2012 Opening Mass Homily

Mass of the Holy Spirit
Opening of the School Year Celebration

August 21, 2012

Acts 1:3-8; 1 Cor 12:3b-7; 12-13; Jn 15: 26-27; 16:12-15

As we begin a new academic year, we celebrate today—as is our custom here at Notre Dame—the Mass of the Holy Spirit. We ask that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Wisdom, will be with us all— teachers, students and staff—in our work of learning and inquiry. We ask that that Spirit helps us all to grow in knowledge and goodness.

Appropriately, the first and third readings give us instances of Jesus giving some very important instruction to his disciples. One is from the passage I just read in John’s Gospel. At the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, Jesus, who knows that he will soon suffer, die and rise, instructs the disciples on the meaning of his life and on how they are called to live. The second is from the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, when the Risen Jesus is about to ascend to the Father and leave the disciples, and he gives them final words on how they are to go on.

Both are, of course, critical discussions. It is hard to imagine contexts in which Jesus would offer more full and important words than before his suffering and death, and before he leaves the disciples to carry on as the Church to proclaim his message. And he is speaking to his closest followers—people who have not distinguished themselves to this point in understanding and moral courage. They are very much in need of guidance. Here, we would think, Jesus would pass on the full message that would help them navigate future challenges.

Interestingly enough, though Jesus certainly instructs the disciples, in both discussions they are told what they cannot now know. “I have many things to say to you,” says Jesus in John’s Gospel, “but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all truth.” (Jn. 16: 12-13) And in Acts, the disciples ask when Jesus will restore the Kingdom of Israel—and no doubt draw them into its restored glory— and Jesus replies: “It is not for you to know the times and periods that the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 7-8).

Jesus takes this opportunity not only to teach his followers, but to remind them of the limits of their knowledge and to trust in the Spirit who will guide them. 
Our work, the work of Notre Dame, is of course learning and discovery. That is certainly true of students, but it is also true of faculty, who continue to learn and discover in their research. We are motivated by the love of truth, and we pursue knowledge and understanding.

At first blush, then, it is odd to begin the academic year with reflection on the limits of knowledge and understanding. As we seek to deepen our understanding and expand our knowledge, it seems odd to remind ourselves about what we do not, and perhaps cannot, know. On further thought, though, it may be such reflection is most appropriate at the start of this year.

Students, one of the most important things you will do as you delve into any field of knowledge will be to challenge initial assumptions. Whether in physics, philosophy, or mechanical engineering or any field, the beginning of learning is to question your assumptions about areas of reality you thought were completely ordinary and familiar. Arthur Eddington was a noted English astrophysicist of the last century who famously pointed out that, when standing in front of our dining room table, there are in fact two tables. Common sense tells us that there is a table in front of us that is solid and inert, while physics tells us that it is mostly empty space and constantly in motion. Unless you are willing to question and wonder about what seems so familiar to common sense, you will not deepen your understanding of it through physics.

And faculty, in your research you have and will make many important discoveries. Yet we are all aware that discoveries lead on to new questions, and despite growth in understanding we recognize how so much remains beyond the grasp of both our individual and collective understandings.

With apologies to the sophomores among us, I remind us that the word comes from the Greek phrase for “wise fool”. A sophomoric frame of mind—which I am sure our sophomores do not possess—is one whose possessor thinks that because he or she knows something, then they pretty much know everything that is worth knowing. But the attainment of true wisdom requires that we leave behind a sophomoric attitude and appreciate that, though we may know a lot, there is so much that we do not know, so many questions we still have to answer. Growing in understanding requires that we again and again set aside this sophomoric attitude so that we can again wonder and exhibit intellectual humility so that we can grow in genuine understanding and wisdom. True learning and inquiry, then, demand true intellectual humility.

So perhaps Jesus’s words about the limits of his disciples’ knowledge are just what we need at the start of this academic year. They call us to a renewed intellectual humility, to openness to a deeper understanding and to wonder.

One often runs across a caricature of faith that suggests it is a presumptive belief without rational justification. This is not accurate, though some of its manifestations this may be the case. One can have compelling reasons to believe. But faith is a belief that acknowledges the limits of its understanding of what is believed. We believe what is beyond the full grasp of our understanding.

And perhaps here is where we see the affinity between a life of faith and a life of inquiry, so important here at the University of Notre Dame. For both require that we recognize and deeply appreciate the limits of our knowledge and understanding. We speak of “faith seeking understanding” because faith by its nature recognizes the limits of its understanding and yearns for a fuller grasp. And we engage in inquiry only if we genuinely believe that there is much to learn.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that the Spirit will lead the disciples “into truth”. That phrase—“into truth”—is a little odd; we might expect him to say, “The Spirit will lead you to the truth”. The latter phrase suggests that the Spirit will lead us down a path at the end of which is the possession of, the mastery of, truth. But Jesus’s phrase is “into truth”. Perhaps it suggests that the fullness of truth, which is God, is never fully comprehended and mastered by the intellect, but is a mystery in which we live. Perhaps it suggests also that we will grow in our understanding of the world and ourselves, but not exhaust the questions, only go more deeply into them. And perhaps the phrase also suggests that understanding the truth demands that we live that truth as authentically as we can, which is never a final achievement but something we must continue to strive to accomplish.

And on this day, as we celebrate the Mass of the Holy Spirit, let us commit ourselves to the pursuit of truth with all the zeal we can muster. But let us also embrace a humility about the limits of our knowledge and understanding, for it is only such true humility that can help us grow in understanding. And let us acknowledge that deeper affinity between the life of faith and the life of inquiry and discovery, for both call for intellectual humility before the truth. And let us finally pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promises will not give us all truth, but lead us more deeply into truth. We pray that in this academic year we, as a community, will be led by the Spirit more deeply into truth.

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