Advice to graduates

| May 21, 2020 | 0 Comments

The Catholic Spirit invited Catholics in various leadership positions throughout the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to share advice for the class of 2020. The following is a selection of those responses. They have been lightly edited for style and space.

Many years ago a young man, not much older than you, found himself isolated. Recently ravaged by war, his country and culture were now terrorized by a brutal occupation. Because of threats to himself and his loved ones from the outside, his life became centered around a smaller circle behind drawn curtains and closed doors. Although it was difficult, it was behind those closed doors that this young man found out who he truly was. Stories were told, songs were sung, plays were acted out and Masses were held. Yes, his life was upended. To be sure, his plans were changed. But in some incomprehensible way, his trials made him better able to hear God’s call.

In time, he would be ordained a priest. And Father Karol Wojtyla would live an unparalleled life of trial and triumph, faith and frailty as the great Pope John Paul II.

St. John Paul II, as he is now regarded, was known for two great mottos: “Be not afraid,” and “Totus tuus (Totally yours).”

My friends, the times in which you are graduating are simultaneously frustrating and frightening, but rest assured in these truths: You are dignified and defined not by your accomplishments or your shortcomings, but by your ineradicable status as a beloved child of God. You are called not to comfort, but to greatness. You will suffer in a world of uncertainty and imperfection. And if you keep your discerning eyes open, you will receive immeasurable grace now and in the life to come.

So, be gentle in your love and strong in your convictions. Follow Truth wherever it beckons you.

Pray unceasingly. A whirling, treacherous, exciting, Spirit-filled life awaits you. Look to God and daily utter the worlds of a saint: “Totus tuus. I am totally yours.”

Congratulations, graduates! Be not afraid.

Dr. Tod Worner
Managing editor, Word on Fire’s Evangelization & Culture Journal


Congratulations graduates! You have faced the unprecedented challenges of this time with unwavering faith, extraordinary courage, resilience and hope for what the future will offer. Your Catholic education has instilled values, attributes and resources that will continue to serve you well, especially in times of challenge and opportunity. Life rarely follows a straight and pre-cleared path, so use all that you have learned and acquired, along with your God- given gifts, to pave your own way. You are the future of our families, communities and world. We love you, wish all of God’s blessings upon you, and are here to support you as your stars continue to shine upon us all.

Emily Piper
Executive director of government relations and contracting, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation


Your senior year will be remembered as historic, by much of the world in a negative way, but it presents an opportunity to you that few people will ever have. By virtue of your Catholic upbringing, you have been given a great gift of faith. Your task now is to discern your true calling, which your heart will know because of the peace that the Holy Spirit will bestow on you when you hear it. Answer the call. Every generation sees troubles, but your opportunity is to be Christ for others in a world filled with troubles not seen in a century.

To those who are fearful, be reassuring. To those who are ill, be a healing presence. To those who are struggling in any number of ways, large or small, be the helping hands of Christ. In whatever you do in this life, set as your goal the attainment of everlasting life. If you stay Christ-centered, then all will be well. Those instructions may sound lofty, but they are precisely what the saints in heaven did as they walked on earth as people just like you.

You can bring the grace of God to others and show them that, in the midst of confusion, Christ is before them, beside them and behind them always. Finally, thank your parents for choosing to raise you in the faith and for all of the sacrifices they have made for you. You can touch lives with Christ’s love. Go out into the world and make him known!

Gail Dorn
President, Catholic Schools Center of Excellence


These are trying times for all of us. Some days it can feel like the world is coming to an end. It’s not! Think of all the generations of Catholics who came before us and all they endured. And not only did we as Catholics survive, we ultimately thrived. You will too. To help you thrive on your journey, I would like to share with you a few of the maxims that guide me. I hope they are helpful to you, too.

  • Remember that everyone has a cross to bear. The only things you don’t know are how big it is and how well equipped they are to carry it. Cut everybody a little slack.
  • Treat others as you would like to be treated. Always. It’s called the Golden Rule for a reason.
  • St. Francis reputedly said, “In all things preach the Gospel and if you must, use words.” Your actions will always speak much louder than your words.
  • Don’t sweat most decisions too much. Make the decision. Then, by your actions, make it turn out to be the right one.
  • Prayer wins out. I know it makes a difference. Find time every day. Find a daily devotional that speaks to you.
  • Have a Positive Mental Attitude, PMA. You will make more of a difference for others and live a richer, more joyful life if you see the glass as half full. Even now.

Congratulations on your graduation and all the best!

Doug Milroy
Former chairman and CEO, G&K Services, Inc.


“For I know well the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for a future full of hope and peace” (Jer 29:13).

Congratulations 2020 graduates! Your commencement has arrived. Though you are ending your high school experience, “commencement” is a beginning. It’s the start of something new. I know that one of the things you are thinking about and looking forward to in this new season of your life is a new kind of freedom. Freedom is a marvelous gift, and how we understand and exercise that freedom will make all the difference in our lives.

The popular notion of freedom is that I get to do whatever I want, when I want. We can be tempted to think that fulfillment in life is found in the pursuit of pleasure or the accumulation of things. However if we use our freedom this way, we end up not free at all. We have freedom because we are made for love. Love that is forced is not love at all. We have freedom so that we can make choices and decisions ordered to love.

When we really love someone we commit ourselves to them and make choices to build our lives, activities, behaviors around them. If we want to be happy and achieve the greatness for which God created us, we must reject the false notion that freedom means keeping all my options open and never choosing and never committing. All this means is that we never love.

Over the next years of your life, you will be making choices that will determine in large part whether all that we legitimately hope for in life and the true happiness we long for are realized. The most important choice you will make is to live in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Your faith will be tested for sure, and if you do not actively choose for your faith, you will likely lose it. Choose right now to pray every day, to attend Mass, to find good friends and faith community, and to seek out wise mentors. The Lord has an amazing call for your life. Choose to seek the Lord and his call and offer to him your whole future. Therein lies the path to “peace that passes understanding” (Phil 4:7), “indescribable joy” (1 Pt 1:8), and immeasurable and inexpressible love.

Gordy DeMarais
President and founder, St. Paul’s Outreach


You are graduating at a time of particular challenge. I don’t mean the coronavirus, but the cultural climate in which we live. Our secular culture encourages you to settle for a one-dimensional life of consumerism and “self-expression.” It instructs you to be satisfied with shallow, shifting personal relationships and a post-secondary education awash in trendy clichés.

C.S. Lewis, the great Christian thinker, saw this coming decades ago. Ironically, in our prosperous era that does not know God, he suggested, our ambitions are too small, not too big.

“If we consider the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels,” wrote Lewis, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

As you go out into the world, recall Jesus’ charge to his disciples: “Be not afraid.” Reject the secular culture’s recipe for a flat, uninspired life.

At college, insist that your teachers acquaint you with the cultural treasures of Western civilization. Don’t be satisfied with temporary intimate relationships, but devote yourselves to building a loving, lasting marriage and a rich family life.

Take up the quest for the true, good and beautiful. Live life on the spiritual seashore — the life “lived in color” that God meant human beings to have.

Katherine Kersten
Senior policy fellow, Center of the American Experiment


Congratulations. You have the gift of graduating in interesting times! You also have the gift of education, with a connection to the Catholic faith. I suggest you ponder what you will do with these gifts by asking yourself three questions:

  • Your education provides privilege and opportunity. How will this change what you do?
  • You have now learned the basics of Catholic social teaching and traditions. What renditions of these traditions will guide you?
  • You have been exposed to much vitriol and meanness in our public discourse. Can you help model humility and restraint to put us on a better course?

You may not feel privileged, as the uncertainty of the pandemic weighs on you. You will have to work hard, but your God-given gifts and education offer you the opportunity and likelihood of a standard of living of which the vast majority of the 7.8 billion people in our human family would be envious.

Justice, peace, human rights, and pursuit of the common good with a preference for the poor and vulnerable are among the building blocks of Catholic social teaching, all of which work together to promote and defend the fundamental dignity of each human person. You have the opportunity to bend the post-pandemic arc of history toward these values in ways large and small.

Kindness is not weakness. Compromise is not corrupting. Acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God will bring you joy (Mi 6:8). Keep the faith — Feel As If There’s Hope!

Tim Marx
CEO, Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis


Traditionally, at graduation we offer hardy congratulations for years of academic accomplishments and to let you know how proud we are of each of you! Traditionally, at graduation we offer hardy congratulations for years of academic accomplishments and let you know how proud we are of each of you! To the class of 2020 that is true and appropriate, but seems to miss the mark on a year that turned so quickly in the last two months. “We are sorry” and acknowledging that you were robbed of a spring full of traditions and rites of passage, feel more genuine. Times are scary, but will not last. “Do not tremble, do not be afraid.”

After graduation is usually filled with some uncertainty. You have studied and passed many tests. You earned diplomas that signify you have mastered skills necessary to take on uncertainty. You possess a preparedness to meet new challenges.

As a Catholic, you have also been given a gift greater than the lessons learned in the classroom. You have been given a gift of faith that will carry you through the joys and the challenging times ahead, like COVID. I didn’t completely appreciate my Catholic education and faith until my 20’s.

Your faith foundation, like your education, can’t be taken away and will always be there for you to grow upon and develop. Your faith, will be instrumental to handle the blessings and the disappointments of life. “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you. …Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged.” Celebrate what lies ahead, certainly your futures are promising and brighter than the times we are in.

Rep. Jon Koznick
State representative, Lakeville; assistant minority leader


Congratulations! High school graduation is truly a milestone. It’s a time of excitement — to try your wings — and uncertainty — what should I do with my life?

Life has a way of taking us to places we did not expect. Sometimes life throws us a curve ball or adversity. For your generation it is COVID-19. For my generation it was the Vietnam War. How will you deal with adversity?

Here is what I know to be true: You have been giving three important gifts to help you address life’s challenges. First, you have received the gift of God’s love. When I discovered that Jesus truly loved me, it changed everything. He knocked on the door of my heart with a gentle voice inviting me to follow him (Rev 3:20; 1 Kings 19:12; Mt 4:19). My response was to say yes to him and to accept his love and friendship (Jn 15:9). Say yes and let his Holy Spirit guide your life (Jn 14:25). Keep your mind and heart focused on building a relationship with Jesus. He will be a friend to you for your entire life.

Second, you have been given a quality education. The ability to critically analyze will help you navigate the world.

Third, have faith and hope in Jesus. Sometimes fears, apprehensions and concerns can get the best of us. But remember our hope is not in the world. Instead our hope is in Jesus. Also, having a mentor is helpful. Pick someone who knows you and isn’t afraid to speak the truth to you.

I wish you every success in life. We believe in you. You have the opportunity to use COVID-19 to define the character of your generation. Chose to serve the Lord. Third, have faith and hope in Jesus. Sometimes fears, apprehensions and concerns can get the best of us. But remember our hope is not in the world. Instead, our hope is in Jesus. Also, having a mentor is helpful. Pick someone who knows you and isn’t afraid to speak the truth to you.

I wish you every success in life. We believe in you. You have the opportunity to use COVID-19 to define the character of your generation. Chose to serve the Lord.

Justice Christopher Dietzen
Retired associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court


Congratulations! You have taken an important step in the journey of life! And while it may not feel like it, you have also recently been blessed with one of the most cherished skills you — the leaders of tomorrow — can possess: the ability to thrive in uncertainty.

The past few months have been filled with unanswered questions. Some are short term: What will graduation look like? Will I be able to walk wearing my cap and gown?

Some are long term: What am I doing next? What CAN I do next?

One thing of which I am certain is that hidden beneath the many questions you have been asking is a powerful truth: The class of 2020 has been given gifts that, if embraced, will grant you, your families and our community with success for years to come.

You have been given the opportunity to face adversity head on, to persevere in times of constant change and to learn to be nimble while achieving your goals.

These are the experiences that mold women and men into society’s best leaders. While you may not end this stage of your lives with the same pomp and circumstance you expected, you’ve been given something far more valuable. Grab on to it. Ask questions, listen to the answers, learn everything you can ….— then ask more questions.

Finally, remember what guided you to where you are today: your faith, your family and your friends. Be thankful for all of God’s gifts — those that we are born with and those challenges he presents us.

Godspeed!

Jean Houghton
President, Aim Higher Foundation


Virtual classes, award ceremonies, graduation. While most of us remember when we graduated and the traditions that went with it, you will remember it for all that did not happen. Instead, I believe, you received at least three special gifts inside of terrible wrapping paper that will serve you well for the rest of your lives.

  • Deal with roadblocks; reach your destination anyway. As frustrating as this experience has been, you made it anyway. Treasure that feeling of accomplishment. With the great achievements of your life will come great disappointments. Draw confidence from the roadblocks you have already overcome.
  • Choose your attitude; it is all you really control. It is about your belief in yourself and others. It is about taking personal responsibility, accepting the situation, and making the most out of it though you did not choose it. It will not be the last time you experience this in your life.
  • Love what is real, honest, and true; there is nothing virtual about God and love. God did not bring you to this place to abandon you. Faith is real. Hope is real. Love is real. And we know the greatest of these, don’t we? Love.

There will be a “new” on the other side of this; you have the great opportunity to help determine what that is through your determination, your attitude and choosing love. With great confidence and hope in you, I offer you my deepest and warmest congratulations.

Becky Roloff
President, St. Catherine University


Greetings in the spirit of mercy and thanksgiving as you conclude your studies and prepare for your “next” within the context of our present moment. The word “context” from the Latin “contextere” is translated as “to weave together,” which frames what I believe will be our collective work and especially your specific task as you move forward with an attitude of grace, mercy and hope. Specifically, I would advise that you take a moment to creatively express your gratitude to your family, friends and others who have supported you thus far on your journey and at the same time, invite God to assist you in gaining a deeper understanding of what it means to move forward faithfully while building on the lessons from your journey. Weaving together your understanding with the present moment, I urge you to take the Holy Father’s advice and “go to the periphery” internally and externally as you make wise choices that will support your ultimate vocation and advocation. Fully expect change and disruption along the way, but know that you are capable of mending and weaving your way forward with God’s love and merciful work.

Appreciating the crucible of change and your inability to celebrate what is tradition, I would offer that this may be an invitation for you to make a new set of traditions and post them on your preferred social media platform.

St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that “compassion is the fire that Jesus came to set on the earth” and St. Ignatius urges us all to go out and “set the world on fire.”

May you be blessed during this time of celebration and find ways to express abundant joy.

Reynolds-Anthony Harris
Founder, Lyceum Partners + design Inc.


If you take one thing away from reading this paragraph, it is this: “Do not fear change; embrace the changes you are about to face.”

Your steps after high school are about personal growth; and growth happens with change. College is the process of having new experiences: from a new place to live, to new classes, new daily routines, to new hobbies and friends. The key to this next step is your willingness to get out of your comfort zone! Whether your next step is college, a gap year, a year to work or a year to travel, I encourage you to try new things and take hold of the opportunities that come your way.

At first, you may be overwhelmed or nervous, the Lord knows I was! It’s OK to be nervous, that’s the most normal thing to feel! When nervous, I turned to my faith to strengthen me for the change. So trust in the Lord, talk to him daily, and he’ll guide you as you venture into the future. I encourage each of you to embrace the unknown, and take the new opportunities that will come with change.

Kathryn Kueppers
Miss Minnesota 2019-2020


At Chesterton Academy, we started the year with great excitement as were busy moving into a new building. A few months later we all moved out in a daze, and little did we know at the time, it would be for the rest of the school year.

And the poor seniors! You are probably tired of hearing how unique and historic your class is, but still — you really are unique and historic! Hopefully, no other senior class will ever be like it. For instance, this spring the seniors at our school had to put on their Shakespeare play on Zoom. The play, ironically, was “As You Like It,” but it wasn’t the way anybody liked it! Not exactly ideal theater conditions. But unforgettable. I’m sure you all have similar stories. The idea is the same: doing the best you can, with creativity and enthusiasm, within the limitations that have been given you. An outstanding lesson for life.

And now you are about to step into a world that seems drastically different from the world in which you innocently started high school four years ago. But the challenges are still the same. You will be met with economic and social and philosophical chaos. People are not happy and not at peace. Your task? Counteract the virus, and infect the world with some hope and joy. You can do that with the blessing of your education and the greater blessing of your faith. Jesus Christ is our only hope and our only peace.

Dale Ahlquist
President of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Co-Founder of Chesterton Academy


Congratulations to YOU! Each one of you have selected courses, met and made new friends, built relationships with your teachers, counselors and administrators, and have successfully completed the required course requirements to become high school graduates — congratulations! A blessing and a gift! As the graduating class of 2020, graduation looks much different than any graduating class any of us have ever experienced, given this global pandemic. You are a special class of graduates rendering resiliency, grit, flexibility, adaptability, patience, love, support, encouragement and togetherness. Life has a way of showing us who we are, whose we are (God’s children) and some perspective on how each of you can make a difference in our world. Perhaps some of you are interested in social work to assist people and families through difficult times; first responders to keep communities safe; doctors to help the sick and find cures to keep us all healthy and well; spiritual leaders to continue to keep us inspired, faith-filled, philanthropic and humble; civic leaders to focus on our systems, policies and just and equitable laws; or social advocates to keep our world safe, clean and green, lowering emissions, allowing for clean air and sustainability, etc.
Oftentimes we are forced to pivot and change direction towards new circumstances and outcomes. In honor of our graduating seniors this year, in the midst of a global pandemic and uncertainty, I empower us all to continue to display lawn signs, hang banners, host drive-by parades and continue to find creative ways to remain connected and we will get through this together!

Congratulations Class of 2020: I am inspired by YOU: your hopes and dreams, your passions and interests, your remarkable resiliency! “You may not always have a comfortable life. And you will not always be able to solve all the world’s problems all at once. But don’t ever underestimate the impact you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.” — Michelle Obama

Ret. Officer Debbie Montgomery
Former St. Paul Police Department senior commander and St. Paul City Council member


Congratulations and thank you! You mean more to your Church, community, state and nation than perhaps you currently appreciate. Not only are you a source of pride for your family, you represent the hope and promise of a brighter future for us all. Do not let the difficulties of today define your graduating year: social distancing, e-learning, unemployment and no graduation ceremony. Instead, cherish the memories of time spent with family, reach out to those who need a helping hand, learn new ways to strengthen social bonds and be inspired to engage in faithful citizenship.
While others measure 2020 by its scale of personal and societal struggles, I challenge you to embrace these trying times as an opportunity to strengthen one’s character and reinforce your moral compass. Your parents and teachers have been preparing you for more than success in the classroom. Although the exams of high school are behind you, the real tests of life stand before you. Certainly the circumstances of the last few months have caused suffering and hardship for many facets of our daily lives. It is from these times of trial and tribulation that we are formed more fully. As the Easter season reminds us, only through the suffering and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, did we receive the promise of eternal life.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

Craig Sondag
Executive director, Committee on Rules and Regulation, Minnesota State Legislature


It took time, hard work and perseverance to get to this important point in your education.

Congratulations on this major milestone!

You are graduating at an historic moment, when the world is rapidly changing in ways that are unpredictable and new to all of us. While there is a sense of crisis and uncertainty around us, I am filled with hope for you.

Your experience of living through COVID-19, dealing with the losses of your senior year, adapting to new ways of leading, socializing, helping others, learning, etc., has given your class the capacity for resilience. It has made you more adaptable, flexible and prepared for a future of uncertainty.

I believe that this discomfort will help you embrace the world in a way that is needed now more than ever.

The Catholic intellectual tradition calls us to advance the common good, and advocate for truth, beauty and transcendent value and to affirm human dignity in all our interactions. It calls us to listen deeply to, dialogue with and accompany one another.

I leave you with this quote about hope from the founder of Catholic education in our archdiocese, Archbishop John Ireland.

“I seek no backward voyage across the sea of time; I will ever press forward. I believe that God intends the present to be better than the past, and the future to be better than the present.”

I wish you all the best as you press forward to creating a better future for us all.

Julie Sullivan
President, University of St. Thomas


Congratulations on all the accomplishments, big and small, that have brought you to this moment — your high school graduation. COVID-19 makes this occasion in your life different than what you likely expected. I sense and applaud your resilience in the face of so much uncertainty. Resilience helps shape us and form who it is we will become as a result of our experiences. Your resilience, I hope, gives you early insight into how important it is to be optimistic and courageous in all aspects of life. You miss seeing your friends. Yet, it is courageous to recognize the unexpected gift of solitude that current circumstance provide — the unique opportunity to turn from the relentless pace of modern life to the quietness that awakens creativity and a chance to find yourself. I encourage you to embrace this opportunity to embrace solitude and invest in your interior life. When you focus within, you will be delighted to discover yourself, and in so doing, you will discover God’s presence in your life and his light guiding you, calling you to your destiny. Lastly, I encourage you to learn the language of charity. Know that happiness is fleeting but joy, sustained joy, comes from being in service to other(s). Find ways to give, to pass on blessings received. Love the poor, as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “But first of all love the members of our own family.”

You inspire me with your resilience and courage and give me great hope. I wish you the all the best as you move on to the next chapter of your life.

Anne Cullen Miller
President, Catholic Community Foundation of Minnesota


Congratulations! Now brace yourself for the many well-intentioned relatives and loved ones about to ask you, “So what’s next?” Don’t worry, the person asking you that didn’t know what was next when they graduated either; they thought they knew, and then, well, life happened. We predict, we plan, we pick up the pieces and begin again.

Our desire for certainty is at odds with our life experience.

I invite you to have this conversation with your loved ones this weekend. Ask them about the biggest surprises, twists and turns they have experienced since they graduated. Ask them what their plans were when they were your age. Some parts of these stories will be happy, other parts will be sad, others funny, still others fascinating, but as you hear these stories told, listen for the hope and the hidden graces.

These hidden graces are only uncovered by the perspective earned through the passage of time. Your future will be full of twists and turns; trust that God’s grace is there, though often hidden.

I recall when I was 18, I was planning on becoming a priest. Just prior to entering the seminary, where I studied for several years, I went to freshman orientation on campus. I met a beautiful woman in my tour group and thought, “Well, this will never happen.”

I graduated from college and stayed in Minnesota, and she graduated and left for Washington, D.C.

She is currently in the next room with our five children. We’ve been blessed in marriage for almost 14 years, with many twists and turns along the way.

Santo Cruz
Vice president of government and community relations, and associate general counsel at CentraCare Health

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