(This speech, which announced the theme, was delivered by Father Willie to the student body, faculty, and staff on August 22, 2022, to kick off the 2022-23 school year.)
My favorite moment in the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola occurred shortly after his conversion. He was thirty years old and had decided, after rediscovering his faith, that he wanted to travel to the Holy Land and visit the sites of the life of Jesus. As he made his way to Barcelona to board a ship that would take him there, he stopped at the Benedictine monastery of Our Lady of Montserrat. Dressed in his military uniform, he approached the image of Mary, the Black Madonna, and knelt there in prayer. At one point, he was so moved, that he removed his sword from its sheath and held it up to her. Then, in prayer, he surrendered it to her. He said, “No longer will I serve the King of Spain. From this point forward, I will serve only your Son, the King of Kings.” He left it there, at her feet, and went on his way.
We have to really appreciate this important moment in the life of our founder. The sword was the most important possession for a man of his time, especially a man who had dedicated his life to fighting for the realm. The sword meant security, honor, and prestige. It was a defense against the enemy, an assurance that one would be safe, protected, and respected. To surrender a sword meant surrendering not only the one thing that meant the most to you but also the one that defined you.
Surrender. The older you get, the more you realize there is probably nothing more difficult to do or more challenging than surrendering. And yet, it is precisely what we as Christian men are called to do. I know at first glance, we shun away from surrendering. We are constantly told by the world around us that we should never surrender; that surrendering is a sign of weakness, it means giving up, it is an expression of defeat. But when Jesus Christ gives the call to surrender to us as his disciples and the call is to surrender to him, and only to him, then surrender becomes the first important step to empowerment. It is the first and most important step to truly living our lives as men of faith and finding joy in everything we do and at all times, no matter the circumstances of our lives.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a good friend who had just been diagnosed with cancer. As you can imagine, the news was heartbreaking. Not only was there the fear of losing one’s life, but also the fear of having to take up a new and difficult battle against a powerful opponent. But, in the midst of the conversation, this person also expressed they felt God was calling them to surrender. Surrender your life, your fears, your troubles, your anxiety to Him. It was this surrender that provided, in the midst of the fear, a real sense of peace. And it was in the surrendering that they felt empowered to fight.
In the chapel of Our Lady of Belen, there is an image of a great man. As soon as you walk in, the first painting on your left depicts one of the greatest heroes of our modern time. Fr. Walter Ciszek was a Jesuit from New York who lived for over 20 years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union. He spent seven years in solitary confinement at Lubyanka Prison in Moscow and then many more as a prisoner in the Siberian labor camps. Throughout that time, Fr. Ciszek never lost his faith, he never lost his trust in God, and he never once questioned his vocation or mission to serve the people of Russia. Why? In his autobiography, “He Leadeth Me,” he clearly states that it was all made possible the day he chose, in the solitude of his cell, to surrender his life to Jesus Christ. He surrendered to the will of Christ even if it was difficult, seemed unfair, or disagreed with it. The moment he surrendered to Jesus was the moment he truly began to live his life.
The Bible is filled with examples of surrendering. When Mary, in Nazareth, surrendered her will to the will of the Father, she conceived the Son and it changed the course of human history. When Peter, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, surrendered his will to the will of the Son, he became the rock upon which our Church was built. And when the Son, in the Garden of Gethsemane, surrendered his will to the will of the Father, he took up his cross and died on it and saved all mankind.
For this reason, as we begin this new academic year, I am calling each and every one of you, students, faculty, and staff, to surrender. I am not asking you to surrender yourself to just anyone or anything. I am not asking you to surrender yourself to some arbitrary ideal or cause. I am asking you to surrender yourself to Jesus Christ. Surrender to him alone. Surrender to him who suffered and died for you. Surrender yourself to the one who cured the sick, cleansed the leper, raised the dead, multiplied the loaves, and walked on water. Surrender yourself to the one who commands the sun to rise in the morning and then commands it to set in the evening; the one whose very breath gives life and purpose and meaning to all living things.
By surrendering yourself to Christ, I am asking you to do nothing more than fulfill your baptismal promises, which you renew at Confirmation and strengthen in the Eucharist. It is then, and only then that you can truly live your vocation of being a disciple of Christ and a man for others. It is only when we surrender our lives to Christ that we can truly be extraordinary. Any goal we set, any life we choose to live, and any profession we pursue become mediocre at best unless it is set, chosen, and pursued after surrendering our lives to Christ.
Right now, in this central patio, there are 198 seniors who have already started preparing for the next major step in their lives. Since ninth grade and throughout their high school years, they have been focused on making their college choices. They have been working with their college counselors, conversing with their parents, taking the necessary classes, and prepping for the SAT and ACT. This is an important decision, one that can help determine so much about the future of their lives. This is why that decision needs to be surrendered. That decision needs to be surrendered to God. Every senior should, on several occasions, be on their knees in our chapel, and like St. Ignatius, surrender this decision to the Lord. They should be asking God to lead them to the right choice. Because the decision is so important and often scary, it should be surrendered to God so it can be made in peace.
Like Mary and Peter and Jesus, like St. Ignatius of Loyola and Fr. Walter Ciszek, we should all surrender our will to the will of the Father, and you will see how the world becomes a greater, more peaceful place. I assure you, if the human race were to surrender to God, you would see how wars come to an end, hunger and thirst are eradicated, and how peace and justice prevail. These evils are the creation of man, not God. They are the result of a world hellbent on obeying its own will and not the will of the Father. They are a result of a world that refuses to surrender to God.
Surrender. I know this is no easy task, but I have discovered that in life there is nothing extraordinary that comes easy.
This year, the Church in the United States is calling for a three-year National Eucharistic Revival. The intention is to revitalize our devotion and commitment to the Eucharist. Here at Belen, we too will begin a three-year program to emphasize the significance of the Eucharist in our lives and the life of our school community. Think about the fact that the body, soul, and divinity of Jesus is present in the Eucharist. In the chapel of the Immaculate Conception behind me and in the Our Lady of Belen Chapel in front of me, Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament. Housed in the tabernacles found within, the one whom we are called to surrender to is present. It is the reason why we genuflect when we walk in. It is the reason we kneel when he is exposed at adoration. It is the reason we approach the altar after confessing our sins and receive him. Going to Mass and receiving the Eucharist is an act of total surrender.
I know this is no easy task. I know it is a constant struggle filled with moments of weakness and, oftentimes defeat. But struggle on. Before we can step foot on the battlefield of life, we must first take on the fight within ourselves. We must learn to extinguish the selfishness, hate, and jealousy that linger in our own hearts. Each of us carries our own struggle. It is like inside us there are two wolves, one good and one bad, constantly battling each other to claim victory. The wolf that wins is the one we choose to feed.
So, my brothers, feed the good wolf. Feed him with acts of mercy and compassion. Feed him with love and empathy. Feed the good wolf with the Eucharist, the body and blood of our Lord. Every day on this campus, a table is set in one of our two chapels, and an extraordinary meal is prepared. Bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. I encourage you, more than ever before, to approach this table and allow yourself to be fed. Let this food be the substance for this long journey ahead. It is a journey that began the moment you were conceived in the womb of your mother, and it is a journey that will continue until you take your last breath.
And, at that time, you can stand in the presence of God and hear from Him those precious words, “Welcome home, my good and faithful servant.”
I know this all sounds severe, it may sound extreme and overwhelming, but the time has come to face the truth. While the world we live in is filled with the beauty and splendor of God, it too, is marred by the ugliness and sinfulness of too many people who fail to surrender to God. On this campus, within these walls, in this central patio, stand the hopeful future of our world. You, the future doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, husbands, fathers, and priests, are exactly what God needs to help transform His beloved world into the place He intended it to be from the beginning. But only if you surrender.
Our Lady of Belen… pray for us.