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It’s Not “Just” A Symbol


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Catholics bristle when the Eucharist is referred to as a symbol not simply because we believe in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament but also because we have come to think a symbol is merely “like” what it represents, standing for something that is absent, not present.

But a deeper understanding of this word shows that a true symbol catches up in itself more than it could possibly be imagined to contain. Infinitely more than the sum of its parts, a symbol holds and reveals more than it appears to be: a universe of meaning, experience and reality. A symbol does not stand alone. Ritual activity functions as the context in which a symbol is proclaimed, celebrated and entered into by those who revere it.

While not in the least attempting to put the Eucharist and graduation ceremonies on equal footing, let me suggest that a university commencement is a ritual of symbol-making in just the sense I have described.

Commencement is an initiation rite through which new members are welcomed by the already initiated. Vested in caps and gowns and academic hoods, participants form a procession respecting and honoring the academy’s hierarchy from doctor to bachelor. There are words, signs and gestures of acceptance, belonging and relationship. Consider the valedictory and other speeches; the conferral of degrees, the calling of names, the imposition of doctoral hoods, the awarding of medals; and the presentation of diplomas caligraphed with longed-for credentials, handed down from authority to those now fully recognized as sons and daughters of the alma mater.

Commencement is a complex ritual through which the life of the school disclosed, celebrated and entered into by those who revere its symbols and the reality they hold and reveal.

On account of all this, a graduate proudly displays a diploma so that others will know that he or she has a personal share in the universe of meaning and life particular to the school whose seal the parchment bears.

A university can play a football game (with its own rituals) on any Saturday afternoon but commencement is a truly special event requiring the full complement of the school’s “players.” Commencement bears and hands on, literally, the stamp, the seal of the institution’s approval and witness. The symbolic ritual of commencement gathers up in itself all that the school is and makes present its reason for being: the love of learning, in pursuit of the truth, in service of humankind. And in the case of a Catholic university, the learning, truth and service are intimately bound up with faith in God and the mission of the Church.

Commencement, then, is not “just” a symbol but rather a reality disclosing a universe of meaning. Commencement is the school’s annual ritual for making symbol of its history, purpose, accomplishments and its hope for the future.

It is to just this moment that the University of Notre Dame has invited President Barack Obama and not merely as a guest. He will receive a parchment bearing the University’s seal, honoring him as a Doctor of Laws. He will be clothed with the school’s colors and with its academic mantle. In the commencement address, his will be the principal voice in Notre Dame’s annual rite of passage and prestige.

The University’s invitation to President Obama and his acceptance of it are not the business of coming together at a common table for dialogue -- although true to Notre Dame’s ethos such a meeting would be. Commencement is neither a seminar nor a symposium. Commencement is a ritual revelation of the university’s mind, heart and soul: commencement is a symbol of Notre Dame, in the best and deepest sense of that word.

Both Barack Obama and Notre Dame know this well and, for weal and for woe, each has seized an opportunity.

Father Fleming is Pastor at Holy Family Parish, Concord and a 1980 Notre Dame graduate.

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