(Father Guillermo García-Tuñón, S.J. delivered this homily at the Pin Mass for the Class of 2024 on December 9, 2020, held in the gymnasium of the Roberto C. Goizueta Innovation Center.)
There is no question we are living in difficult and challenging times. I don’t think any of us has ever seen anything like this before. We have been inconvenienced to no end. We have been frightened and confused like never before. Our stress and anxiety levels are through the roof. Even today’s mass, which was supposed to happen last academic year, is different. This is the 8th-grade pin ceremony and here you are as freshmen, without your parents and grandparents.
I confess I grow tired of hearing words like “unprecedented” and “unusual” thrown out all the time to refer to this coronavirus period. But for as much as I can’t stand those words, I understand the need to use them, even if they are wrong. Yes, “unprecedented” and “unusual” are words that are incorrect when referring to this time of corona.
Having the world paralyzed for a substantial period of time, inconvenienced and threatened and stressed, is nothing new. It has happened before just as it is happening now. Actually, it’s been happening since the beginning of time. Pandemics, virus outbreaks, and plagues are all part of human history. They may not have been part of our particular history up until now, but men and women have always had to deal with them.
The dread and doom we so often hear on the news about the number of people who have been infected can be overwhelming. We hear alarming stats about positivity rates, the number of people who have died, and bed availability in the ICU units of hospitals. I agree all that is harrowing, but the fact is we are doing substantially better than pandemics of the past.
Why? Well, we have learned a lot from prior experiences. Our modern medicine has been able to build on the experiences of past pandemics and outbreaks in order to respond better. In the past, while it took years to develop a vaccine, we seem to be moving in the direction of coming pretty darn close to one in just nine months. Hospitals are better equipped, laboratories are better informed. All of these advancements have happened because we have learned from our past.
This is one of the reasons why it is so appropriate that your pin mass is dedicated to St. Aloysius Gonzaga. Let me explain.
St. Aloysius was a prince born in Northern Italy in 1568. His father was a Duke and his mother was the daughter of a baron and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel, the wife of King Phillip II of Spain. The Gonzaga’s owned land as far as the eye could see, commanded armies, had hundreds of servants, and were skilled hunters and swordsmen. Aloysius was going to inherit all of this and more. His future was secure and his options limitless.
Then, when he was 17 years old, he decided to give up all his rights of inheritance and become a Jesuit. That’s right, he gave everything up, the money, the land, the title, the servants, everything so he could join the seminary to become a Jesuit priest. I know what you’re thinking, “he’s crazy,” that decision is “unprecedented” and “unusual.”
If that wasn’t enough, something happened in 1591. When he was only 23 years old, a pandemic hit Europe. A virus that caused fever, shortness of breath, low oxygen levels, headaches, and eventually death, struck the countries of Europe with a vengeance. People in the millions, both young and old, were dying in the streets. For them, it was “unprecedented,” “unusual.”
So, Aloysius Gonzaga volunteered to go out and serve. He walked the streets of Rome and nursed the sick. He picked them up and took them to the Jesuit hospital. He fed them, clothed them, bathed them, and took care of them for hours on end. Every night he went to bed exhausted, only to go back out there the next day and do the same. He was a first responder.
I can just imagine there were nights when he laid in bed and thought about what his life would be like if he would have stayed in his family’s castle in Northern Italy. But there he was serving the sick, the victims of the pandemic. Then, just a few days before his 23rd birthday, he got infected with the disease and died. He never made it to his ordination, was never a priest, but he sacrificed his whole short life for the service of God and others.
The one thing I think about is how that unprecedented and unusual time in the life of Aloysius Gonzaga was more than anything else an opportunity. There was no time to think about the inconvenience, there was no time to lament the challenge, there was no time to be overly stressed and filled with anxiety. There was no time for that because there was only time to respond and serve. That pandemic was an opportunity for a young man like Aloysius to stand up and respond heroically to the unprecedented and unusual reality of his time.
Now, there is you, the class of 2024. Gentlemen, these are not unprecedented and unusual times. We have seen this before; the world has gone through this in the past. And just like there have been pandemics in the past that have presented opportunities for heroes like Aloysius Gonzaga, you have an opportunity to rise up and be heroic. It is your duty. It is why you are in a Catholic-Jesuit school.
You are not here simply to learn science and math. You are here to become heroes. You are here so you can learn to rise up and serve. I know the pandemic is inconvenient and oftentimes scary, but see it for what it is, an opportunity to test your true mettle, your manhood, your ability to serve. I am not asking you to go out to the hospitals and gather the sick. We have trained, heroic first responders for that, but I am asking you to not sit quietly and sulk. Do not whine about trips you haven’t been able to take, games you haven’t been able to play, or parties you haven’t been able to attend. Don’t sit there and lament the circumstances of your pin ceremony compared to what others have had in the past. The world is in dire need of heroes, young men who can serve, even when the virus seems to say otherwise.
The fact is my brothers of the Class of 2024: the heroics of St. Aloysius Gonzaga should not be considered unprecedented and unusual. They need to be the norm, they need to be commonplace. There needs to be 166 Gonzagas who can face the challenges the world presents and rise to the occasion. These pins that you will wear on your lapels will be a symbol of that call to action, that call to be heroes.
Our Lady of Belen… pray for us.