At this year’s graduation ceremonies at New York University, pop star Taylor Swift addressed the class of 2022. If you’re not familiar with Taylor Swift, she is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, having sold over 200 million records since her debut album which came out in 2006 when she was 17. During her speech, Swift told the graduates: “I know it can be really overwhelming figuring out who to be, and when. Who you are now and how to act in order to get where you want to go. I have some good news: it’s totally up to you. I also have some terrifying news: It’s totally up to you.” Swift doubtlessly intended these words to be challenging and inspiring to her listeners. But it is a statement that is decidedly not what we believe as Catholics.
To see why, we might conceive of her idea in the following way. Imagine you are floating, all alone, in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight. In which direction do you swim? Now imagine that the whole planet is one vast ocean, such that it doesn’t matter in which direction you go – every direction ultimately leads nowhere. No direction is any better than any other. The only thing that distinguishes one direction from another is that it’s the direction you’ve chosen to go. You are entirely free to go in any direction you want, all are equal in the sense that each offers nothing beyond the opportunity to choose it. That’s the best you can hope for. This is, essentially, the world-view proposed in Swift’s speech. Perhaps it sounds intriguing coming from a young, talented, beautiful, incredibly successful pop star. But it is a philosophy of despair, in which each of us is essentially alone, left to choose for ourselves the meaning of a meaningless existence.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ proposes something completely different. It reveals to us that our existence is not some random, cosmic accident, but a gift. It proposes that life in the world is intelligible and full of meaning, awaiting our discovery. The Gospel is the good news that each of us is known and desired by God, the Creator of all things. The Lord says to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I fashioned you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I consecrated you. A prophet to the nations I appointed you” (Jer 1:5). In the Book of Psalms we hear the author exclaim in wonder: “You formed my inmost being, you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know” (Psalm 139:13-14). So, we are not alone. Our Creator knows us. And He helps us to know Him and to know ourselves and each other through our lives in the Church. In fact, there is an ancient description of the Church as a great ship, the “Barque of Peter,” that navigates the stormy seas like Noah’s Ark. Constructed from the wood of the cross of Christ, it is the lifeboat for we who find ourselves adrift. Pulled aboard from the chaotic waters of meaninglessness that are governed by the powers of sin and death, the rescued members of the Church sail together, singing hymns of praise, to the destination that Our Savior has prepared for us from the foundation of the world.