It’s getting to be that time of year and for my son’s college, the time came and went last weekend as he graduated with a degree in marine mechanical engineering, was commissioned in the United States Navy Reserves and goes off to a job in a mere three weeks. If it sounds like I’m bragging … you’re probably right.
As I sat inside a giant tent watching the beginning of the graduation ceremony I couldn’t help but think about how important even in a state institution (he earned a degree after five hard years at a California State University) — a bastion of reason with mandates prohibiting the inclusion of a higher power — ritual and communal activity remained relevant.
We may process in behind a crucifix at Mass, but at my son’s school the faculty and students marched somberly (or as somberly as any man or woman in their early twenties about to be freed from the bounds of academic strictures is ever going to be) behind a stalwart faculty member holding aloft a silver trident with all the seriousness and respect the best crucifer at a high Mass would ever show.
What followed were serious looking faculty members wearing the traditional cap and gowns and various “hoods” that signified their particular area of expertise. Each department marched behind a banner like so many different Roman legions.
I had time to think about this stuff because even though by Cal State standards, the student body population (and thus graduating class) was small (about 250), there were still a lot of names to go through before my son’s name was called.
Higher education gets a bad rap these days and not a little of it is deserving. The typical liberal arts campus is a place where truth is relative and the adherence of standards considered an enemy to freedom. When you have college age children you worry about such things, because our faith teaches the opposite. It is only because truth is constant and embodied in the incarnation of a loving and faithful God, that this sometimes (let’s face it, often-times) insane world is bearable.
My son’s school is unique in things besides its small size. It only has about six majors and five of them have to do with engineering. Truth isn’t relative when it comes to engineering. If a structural engineer uses his own sense of self-esteem to determine the size and angle of a buttress, I wouldn’t cross his bridge. And, like in the example of my son’s degree of marine engineering, if a third class engineer has his own sense of “truth” to the readings on a pressure gage, the boiler just might blow up.
Now, for me, math and science (which was the bulk of my son’s curriculum for five years) was not then, is not now and never will be my forte. Just looking at one of his calculus books a couple of years ago made me break out in a cold sweat. Yet it was somehow comforting to know people do know these things and these things do comport to unchanging, universal paradigms that allow for us humans to build big machines and fly to places like the moon.
I would guess that even in schools that have a much larger student body and myriad departments that not only include the hard sciences but also many of the “soft” sciences and liberal arts, there are going to be graduation ceremonies soon. These will be institutions that will also have any number of advocates and graduates who strongly disagree with Pope Francis’ letter Amoris Laetitia as it relates to family and the unchanging and divinely directed relationship between male and female. These institutions will likewise feel rather “evolved” about themselves as the faculty and the graduates they have instructed will go forth in life to promote the common good in any number of progressive ways, leaving the vestiges of tribalism and static religiosity in the eternal academic dust bin.
Yet, when they gather for graduation, music will play and faculty and students dressed in ritualistic robes and, frankly, kind of silly flat square hats, will march in step. They will sit through interminable speeches from students and special guests, they will wait for their name to be called out and they will dutifully walk up on the stage, take a piece of paper in hand and then walk off.
Mothers will cry, fathers — even those with no particular faith expression — will say a little thanksgiving prayer to the tuition gods, and then everyone will celebrate. God knows us so well. From the days of our older brothers the Hebrews and their adherence to temple protocol, incense burning and purification to the rubrics of the Mass, we must attach ritual to things we know are important. Jesus certainly warned about going through the paces of ritual and clinging to law for the law’s sake. Pope Francis and his predecessors also warn against this tendency to rise the ritual above the purpose. That trap seems to have sprung on college campuses where everyone abides by a host of ritualistic behavior at graduation time for no apparent reason.
Catholics need to give their own thanksgiving prayer that we have the best of both worlds — a Church rich in ritual and beauty and a master whose love and forgiving nature will always give meaning to it all.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.