McCourtney Hall Dedication Homily

Mass for the Dedication of McCourtney Hall
October 28, 2016
University of Notre Dame
Basilica of the Sacred Heart

Today we celebrate the feast day of two apostles, Sts. Simon and Jude.  The word ‘apostle’ comes from a Greek word meaning “to send”, and the apostles were those sent by Jesus to preach his Gospel to all people after his death, resurrection and ascension.  For this reason, the beautiful first reading from the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of the apostles as the foundations upon which the household of God, the Church, is built.  All rests on Jesus, but they, as those sent by Jesus, are the foundations. 

But they are not the only ones who bear the load of the structure.  The apostles are sent to preach the word to us and we, once we have received it, are to preach it to others.  We too are apostles.  They are the foundation of the household, but we too must do our part to keep the house standing.  That is very much what we try to do at Notre Dame, continue that work.

What, then, does the dedication of McCourtney Hall, that structure, have to do with the structure that is the household of God, the Church, of which the apostles are foundations and we are building blocks?  How does it serve the preaching of the Gospel?  It is a building that will be a place for research and discovery, particularly in science and technology, by the rigorous application of reason in a search for truth.  The truths it seeks are not those that come from Jesus through the apostles, but those that come through the discoveries of reason.  Many think the discoveries of science, the innovations of technology, are a threat to faith and undermine it.  What are we to say about this?

Well, I want to suggest that what goes on in McCourtney Hall has quite a bit to do with the preaching of the Gospel, with the work of the apostles that they have passed down to us.  For part of that teaching is that God is one, and truth is one, and the truth we find in faith is the same truth that we seek through science.  The discoveries of science often raise important and sometimes challenging questions for faith.  When we encounter one of these questions, we are spurred on to struggle to find understand how various claims are compatible, and the search of that understanding may lead us through a period of doubt and uncertainty about the answers to our question.  But faith teaches us this:  because God is one, and God is the source of truth, the truth can be found, even if the search is a long and laborious one.  We just have to keep at it, and put in our best and most dedicated efforts in the search.

When you think of it, the University of Notre Dame itself, as a Catholic university, is founded on that confidence that truth is one, and we can find the truth, both through faith and through the discoveries of reason.  The whole university makes no sense if we don’t have that confidence.  It is a place driven by reason, but just as much a place driven by confidence borne of faith that truth and understanding can be found.  And that is why, alongside places of faith and worship, such as this Basilica and the chapels in the dorms, we need McCourtney Hall and places like it, where the best and highest sorts of inquiries of the mind in pursuit of truth are carried on.  Having both is a visible expression that the truths of faith and the truths of the discoveries of human reason are one and ultimately harmonious, even if we have to work to grasp the harmony.

C.S. Lewis wrote a classic work called The Screwtape Letters, which I am sure many of you know.  It is a series of letters between a senior devil, Screwtape, and his younger colleague, Wormword, about the latter’s work in bringing his subject—whom he refers to as his patient-- to damnation and out of the Enemy’s [God’s] clutches. 

In the first letter, Screwtape admonishes Wormword for thinking that he can lead his subject to unbelief through convincing arguments that appeal to reason.  Screwtape writes:

I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend . . . . It sounds as if you are supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. . . . Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.  Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true!  Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. . . . Do remember that you are there to fuddle him.  From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!

The point of this humorous fictional exchange, of course, is that serious, sustained thought is the friend of faith, not the enemy.  When we have questions about faith, the problem—from the point of view of faith—is that we think too little, too superficially, rather than too much or too rigorously.  And that is why, rather than seeing scientific inquiry as a threat to faith, we see it as a friend.  We just have to be patient and perseverant when questions and challenges arise.

If I might add a personal note—when I was an undergraduate student here at Notre Dame, I was not in the seminary and, as a philosophy major, struggled with many questions about faith.  The answers to those questions came through a good deal of reading and thinking, as well as some truly excellent professors.  But I will tell you this:  my search was helped a great deal by the fact that Notre Dame then, as now, was committed to the highest level of research and inquiry.  That fact communicated to me—without it having to be said explicitly—that the University had, and I could have, this confidence that faith and reason, belief and discovery, were not incompatible.  And that gave me the confidence to undertake the search for the answers to the questions I had about faith.

So today we dedicate this new building where so much important work in scientific inquiry and technological innovation will be done.  The discoveries that are made here will serve humanity, deepen our understanding of the world and lead to technology that will make human life better.  But it will also, I believe, give future generations the confidence that was so important in my life, that inquiry and belief, that science and faith, can live together and, though the dialogue between them, our lives can be enriched and our faith can be made even more meaningful to us.

As we continue with Mass, let us pray in great thanks for Ted and Tracy McCourtney and their family, and the other generous benefactors who have made this day possible.  Let us pray for the researchers who will conduct their work in this building and the students who will learn there.  Let us pray that their work is fruitful.  And let us pray that this building, and the work that is done there, can help us, as apostles, continue the work of the apostles we celebrate today.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
President, University of Notre Dame