Religion Column: Commencement

Published 7:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2017

By Fr. Jonathan J. Filkins

Ah, spring is in the air, and a whiff of summer too. With the Memorial Day weekend behind us, many of us look forward to the commencement of cookouts, boils and vacations. It is that time, once again, to experience the outdoors and relive many of our traditions and experience new places. Whether it is a trip to the mountains, a sunny beach, or only into the back yard, our yearnings for someplace, seems to be the recurring call.

Others among us hear a different call. For all off the graduates, from all of the many elementary, secondary, colleges and universities, their commencements have an even greater significance. No longer are they relegated to their pasts, as they now begin new journeys. Some will continue on their studies; some will end theirs, for now. Some will never return to the classroom, having concluded they have enough learning experience to get on with life.

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As part of the graduation tradition, most educational institutions arrange for a keynote speaker to deliver a thought-provoking and motivational discourse. Often the speaker will wax poetic about their successes and what motivated them in their lives.

Typically, there is a bit of sage advice sprinkled in for good measure. All of this is well and good, of course, but the reality is most pending graduates are looking forward to getting their diploma and then off to party. Another reality is the discourse is soon forgotten.

However, there was one commencement address which has withstood the test of time. It has been noted for its brevity, sincerity and ability to convincingly convey the message of what it takes to take on the world.

It was no very long, after the end of World War II, and the scene was a brilliantly lit sunny day, being held as an outdoor graduation ceremony at a prestigious ivy league institution.

The breeze rustled the emerald leaves in the oaks and the murmurs of the assembled throng related the excitement of the presence of a great man. On that day, Sir Winston Churchill was to speak. It was he, this visionary leader, who is often credited for being the most significant personality in the victory of Great Britain, over the Axis Powers, and against impossible odds.

The crowd hushed, as the familiar figure, with his bulldog appearance, slowly ascended to the dais. Surveying the crowd, Sir Winston with great deliberation removed his top hat; gently setting it down upon the table next to his podium.

Silenced reigned, as the anticipation grew. The first words came softly, “Never quit.” Afterwards, the orator deliberately looked into the eyes of each gowned figure, as if these words were for each of them. The clock ticked. Five minutes passed, then eight, as some began to fidget their seats.

After what seemed a very long time, now with greater volume and emphasis, “Never quit!” Once again, the long gaze of Sir Winston fell upon those before him and the silence continued, as before.

Finally, the words, “NEVER QUIT” were delivered for the final time. With these words, echoing in the ears of those present, Sir Winston slowly placed his hat upon his head, and quietly ambled to his empty chair.

The graduation ceremony turned into bedlam, with a standing ovation, lasting over twenty minutes. It has been hailed as the best commencement speech of all time.

These six extraordinary words, from such a great man, are words for us too. As we begin the commencement of each of our days, they ring true to our purpose and what we are called to do by our Creator. Of course, we get discouraged, but it is when we quit that we find despair.

Every best wish to all of our graduates.