Traditionally, the months of May and June are set aside for commencement exercises. Secondary schools and colleges pay their annual tribute to students who have earned diplomas after years of study.

It is one of the signature moments in the life of a young man or woman, and often leaves a lasting impression. The families of the graduates are delighted and undoubtedly relieved that their children have successfully completed a rite of passage.

If we wish to understand and appreciate the English language, we would do well to learn the origin of words, their roots. Consider the English word “graduate:” It is derived from the Latin word, “grad,” which means “step.” A grad or graduate takes the next step on the educational ladder.

Why must one take the initial step? Where do the steps lead? What consequences are there for the student if he or she should take a step backwards? Are the only winners in life the graduates — and are all those who never graduate society’s tragic victims?

For many in our secular, consumer society, the great aim of a student’s education is to afford the opportunity to achieve success in life. High grades and test scores may qualify the graduate for well-paying jobs and the possibility of amassing wealth and achieving notoriety.

Indeed, the only effective motivation teachers and parents use about schools nowadays is, “You’ve got to get a good education, or you’ll never get a decent [that is, high-paying] job.” Failure to earn a diploma often translates to abject failure. Realizing the “American dream” is the chief concern of many educators and parents.   

One of the truly outstanding spiritual writers of the last century was English author Caryll Houselander. In 1944, the world was at war and many of Europe’s promising youth perished on the battlefield. The horrors of war gave Ms. Houselander a much-needed perspective on what she considered the true aims of education.

That year, she wrote the following: “A boy is told that the object of his life is to ‘get somewhere,’ and that means to get money; that it is up to him to ‘make good,’ and that means to make money. From his tenderest years, he is submitted to nerve-wracking tests of his potential money-making capacity.

“The school examinations have come to mean that he must pass well, because otherwise he will not get a good job: in other words, a job with a good salary. Education is no longer primarily intended to teach him to serve God, or to enrich his life, but only to give him a passport into the commercial scramble.”

Later, she writes: “Even without the lesson of war, those who have lived long enough know that death finally defeats money, that there are dissensions and troubles between people that money cannot heal, and that at best the power it has is temporary and uncertain. The war has shown even the inexperienced, the young, that you cannot depend on money. In less than a few seconds, the richest man’s home becomes a heap of rubble; at the same moment, the little son is killed.”

The word “educate” is a combination of two Latin words that mean “drawing out.” If a teacher draws out from the student those innate gifts that come from the Creator, the teacher has succeeded in his or her vocation and has rendered an invaluable service to God. The student’s quest for God, even if it is unconscious, can receive a much-needed boost from the ones responsible for his formation, his teachers. Their example truly matters!

The graduate continues on a path that will eventually lead to God. Once the student is in the company of the Lord at the end of his or her earthly pilgrimage, there will be no further need to take any additional steps. The journey will have come to an end.

Even the student with a minimum of formal education and no college degree may have an advantage over the most brilliant of students, so long as he or she has a sense of where all roads in life and death must eventually lead. Such is the mystery of divine grace!

G. K. Chesterton once wrote that education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to the next. If many graduates are sadly confused today, it is because education has lost its soul and its bearings.

Failure to inform the graduates where the steps lead them in life and death is a disservice and a profound injustice to their creator. At the end of the day, the primary purpose of a Catholic, Christian education is to lead students to adoration and worship of the one, true God.

If a graduate truly believes that the purpose of life can be traced to the one who blesses us with the gift of intelligence, then he or she will recognize the wisdom of following the path ordained by the Lord, the greatest of all teachers!

(Father Yanas is pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Troy.)