Following is the homily delivered by Bishop Rhoades at the Baccalaureate Masses last week at the four diocesan high schools:
In one of my high school visits this year, I met a student who was a big fan of the work of Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien, especially his trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Since that great epic story is a favorite of mine, the student and I had a wonderful conversation about the Catholic themes in The Lord of the Rings. That conversation gave me some thoughts for this homily as I considered the journey our graduates are embarking on and the parallels between their journey and that of the heroes in The Lord of the Rings.
If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, or seen the movies, you may recall early in the story when the hobbit Frodo was entrusted with the task of trying to destroy the Ring of Power, the symbol of evil. The young Frodo expressed to his friend and mentor, the wizard Gandalf, his fear that he was not up to the task. Frodo said: “I wish the ring had never come to me; I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf replied with some very wise words. He said: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world besides the forces of evil.”
I say to our graduates what Gandalf said to Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo had to decide how to respond to the reality he was faced with. And so must you. Frodo had a mission, a difficult one, and he decided to do it, not alone, but with an amazing fellowship of friends. He drew strength and received help for his mission to destroy the evil ring from these friends who with him were committed to fight the evil forces that rose against them. Their love, their fidelity, and their self-sacrifice, amid struggles, battles, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles ultimately led to victory, even though Frodo would fall along the way.
The Lord of the Rings is a mythological story about the cosmic struggle between good and evil. The heroes of this story persevered on the journey. They walked, they entered into the drama that unfolds between good and evil. They persevered in hope. Courage kept them going in the face of many difficulties.
Graduates, as you go forth from high school, your journey of life continues, the human journey that shows itself to be a struggle, like the journey of Frodo and his companions, a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness.
Graduates, you walk this journey and enter the struggle with the virtue and gift of faith, knowing that a Person is with you who has conquered evil. That Person is not the wizard Gandalf. That Person is the Son of God, who become a man and delivered us from Satan and from sin.
Graduates, your journey is not beginning now with graduation. This is an important moment in your journey, but there was a much more important moment, the moment your journey, your adventure, began. It was the moment of your Baptism. We thank your parents for bringing you to the waters of Baptism. At your Baptism, while tracing the sign of the cross on your foreheads, the priest or deacon said: “I now claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of His cross.” Later, at another important moment of your journey, when you were confirmed, the bishop again traced the sign of the cross on your foreheads, saying: “be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” So as you walk the journey of life, remember that you are united to Christ, redeemed by His Precious Blood, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. You’ve probably already faced some struggles in your journey and you will face more. You will encounter temptation and evil, like the heroes in The Lord of the Rings.
Now what happens when we succumb to evil? There’s a character in The Lord of the Rings who shows us what happens. The seductive power of the ring tempted the hobbit Smeagol and he fell. He became Gollum. He lived in self-absorbed solitude, talking to himself, communing with no one but his “precious,” as he calls the ring. Evil doesn’t free us; it enslaves us. When we sin, we do not become free. We enter into captivity. To do the good makes us free. The imprisoning power of evil can be broken only by the transcendent power of good.
Graduates, I pray that on your life’s journey, you will pursue the Good. But you can’t succeed in this by yourselves, by your solitary endeavor. So choose your friends and companions well. The Fellowship of the Ring, that wonderful group of friends, embarked together on their perilous journey. They were a radical community of the Good. That band of small and frail friends is like the Church. Like the early Christians, Frodo and his friends dwelt in remarkable solidarity. When one suffered, they all suffered. When one enjoyed a triumph, they all rejoiced. Their weakness became their strength. That’s our life in the Church: we’re a company of friends who love and support one another. So I encourage you, graduates, to keep this company of friends, to be active in the Church wherever you go.
I also encourage you to be faithful to Holy Mass. When the heroes of the Fellowship needed to restore their failing strength, they ate lembas, the airy bread they had received from the elves. We eat an airy bread too when we need strength. It’s not the bread of elves, but it is the Bread of Angels: the Holy Eucharist. It is the Bread of Life and the medicine of immortality.
Remember the hobbits also found themselves offering prayers of deliverance to a beautiful woman whom Sam called “the Lady.” She was Galadriel, a woman bathed in light, a royal woman held in reverence by the elves. She bestowed gifts on Frodo and his companions to help and protect them in their journey. It’s pretty obvious who Tolkien had in mind in creating this character. Mary is the beautiful woman who gives us gifts for our journey, whose shining light inspires us, and whose prayers assist us.
In their difficult journey and mission, Frodo and his friends were like sheep led to the slaughter. Their love for each other required them to resist Sauron’s evil, even unto death. They repeatedly offered to lay down their lives for their friends. Our Lord says in today’s Gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The most important thing I can say to our graduates is also what Jesus said in today’s Gospel: “remain in His love.” Jesus said to the disciples: “Remain in my love…. I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.” If we live by these teachings, remaining in Christ’s love and loving one another, ready to lay down our life for our friends, we find joy, true joy, everlasting joy.
Graduates, you have learned these truths in your Catholic education. I pray that you go forth with these convictions deep in your hearts, the belief that good conquers evil, that love is more powerful even than death, and that the primal reality is light, not darkness. J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological story teaches us a most profound truth that is revealed fully in the Incarnation of the Son of God, that, as Saint John writes: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” May you go forth in that light, the light of Christ, the source of truth and goodness and beauty! I pray that you will follow Him, within the fellowship of friends that are His Church, that you will continue to mature in faith, hope, and love, and that you will grow in holiness. That’s our calling. Never underestimate your dignity and destiny! I pray you go forth with passion and purpose, with faith and with courage. May the power of the Holy Spirit guide, protect, and inspire you always!