Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Graduations and symbolism

By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY | Published May 23, 2013

Move your tassels to the left! With that announcement, hundreds of our Catholic high school seniors have succeeded at moving from being students at our local schools to becoming alumni thereof. The widespread use of a mortarboard and the accompanying tassel perhaps has Catholic clerical roots. Some believe that the mortarboard itself may be an academic variation on the biretta that clerics all once wore. The changing of the position of the tassel has a less certain origin. Nevertheless, its symbolic movement indicates that these young people have taken an important step toward their futures as they leave their high school years behind them.

Our seven Sacraments are all symbolic actions that really produce the effect that they symbolize. However, we humans encounter many other symbolic activities throughout our lives—even in this highly secular environment in which we live—that nonetheless have important lessons to impart.

Graduations are brimming with such moments. Mortarboards and tassels, diplomas, and achievement awards all indicate the completion of something and the beginning of something new. These symbols help to express important transitions in the lives of our youngsters.

Most of our graduates will leave for college or other adult occupations in the fall. I hope that they will carefully judge the many other symbolic occasions that will await them in the future. Lots of those moments will challenge their Catholic faith, as they will offer ethical and moral options that run counter to everything that their parents, families and parishes have tried to impart to them. There is a usual rejection of certain family customs and traditions that all young people face when they are away from home and on their own for the first time. There are also dangers that they will need to confront. We pray that they will be mature and faith-filled in judging those moments.

Principal Steve Spellman was particularly direct in admonishing the graduates from St. Pius X High School when he told them in his remarks at the ceremony to go to Mass together with other Catholic kids and classmates when they are at college. It was an admonition from a first-rate Catholic educator—and also a very loving father. Practicing your Catholic faith at college is always easier when you have a buddy, a friend or a group of young people like yourself who come together to renew and confirm their friendships and their faith. Find the Newman community at your college—even if you must travel some distance to find the place where young Catholic students come to pray and to socialize.

I know that we have many non-Catholics who also attend our schools, and their presence is likewise a blessing for us as well as for them. I furthermore admonish them to be dedicated to their own faith traditions at college. Because they are graduates of a Catholic school, we want them to embrace the importance of their own religious heritages as an expression of the faith encouragement that they have received in one of our schools.

Moving a tassel from one side of the mortarboard to the other is a symbolic gesture that indicates that a young person has completed the educational requirements of a school. We pray that all those who have recently moved an academic tassel will now move into their young adulthood with the courage, insight and competence to witness to all of the things that they have learned in our Catholic schools, including the fundamental importance of religious faith in charting a successful way of living in the world that they will soon lead and govern.