2008 Opening Mass Homily

Mass of the Holy Spirit
Opening of the School Year Celebration

August 26, 2008

“When you send forth your spirit, Lord . . . you renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104), the psalmist says—and is set so beautifully to music by Steve Warner.

As we begin a new school year with energy and enthusiasm, we pray that God’s Spirit—the Spirit of truth that Jesus promises us in today’s Gospel reading—will guide us in this academic year. We pray, of course, that we faculty and students will be inspired to teach and learn, to study and inquire fruitfully in the course of this year. That is the heart of our work here.

Ultimately, though, we pray not just for our own success, for our own triumph in our personal endeavors. For the purpose of our teaching and learning is not to glorify ourselves, but to serve the world, so that we can be the salt of the earth, the leaven in the dough of the world.

Renewing the earth is challenging in all times, and certainly in this time. The list of challenges we all—and particularly you students—will face is well known: War and violent conflict; Bigotry and hatred; Desperate poverty around the world; Injustice of many kinds; Disease. It is a wearying list.

And in roughly a month—on September 24—we will host a forum on energy and the environment, and I hope in many classes and in conversations outside classes, you will discuss issues associated with energy and environment. The challenges in this area include, but go well beyond, high prices at the gas pump. There are serious issues of environmental degradation on land and in the oceans. We face the depletion of reserves of fossil fuels—the primary source of energy in the world—in the lifetimes of you, our students. Higher energy prices, and the use of crops for biofuels have contributed to high food prices that have caused starvation and malnutrition for very poor nations. It is fair to say that competition for every more scarce energy resources have contributed to political instability and war in many parts of the world. We will hear more about these and many other issues in the coming months.

What should be our response be?

Whatever challenges we face, and no matter how serious they are, my fervent prayer for you, our students, and indeed for all of us, is that God will afflict you with hope. I pray that we will be people who see the world and its problems with a steady, honest, unflinching gaze; that because of our faith in God’s goodness, we will apply all our knowledge and skill to a thoughtful, fair, balanced analysis of those issues; That we never flag in seeking solutions, and in encouraging others to do so; and, perhaps most importantly, that we will have the courage and conviction to act when action is called for, and that we inspire others to act as well.

All that is part of living a life of hope.

Now, hope may be confused with optimism, but it is really very different. Optimism is simply the conviction that whatever the challenges, the situation is not really deeply problematic or grave. No matter how bad the situation, a solution, the optimist is convinced, is just around the corner.

I read a book this summer about the events leading up to World War II. In reading about these events, it is striking how many leaders were committed to a kind of dogged optimism in the face of a looming disaster. Hitler and the Nazis could be mollified, they assured themselves and others; they were not a serious threat. Such optimism might have been justified when Hitler first took power, but as promise after promise was broken, As Jews were more and more victimized, As one small nation after another was overrun. As the preparations for war advanced, it is hard to understand this attitude. Some seem to have been committed to an optimism that led them to believe firmly that the threat was not so serious and disaster could be avoided, until the bloodiest war in human history was upon them.

Contrary to optimism is pessimism, and that is also a temptation when faced with a grave situation. The pessimist believes the problems are not only grave, they’re insoluble; response is futile; the only challenge is to accept the doom that is imminent.

Hope does have something in common with optimism, on one hand, for it believes in a fruitful solution and it shares with pessimism an evaluation of the situation that is unflinching and unvarnished. Yet, despite similarities, it stands in profound contrast to both pessimism and optimism in one’s life.

Optimism and pessimism excuse us from analysis, thought, and action. For the optimist, the problem is really not so grave and so a vigorous response is unnecessary. For the pessimist, the problem is so grave that a response is futile. And so both, for contrary reasons, excuse one from serious thought and courageous action.

Hope, on the other hand, does not excuse; it demands. It demands first of all that we see the world as it is. It demands that we assess, seek to understand, analyze, think, argue, seek solutions, overcome frustrations and failures. And, most importantly, it demands the courage and commitment of common action.

Jesus took the last supper on the night before his crucifixion to teach his closest followers about hope. They had seen him as the solution to all political, economic, religious, and personal problems. And he took that night to tell them that he would be given over to the most painful and ignominious death. The disciples no doubt would have wanted to believe that it all wasn’t so and avoid the anguish of the Garden of Gethsemane. In Gospel Peter rebuked Jesus for suggestion he would suffer and die. And, after Jesus’s death, there was no doubt something in them that would have wanted to despair and hide in locked rooms. But Jesus called them to a hope that transcends suffering, death, and evil. Now he calls us to the same hope in our lives.

And so I pray, “Lord, afflict us with hope.” Let us not seek comfort in a blind optimism or a despairing pessimism. Let us confront the issues of our day with perspicacious honesty. Let us respond with courage. Let us call others to the same hope. Through us, the world can become better. Send us the spirit of truth, Lord. Send forth your spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
President, University of Notre Dame
(edited transcript)