for 1 May’s Inquirer, “Why Filipinos vote the way they do,” would say that a “willful blindness to issues and to visions of a better society is what makes our politics so hopelessly myopic and personal.” He ends the article by concluding, “The point is: elections are less about public opinion than they are about hidden feelings and latent dispositions that cannot easily be formulated in a coherent way—or countered by appeal to facts.”

In short, this is the kind of context in which you will be engaged; it’s one that is in dire need of perspective, a wider vision or, analogously, what Pope Francis calls ‘spiritual sensitivity.” In his audience the Wednesday before Holy Week, he spoke of “the anesthesia of the spiritual senses” as a widespread syndrome in a society cultivating the illusion of eternal youth, and it is mostly unaware. . . . Numbed senses, without understanding what is happening.  “When they are numb, the inner senses, the senses of the Spirit that enable us to understand the presence of God or the presence of evil, cannot distinguish between them. . . . It is not simply a matter of thinking of God or religion. The insensitivity of the spiritual senses relates to compassion and pity, shame and remorse, fidelity and devotion, tenderness and honor, responsibility for oneself and for others. . . . The numbed spiritual senses confuse you and you no longer feel those things, spiritually.”

In a sense, this problem is not completely new, though technology enables its proliferation more extensively. In the latter days of Lent, John’s gospel recounted a number of encounters between Jesus and the willed blindness of Jewish leaders. This is striking at the end of chapter 7. Hearing Christ’s words, some of the crowd say “This is truly the Prophet, this is the Messiah.” Others retort, “The Messiah will not come from Galilee.” Guards are sent to arrest Jesus but return without him, replying “Never before has anyone spoken like this one.” Their concrete personal experience is lambasted: “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the Law, is accursed.” And even when Nicodemus, one of their own leaders, protests that they are violating the Law by condemning Jesus without a hearing, he is shot down: “You are not from Galilee too, are you? . . . No prophet arises from Galilee.”

It’s the same kind of resistance we find in trying to suppress the blind man’s cure in John 9. Or in the encounter between Peter and John and the Sanhedrin in Acts 4: “What are we going to do with these men. Everyone living in Jerusalem knows that a remarkable sign was done through them, and we cannot deny it. But so that it may not spread any further among the people, let us give them a stern warning never again to speak to anyone in this name.” Willed blindness! Interpreting reality to back up preconceptions and self-interest. It got Jesus crucified, it got the cured blind man expelled from the synagogue, it got Peter and the disciples beaten up and jailed. But it needed to be faced down then, and still needs so today.

In some ways, the blind man of John 9 may be a suitable image for where you are and what you will be called to do. All of us move from partial vision to fuller seeing. And that would surely be true of you as you complete the demanding work and personal perseverance called for by the LST program. It should have led to greater clarity, perhaps more coherence in the way you look on things divine and human. It should also spur you on to continued formation, ongoing development to keep enhancing the trajectory of truth that you have begun.  Like the blind man, you will be challenged to stand up for, and with basic honesty be witnesses to, a wider perspective in the face of those who would promote narrowness and confusion. You may suffer for this commitment to the truth of what you have experienced, but remember it is the blind man’s vision, and his fidelity to it, that is rewarded by a profound encounter with Christ. “When Jesus heard that they had thrown the man out, he found him and said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’  ‘Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ The man replied, ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshipped him.”

I do wish you all the fullness of God’s blessings and every strength as you continue your journey to greater vision and truth. I look forward to the ways you will contribute to pushing back what is negative and destructive. May you always be instruments of light in a context filled with many shadows. And may your service be marked by much gratitude for what you have received, along with real joy in being privileged to share in the Lord’s own mission of scattering darkness. If I may go back again to John, this time chapter 3: “Whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his/her works may be clearly seen as done in God.” Go forth as graduates of LST; and let your lives and works always be ‘done in God.’

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