WILMINGTON – James Gebhart said that if you had told him four years ago he would be a college valedictorian, “I would have thought you were crazy.”
In 2015, Gebhart graduated from Delaware Military Academy, and on May 20, he received his degree in Catholic theology with a concentration in philosophy from Seton Hall University and its college seminary. He also happened to be the valedictorian of both his college and the entire university.
He spent the graduation ceremony on the dais at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., a few miles from the Seton Hall campus in South Orange. His responsibility was to deliver a speech to and on behalf of the 1,433 graduates.
“It’s different from your normal average-size congregation on a Sunday during Mass,” said Gebhart, who is studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Wilmington. “I was praying about it a lot. I felt not too nervous. I felt pretty at ease. Your basic nerves. If I didn’t have them, I’d probably start to worry if I wasn’t nervous at all.
“There’s a point where you’re like, ‘I got this,’ and what I don’t have, God does, so it works out.”
Gebhart said he had an idea that he was going to be the valedictorian of College Seminary of the Immaculate Conception at St. Andrew’s, and he and the other school valedictorians were invited to submit a speech to a committee at Seton Hall “reflecting on your time at Seton Hall — or really our time at Seton Hall, on behalf of the class — looking to the past and toward the future, things like that. You present this speech to this group of representatives from each school and college.” Gebhart was selected to deliver the message at commencement. That was the first challenge. The next was to come up with something inspiring to say to his fellow graduates.
He turned to Bishop James R. Bailey, the first bishop of Newark, who was a grand-nephew of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Bishop Bailey, Gebhart said, envisioned Seton Hall as a home for the mind, the body and the spirit. He used that as a springboard to talk about how the university had become their home. He recounted some of their memorable experiences in the past and looked toward the future.
The seminarians at Seton Hall have a good idea of what their future will look like, “but there’s probably a lot of students out there who are a little fearful of what the future looks like. I kind of ended on a quote by St. John XXIII: ‘Consult not your fears, but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you try and failed in, but with what is still possible for you to do,’” he said.
He ended with a quote from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: “Let faith be your guide.”
“That was my way of really bringing God into the speech to let people kind of trust God to follow out that path that he has for everyone’s life,” he said. “Hopefully, it was a little impactful for them.”
A Newark resident, Gebhart attended St. Catherine of Siena School until sixth grade, then finished elementary school at St. Elizabeth before going to DMA. He attended Goldey-Beacom College for a year studying marketing management, trying, he said, to get the priesthood out of his mind. Gebhart will be spending the summer near home, living and working at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Bear. He will get acclimated to parish life, attending parish functions and experiencing different ministries, such as visiting the sick.
In the fall, he will be in Baltimore at St. Mary’s Seminary for another four years, then comes a pastoral year before ordination. He will then embark on a lifetime of speeches on Sundays that he hopes are inspiring and a bit impactful.