In the year 2000, The New York Times sponsored a national survey asking people to consider which was the most influential novel of the 20th century. They wanted to know which work of fiction had the greatest impact in the previous 100 years. Millions of people responded. Several novels were suggested. But there was one clear cut winner: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. A few months later, The New York Times decided to take it a step further. They sponsored an international survey that asked the same question. What would you consider to be the most influential novel of the 20th century? The answer, once again, The Lord of the Rings.
It should not be a surprise that because of the great popularity of the novel and its enormous impact in the literary world, that a Hollywood director like Peter Jackson would jump at the opportunity to take the novel to film. He was glad he did because the movie trilogy made over three billion dollars at the box office worldwide, was nominated for 30 academy awards, won 17 Oscars, 11 of which were for the last installment of the series, The Return of the King.
But what is possibly a real surprise to all those tens of millions of movie viewers and Ring fans is that the novel is Catholic. That’s right, Catholic. The Lord of the Rings is a diehard Catholic novel, written by a diehard Catholic author, whose very conscientious intention was to promote diehard Catholic values.
To the casual observer, the genius of Tolkien simply lies in his extraordinary imagination, prolific creativity, and rich literary style. But if you truly understand the story, you will appreciate that the real genius lies in the fact that Tolkien was able to take traditional Catholic-Christian values and dress them up in a fantastical style so that he could feed them to a hostile, orc-ish crowd. Just like a mother who crushes aspirin and stirs it into her son’s food so he doesn’t taste it and doesn’t realize he’s taking it, Tolkien disguises theology and sprinkles it into a story so that the reader or moviegoer ingests it without even knowing it.
So where is the theology, because the last time I checked, I saw no churches in Middle Earth or priests and nuns in the shire. Where is the Catholicism? Where, ultimately, is Jesus Christ and his precious values?
Well, everywhere really. But I want to point out the three main characters in the story and their significance.
First there is Frodo Baggins of the Shire. This little Hobbit is the one entrusted with the ring and is called to a life of sacrifice. Leaving behind the comfort of his own home, the comfort of his surroundings, the comfort of his routine, Frodo is asked to carry the weight of that ring around his neck and offer his life as a sacrifice for the good of Middle Earth. Frodo is asked to surrender to a greater good, a greater cause. He is, in that sense, priestly because he surrenders himself for the sake of the mission, to climb Mount Doom and rid the world of Sauron’s evil.
Actually, you guys are like Frodo. You too have been called to be priestly because you have been called to live a life of sacrifice and service. It is a life that places the needs of others before your own. It is a life that understands that being a man for others is not meant to be done only when it is convenient for you, but when necessary for them. You too are called to surrender to a greater good, a greater cause. You have been called to surrender your lives to Jesus.
Second there is Gandalf the White. This wise and stouthearted sage rouses up the troupes to battle evil in Middle Earth because he is the first to recognize that the world is in a dark place and heading into an even darker time. He is insightful and knows clearly the difference between right and wrong and has no problem in pointing it out to everyone, no matter what the consequences, no matter what the danger. Gandalf is like a prophet who is on a mission he understands to be from a higher power and is driven by the good. He announces what is right and denounces what is wrong.
Actually, you guys are like Gandalf. You too have been called to be prophetic and denounce the great injustices of our time. Your mission, also from a higher power, is to be countercultural. In a world that is torn and tattered by violence, you are called to announce peace. In a world that is steeped in death, you are called to promote life. In a world where so many people go hungry, you are called not only to feed them, but ask why they are hungry in the first place.
Third there is Aragorn the King. This Ranger of the North is the rightful heir of Gondor. He too has a mission. As king-to-be he is called to lead a group of men on a quest to save middle earth and battle the dark lord Sauron. He leads not only through mastery of skill (he was a great wielder of the sword), but by example. He is always the first on the frontline, the first to keep a watchful eye, always the first to stand up and do what needs to be done without question or pause.
Actually, you guys are like Aragorn. Like kings-to-be of a kingdom you have inherited from Jesus Christ, you too have been called to be leaders and to lead by way of example. Following the axiom of St. Ignatius of Loyola who claimed that “love is better expressed in actions rather than in words,” you are called to action. You don’t wait to see who volunteers first, who serves first, or who does first. No. You lead and do what needs to be done. You are called to give without counting the cost, to fight without heeding the wounds, to toil without seeking to rest, to labor and not ask for reward.
So, you may be sitting there and thinking to yourself: “I get it, today we are receiving our senior rings and Fr. Willie is creatively making reference to The Lord of the Rings.” But while I would love to take the credit for such a reference to one of the most influential novels of modern literary history, I haven’t done much more than take advantage of what Tolkien intended all along. The reason why I can reference Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo to preach about what it takes to be a true man of Belen is because these characteristics are much older than J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.
Let me explain. You will not remember this, but when you were an infant your parents brought you to church to be baptized. As they proudly stood there and watched as the priest poured water over your heads, he pronounced the words of the sacrament: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Then, he anointed you with sacred oil right on the crown of your head.
Listen to what he said to you…
“The God of power and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
has freed you from sin,
given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit,
and welcomed you into his holy people.
He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation.
As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King,
so may you live always as a member of his body,
sharing everlasting life.”
So here it is… Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn all represent Jesus Christ. That’s what Tolkien’s writing intended to do. But here’s the best part… you guys also represent Jesus Christ and that’s what your Belen education intended to do.
You know, I have often been asked if we do not think that the standards we have for our students is too high, too strict, or too unrealistic. People question if we truly think that our students could meet such lofty expectations, especially at such a young age and in such difficult times like the one we are living. My response is always the same: “Absolutely our standards are high, absolutely they are strict and lofty, but it’s only because they are the standards of Jesus Christ. As a former student who 30 years ago sat in this same central patio with my own father, I know better than anyone else what our students’ potential is. Belen knows what they are capable of because for over 162 years we have seen what good they have done. If you want lower, more manageable, less challenging standards, go somewhere else.
Your Belen ring is a symbol of power. It is a symbol of the power there is in the education you have received throughout your years at Belen Jesuit. It is a symbol of the power there is in the friendships you have forged while you have been at Belen and the brotherhood that you belong to as a student and future Belen alumnus. My brothers, let the rings that you receive this evening be a constant reminder not of what you have accomplished these last seven, six, five or four years, but a constant reminder of what is expected of you and what you are capable of.
In just a few months you will each leave the Belen shire and venture off into a difficult and all-too-often menacing world. Don’t be afraid. Let the ring remind you that you are never alone.
Gentlemen, welcome to the fellowship of the ring.