I recently graduated with my Master of Arts degree in Religion. Graduation weekend at my small school, resembling something like the Easter Triduum with black hats and robes, was packed with various ceremonies. First there was the traditional Baccalaureate Mass (followed by the kind of reception where you could make dinner out of the hors d’oeuvres). Saturday afternoon was the actual graduation ceremony. Long, boring, pomp and circumstance, typical.
In all, I participated in five graduation events. But something in between these ceremonies, something small yet moving, will stick in my memory as the occasion of my “real” graduation.
My school has an annual tradition of a lay sending ceremony, a small ceremony sandwiched in between the Baccalaureate Mass and Graduation. This event, planned completely by students, serves as an opportunity to recognize lay students and bless them and the work that they will do for the Church. Most of my classmates were receiving a Master of Divinity degree and desired to work in some form of ministry. Many of them had field placements to supplement their classroom education, and they had been working at hospitals, prisons, churches, and schools. I, on the other hand, had spent my two years at graduate school distancing myself from this kind of education. Interested only in an academic approach to religion and the Church, I have never considered myself a “lay minister.” I struggle to even identify myself as Catholic, often referring to myself as “catholic with a lowercase ‘c.’” Yet by an accident of miscommunication and misunderstanding, I found myself on the couches of the school lobby helping plan this year’s lay sending ceremony. And I didn’t leave. As my classmates started to discuss their vision for this ceremony, I wrestled with feelings of, “This is unnecessary and it doesn’t even pertain to me,” and, “But maybe if I helped craft the lay sending, it could.”
To give credit where it is due, my classmates played a much greater role than I did in preparing the lay sending ceremony. I voted on a few songs and presiders, but I wasn’t sure if my voice even belonged in this event. While I had made a sharp distinction between myself and the M.Div. students, the school had made that distinction even clearer. Because we were not included in emails about M.Div potlucks or extra classes on ministerial topics, my fellow MA students and I often felt like outsiders. We created our own community, though, hiding under stacks of books with gin and tonics and weekly episodes of Gossip Girl to give our thesis-weary brains some much-needed rest. And yet, as the event unfolded in front of me that Saturday morning, I knew I belonged. It was the kind of gut feeling of belonging and welcome that is rare and should be treasured—- the feeling you get when the mailman knows your name or when you look at the spring flowers blooming in median and think, “I remember you from last year!”—- the feeling of home.
The ceremony included readings from scripture, some songs, and a speech by a beloved professor (a female, which we were very intentional about). Then, we were invited to come up one by one and receive a blessing from our presiders, two kind professors who have helped form us into better ministers. As the choir, made up of friends, sang the Litany of the Saints, I felt pulled into the significance of the ceremony. Despite struggling with the Church on issues like women’s ordination, homosexuality, and the sexual abuse crisis, my friends were committing to a life of ministry. They may not believe that the Church is good, but they do believe that it can be. They may never make enough money to pay off their student loans, but they believe that their call is worth it anyway. And though I am not setting out to be a “minister” in the typical sense of the word, I desired to be blessed and formally sent to be an active lay member of the Church. Because I do believe that the Church can be good, and I do believe that the call is
worthwhile. The ceremony helped me see that I have found a home in the Church, both beautiful and flawed, and upon graduating I feel better prepared to share it with others. The ceremony also helped me to see that we are all called: those who aspire to be academics and those who long to show God’s love in hospitals and high schools. And, upon finding a community that embraces us and helps us feel like we’ve found a home, we are all sent.
Brittney Smith is a recent graduate of the Graduate Theological Union/Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, CA. This summer, she will say goodbye to redwood trees and return to Texas, the motherland, to begin work as a chapel and event coordinator. This picture, taken from her porch in Berkeley, has been burned into her memory as the place where she continually found her self being called and sent.
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