Monday, June 24, 2024

An Open Letter to Harrison Butker—Thoughts on Vocation and Staying in One's Lane

Dear Mr. Butker,
Congratulations on your second Super Bowl championship. On Super Bowl Sunday, I went from mass to a friend's house where I watched every minute of Super Bowl LVIII. I remember telling another Niners fan that like me, your Catholic faith is an important part of your identity. I learned this from my students who were tasked with researching the faith lives of six players on each team for a group assignment in my Sports and Spirituality class. Given your faith-filled conviction and success, I was not surprised that you were chosen to give a commencement address at Benedictine—a Catholic college in Kansas. 

I just completed my 24th year of teaching Religious Studies in a Catholic secondary school setting. I love graduation, baccalaureate mass and more. In fact, I  make a point of watching the commencement address at my alma mater, The University of Notre Dame every year.  Graduation at a Catholic institution allows us to publicly celebrate, profess and share our faith. I value that faith and reason, tradition, and ritual are longstanding, important components of Catholicism.

It is with this context that I came to watch and listen to your speech. I am aware that you received a standing ovation from the Class of 2024 and that 15 women did not join in this enthusiastic gesture. I can assure you I would be one of the fifteen. I would sit and perhaps I would have written what you have before you: this Open Letter. 

One of your themes was a call for graduates to Stay in your lane and accept that lane—a phrase you mentioned four times. You said, "Being locked in with your vocation and staying in your lane is going to be the surest way for you to find true happiness and peace in this life." You prefaced this message by admitting, "I never envisioned myself nor wanted to have this sort of a platform but God has given it to me so I have no other choice but to embrace it and preach more hard truths about accepting your lane and staying in it." 

This message confounded me as I have yet to hear a graduation speech reference this trope. While I think graduation is a time to consider vocation, the notion of staying in one's lane seems contrary to how I understand one's calling. No one gets there alone. We learn from the wisdom, encouragement and example of others. Does that mean I might walk or run in someone else's lane? Maybe.

Graduation is an act of hope. A school confers diplomas with the hope that its graduates will change the world—for the good! I'm not sure I want or need them to "stay in their lane" from that moment on. I also found it confusing that you would offer a message to women, about women, given this lane. 

You said,

For the ladies present today, congratulations on an amazing accomplishment. You should be proud of all that you have achieved to this point in your young lives. I want to speak directly to you briefly because I think it is you, the women, who have had the most diabolical lies told to you, how many of you are sitting here now about to cross the stage, and are thinking about all the promotions and titles you’re going to get in your career. Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world. But I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world. I can tell you that my beautiful wife Isabelle would be the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother.

On my graduation day, I was not thinking about promotions or future job titles. Nor was I thinking about marriage and children. I know exactly what I was thinking. 

For a few weeks leading up to graduation, I didn't know if I wanted to go to the ceremony. Those who know me will find this quite surprising, for Notre Dame alumna is an outstanding characteristic of my identity. I bleed blue and gold—sometimes, loud...always proud. I thought What difference would my presence in a class of 1800 people make?  I don't know from whence this cynical sentiment came. I am not proud of it. Though honest, this limited view was quickly shattered.

On Sunday, May 19, 1996 I walked into the JACC and I was overwhelmed. The entire atmosphere conferred in me a sense that I had achieved something quite remarkable. I saw my parents and my two siblings. I waved and smiled. They actually have a picture of this moment. To this day, I don't even know how I managed to see them! (pre-cell phones). I am so grateful for that memory because their joy became my joy. Thank you Mom and Dad, Mark and Sarah for being there.

From that moment forward, I remember holding  gratitude in my heart as the Father President, Monk Malloy greeted my classmates and the audience. As I sat and listened to the speeches, I remember feeling sad that this chapter of my life had come to a close. I thought of how much I would miss my friends and professors. I didn't want to leave the campus community I loved so much. I was excited to start in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE)  teaching program, but it was at the expense of bidding farewell to what I had known.
I did think about vocation, as I had a sense that teaching was my calling. It still is. But according to your message, I am an outlier. I was not among the purported majority who were thinking about my vocation as a wife and a mother. With all due respect, Did I miss my lane? 

Twenty-eight years later, I am still not a wife or a mother. Had you asked me on graduation day if that is something I desired, I would have said "yes." In or around graduation no one at Notre Dame asked me about those aspirations. In no way do I feel slighted, lied to or even misled by this community for not asking that question. 

I have always wanted to get married, I still do. And with the desire to be married, yes, I wanted to be a mother. A friend once asked me, Do you feel called to marriage?  I said "yes." I have always felt called to marriage but I am not married. I get asked why I am not married. I am told that I seem like someone who would be married. I have been told I would be a great mom. Thank you. Others think something is wrong with me because I am not married—I have wondered about this myself. All questions aside, I don't have an answer—for now—to this question. It is a mystery.

Mystery however is a component of our faith. God's ways are not our ways. I accept what is with humility and yet I live in hope. And still, I have felt fulfilled in my career and in my life as an unmarried person. I am not waiting for my life to truly begin. This is not a message that Jesus preached—to the woman at the well, to Mary or Martha, Mary Magdalene or to me.

My sense is that other women share this sentiment. Those include the "founding institution and sponsor of Benedictine College, the sisters of Mount St. Scholastica." Via Facebook, these sisters "responded to the controversial remarks of Harrison Butker as commencement speaker." They wrote

One of our concerns was the assertion that being a homemaker is the highest calling for a woman. We sisters have dedicated our lives to God and God's people, including the many women whom we have taught and influenced during the past 160 years. These women have made a tremendous difference in the world in their roles as wives and mothers and through their God-given gifts in leadership, scholarship, and their careers.
Their message reminds me that for women and for men, there are many paths to holiness. There is no singular call, no certain path to fulfillment. I don't even think there is a your lane or my lane. So why stay in it?
To me, a commencement speaker ought to build rapport with the audience. They should familiarize themselves with the campus community—its traditions and what makes it special. They can offer insight into what they have learned in their lives and share their story. I would have loved to hear  your thoughts on what makes for a great placekicker. How has this role helped you be a better husband, father, brother, son and friend? What are the life lessons that football offers you, your family and the world. Think Sports and Spirituality! (See Roger Federer at Dartmouth for more). For many, the disappointment in your address is as the sisters wrote: 
"Instead of promoting unity in our church, our nation, and the world, his comments seem to have fostered division,"

Given your passion for your wife's vocation, it would have been interesting to me to hear how having a college degree has made her an excellent homemaker. What did she learn in college that prepared her for the demands of motherhood? With but 2% of the world holding a college diploma, how are the women of Benedictine College endowed with a special responsibility to do what Ignatius of Loyola preached: Go and set the world on fire. Motherhood is a source of fulfillment for countless women—praise God that it is! The world needs wonderful, loving and holy parents—but they are not neceesarily "the fulfilled." I think the Beatitudes speak to who is.

Though your speech was given in mid-May, I felt the need to pen this letter because 
I recently returned from a service immersion trip to Jerusalem Farms in Kansas City, MO. This week long adventure included chores, urban farming, community building (read: playing cards), prayer, reflection and conversation. Because of the setting, the conversation turned to the Kansas City Chiefs and because J-Farm has religious roots, your commencement address resurfaced. What began as an ardent desire for me to understand how or why his speech resonates with so many people has led to this letter. I wrote it with a sincere desire that you listen to a different point of view. 

Given your lane, I find it ironic that you went after the Bishops in our church. You said, "These men who are present day apostles, our bishops once had adoring crowds of people kissing their rings and taking in their every word, but now relegate themselves to a position of inconsequential existence."  As you know, in today's society, Super Bowl champs are the men who wear rings that people kiss. As you know, many, many people take in your every word. Many will stand in response to that. Others do not—they can't. I wouldn't.

Let us pray that no one in this life be rendered inconsequential. Let us hope that we find fulfillment in many expressions of vocation. Let us love one another, serve one another, and pray for one another, Amen.

Photo Credits
Stay in your lane

No comments:

Post a Comment