We hear so much about problems with our schools today. St. Sebastian’s School of Needham, Massachusetts, a Catholic day school, is known for its rigorous academic program and for teaching a strong sense of personal responsibility. No wonder its motto is “Love God, work hard, and take good care of one another.” The following remarks were made by its headmaster, William L. Burke III, to a group of students at St. Sebastian’s earlier this week. 

I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work. (John 4:38)

I feel as though this message is aimed directly at me. For richly blessed indeed was I to arrive at St. Sebastian’s in 1990 and begin right away reaping and sharing in the fruits for which I had not labored. The many intelligent, talented, devoted, courageous, visionary, selfless leaders such as founding and early trustees Jack Birmingham ’59, Tom Swan ’60, Brad Griffith ’58, and Bishop John Boles ’47, cooperated with our gracious and loving God, the giver of all good gifts and with many heroic people in giving freely and fully of themselves to build up our great school. Truly, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and we are forever in their debt…

The essence of life is in relationships. Your teachers, coaches, advisors, moderators, mentors, and friends connect with each of you soul to soul; they model and demand the best virtue.

I thought of all of us blessed to be here in our church, in our school, in our country, and on our planet this summer, when I read these words in Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History”:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Some of what I’m about to share with you this morning, I offered in our faculty meeting last week.


In his new best-selling book, “The Road to Character,” New York Times columnist David Brooks writes: “Everybody needs redemptive assistance from the outside – from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.”

Our school is a great school because we open ourselves to all of these powers and in a special way because our awesome faculty is filled with true exemplars. The essence of life is in relationships. Your teachers, coaches, advisers, moderators, mentors, and friends connect with each of you young men soul to soul; they model and demand the best virtues; they inspire you to fall ever more deeply in love with learning; they call you to greatness in body, mind, and spirit; they love you, and you respond so beautifully well. As Noah Hanifin ’15 remarks: “You’re around so many good people that your standards get raised.”

Who do you think would win the Presidency?

Our year’s theme often comes to me in prayer, is sometimes suggested by a colleague, and this year has arrived via Pope Francis, who last spring announced that the period from Dec. 8 to Nov. 20, 2016, would be designated an extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy. So Mercy it is, and we at St. Sebastian’s are blessed to be getting an early start.

Here we have our theme: mercy. One simple word of just five letters, and yet, we devote our lives in striving to grasp its deepest meaning.

An extraordinary Holy year, the 29th such year declared by the Church since the tradition began over 700 years ago, is generally announced every 25 years or so. What a graced year for us! Our Holy Father declares an extraordinary holy year, and he will soon be visiting our country.

From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has celebrated mercy, as he offers here: “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned His gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff. I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in the spirit of penance.”

When he announced the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis shared the following:

“We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace … Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness … ”

Mercy will always be greater than any sin.

Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive.

Pope Francis has also described mercy as a FORCE, writing: “Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope … a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon.”

We learn in our religion classes of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which Pope Francis urges us to practice in these words:

“Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead.”

So here we have our theme: mercy. One simple word of just five letters, and yet, though we devote our lives in striving to grasp its deepest meaning, we will fall far short of the mark, for mercy is the work of God, whose goodness and greatness are beyond us. But on we’ll struggle, and so much the better for our earnest efforts will we surely be.

We do not have to search far and wide in literature to encounter mercy.

In Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” Portia begs Shylock to be merciful in these famous words.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Clearly, you gentlemen experience this double gift of mercy whenever you engage in community service. How often you express your firm belief that you receive more than you give. One can’t help another without experiencing the joy of uplifted spirit.

It is my great hope and high expectation that we will all grow in our understanding of and commitment to the practice of mercy this year.

As the Dalai Lama puts it:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
By those standards, the Good Samaritan must be counted among the happiest characters in the Bible.

It is my great hope and high expectation that we will all grow in our understanding of and commitment to the practice of mercy this year.

I can tell you that our very own Dan Williams ’68 did his part in helping me gain a deeper sense of mercy many years ago, when he exclaimed emphatically: “God hasn’t given me what I deserve! Thank God!”

When I shared this anecdote with one of our new trustees, he led me to these concepts:

Justice is getting what we deserve.
Mercy is not getting what we deserve.
Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.

Mercy is a bridge, a pardon, a release, a lift, a gift from the heart, a second chance, an ocean of forgiveness.

Pope Benedict XVI makes this bold statement: God’s passionate love for his people — for humanity — is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice.

Mercy is a bridge, a pardon, a release, a lift, a gift from the heart, a second chance, an ocean of forgiveness. The very definition of unconditional love, mercy is an unselfish act, a powerful force. Mercy is a life-giving decision. Inspired by our beloved Chaplain, Father John Arens, I proclaim that Mercy is what we practice, what we do, what we give, when we’re most open and attuned to the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our weakness within us and among us. Unmerited, unearned, pure, pure gift.

It occurs to me that we really only have two categories of essential relationship. The first and by far the most important is the relationship each of us has with our loving, kind, ever merciful God, Who loved us first and Who loves us more than we can love. What comfort we take in the psalms! The Lord is kind and merciful. (Psalm 103) His mercy endures forever. (Psalm 136)

In the Divine Mercy Chaplet, we pray: You expired, Jesus, but the source of life gushed forth for souls, and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world. O Fount of Life, unfathomable Divine Mercy, envelop the whole world and empty Yourself out upon us.

The mercy that God showers upon is truly divine, and as such, is far, far greater than any gift we could ever deserve.

The second category of relationship is the relationship we humans enjoy with our sisters and brothers in our community and across the globe. The connection between mercy and deserving on the human level sparkles brilliantly in Robert Frost’s long dramatic poem, “The Death of the Hired Man.”

We can choose to uplift and support and refrain from teasing, chirping, badgering, bullying, humiliating, and tearing down, and we can refuse to tolerate those who do.

Mary rushes out of the house when she hears her husband’s truck roll up the driveway and informs him that Silas, their aged former hired man, has come home to die. Warren, her husband, angrily challenges her, reminding her that Silas was an old, broken down, all-but-useless worker who had abandoned them at haying time. And besides all that, this is not his home. Mary wins the day with this inspired response:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.

Our faith teaches and our exemplars show that Silas and every human being deserves the dignity, honor, respect, and love due him or her as a genetically unrepeatable gift from God made in the image and likeness of God.

I submit that mercy has nothing to do with deserving, when it comes from God to us. But, fundamentally, mercy has everything to do with deserving in the human to human realm. And we do not have to strain to hear its call. At a base level, we sort of owe mercy to each other in a we’re all in this together sense, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow suggests in this couplet:

Being all fashioned of the self-same dust,

Let us be merciful as well as just.

In sacred scripture, we find many passages juxtaposing justice or judgment with mercy and many reminders that if we want to be treated with mercy, we must treat others with mercy.

For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)

Blest are they who show mercy: mercy shall be theirs. (Matthew 5:7 – The Sermon on the Mount)

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And the poets really have fun with this concept:

In John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” we hear:

…yet I shall temper so
Justice with mercy.

In Alexander Pope’s “Universal Prayer”:

Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To right the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.

In John Dryden’s “The Hind and the Panther”:

Reason to rule, mercy to forgive:
The first is law, the last prerogative.

Prerogative … choice. God has blessed us with freedom of choice and lets us participate in His work. It’s our decision. We can be kind and merciful or we can be hard-hearted and withhold mercy.

When and where can we show mercy? All of the time and everywhere, we can be kind and merciful. We can choose to uplift and support and refrain from teasing, chirping, badgering, bullying, humiliating, and tearing down, and we can refuse to tolerate those who do. Neutrality is not an option.

In his acceptance speech at the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Elie Wiesel, who lost family members and suffered the horrors of the Holocaust in Nazi concentration camps, offered these memorable words:

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim…silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

So the next time someone is being mistreated in your presence, or the next time someone tells a racist or sexist or any other kind of demeaning joke to you or within earshot, consider approaching him, with love in your heart, looking him in the eye, and offering these words: “You’re better than that.” Motivate the better angels of his nature. Help him reset the course of his life. Help him be better than he used to be. Help him become the man he wants to be.

Who wins? The tormented, the tormentor, you.

I’ve never met a happy lazy person, and I’ve never met a happy tormentor. We are happy here because we Love God, we work hard, and we take good care of one another.

You gentlemen strive to do what God, your parents, and your teachers have done for you. Give what you have been given. Be kind and merciful. Call others to greatness.

And when we fall short of our goals, when we miss golden opportunities to do the next right thing or when we make a mistake, no matter how big, let us remember that we always and forever have access to the two most powerful forces in the universe: our gracious, loving, and merciful God and people of good will through whom our Lord works. And this School is full of such people. God will always receive us and never leave us, and your St. Sebastian’s family is here for you forever.

We are never alone, so when we stumble, let us atone. And what a great word that is! If it ever shows up on a vocabulary quiz, the answer will be right in front of you. All you have to do is put a space between the “t” and the “o,” and atone becomes at one. We’ll admit our faults, amend our ways, repair relationships, and once again be at one with God and each other…  May we grow in mercy and may we spend ourselves fully in pulling together with you and for you, the boys in our boat!