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Faith in Action: The gift of a graduation ‘tattoo’

Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, poses for a photo with trainees in this undated photo. President Joe Biden awarded Father Boyle the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House May 4, 2024. (OSV News photo/courtesy Homeboy Industries)

I look forward to this issue of the Catholic Standard every year as we celebrate graduations. It’s also a time when I enter writing and speaking mode, as I often give graduation talks at some of the local schools where I’m involved.

Last year, I used a theme developed by my niece, Bridget English, when she spoke six years ago at her own graduation from Georgetown Visitation. She talked about a book by Father Greg Boyle called “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” It’s about his work with gang members and Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program in the world.

Father Boyle is one of my heroes, a Jesuit priest who has given his life – and risked his life – in service of those who are downtrodden and left out. He and his organization help gang members get on a better path, leaving behind the mindset and behaviors that could land them in prison to make a positive difference in their own lives and in their families.

Bridget enjoyed the book, and the title really spoke to her. From that, she built on the idea that we all have marks our hearts. Here is part of what she said:

"How, I wondered, could a person, a place or a community leave such an impression as to be permanently etched on an individual’s most vital organ?

"For us, the Class of 2018, high school is a lot like getting a tattoo – with all of the exhilaration, excitement, rebellion, pain and beauty such an experience entails. And while we reveled in these emotions, we never realized the image that was unfolding on our hearts – an irreplaceable tattoo representing four transformative years."

Bridget emphasized to her fellow graduates how they were different than when they began their journeys four years earlier. The new tattoo on their heart was a way of living, acting and trying to make a difference in the world that would be with them the rest of their lives.

It’s a brilliant insight. All graduates from kindergarten through those receiving advanced degrees have marks from their schools imprinted on them. For those who attend our local Catholic schools, it’s the mark of a strong education that also includes faith formation, a commitment to doing the right thing and a dedication to the principles and values that are part of our faith journeys.

That theme is so powerful – and was so well delivered by my then 17-year-old niece – that I used it last year in my own talks at San Miguel High School, St. John’s College High School, the Academy of the Holy Cross and The Woods Academy.

Graduations call us to look both back and ahead. We celebrate all we’ve accomplished, yes, but we should also recognize all we’ve been given, especially the life-changing blessings of education, formation and love for others.

We look to the future and realize that those gifts, so prevalent in our Catholic schools, are now to be shared, lived and, hopefully, passed on to others and ultimately future generations. As we commence a new journey in a new place and new environment, we bring those gifts and values to a world that desperately needs what we have to offer.

Every year at this time, I’m grateful for the gifts of a Catholic education, the schools where I’m involved, and the ability to celebrate all of that in graduations. In my short homilies, I remind myself, the students and their parents that paying for a Catholic education is one of the greatest gifts you can give, allowing our young people to learn about and live their faith, preparing them to go forth to new opportunities and challenges in the years ahead.

As you can see, I am a big supporter of our Catholic schools, but I am also thankful for our public schools. I hope that they, too, leave positive tattoos on the hearts of their graduates, who then go on to make the world a better place.

Whatever schools you attend, our heart’s first tattoos come from the God who created us, and then our parents, godparents, grandparents and loved ones who taught us how to live and love. May those gifts shine forth in everything you do.

As Father Greg Boyle writes in the book – a quote Bridget also shared in her speech – we are indeed called to shine as God’s lights of the world:

“Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world.’ I like even more what Jesus doesn’t say. He does not say, ‘One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.’ He doesn’t say ‘If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.’ No. He says, straight out, ‘You are light.’ It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it.”

Congratulations graduates! May God continue to bless you and watch over you, and may God help you become the person he created you to be. I hope you have a beautiful tattoo on your heart from these last few years, and that its beauty will help you bring those gifts to all you meet and all you do in the years to come.