2013 Opening Mass Homily

Mass of the Holy Spirit
Opening of the School Year Celebration

August 27, 2013

We gather today, as we do at the start of every academic year, for the Mass of the Holy Spirit.  At this Mass, we ask God, in the words of today’s reading from the prophet Joel, to “pour out his spirit” upon us so that “sons and daughters may prophesy, old men … dream dreams and young men . . . see visions” (Jl 3: 1-3).  We ask for God’s Spirit who, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, he sends to guide us, and teach us, and remind us of what we have been taught.

So, today, we ask for God’s spirit that we might be successful in doing great things this year, both individually and communally.  

Perhaps, though, it is also important to remind ourselves that whatever good we achieve in the coming year we achieve through God’s help and guidance.  The second reading form St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians says it clearly:

“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (I Cor. 12: 4-6).

We might meditate on that passage:  there are different kinds of gifts, service, and workings, but God “produces all of them in everyone”.

There is an ancient heresy that you students may learn about in theology classes called Pelagianism.  It is the doctrine that the good works we do we do on our own without God’s help.  God may have created us, may have given us a mind and a free will, but once we have these, our good works are due to us alone.

It has long been held that this teaching is incompatible with Christianity.  As the reading from St. Paul suggests, we can only do good works if God’s spirit is with us, working within us.  We are radically dependent on God--we need His Spirit working within us to do any of the good works we do.  As the Preface we will use in today’s Mass reminds us—our very desire to thank God is God’s gift to us.  And so it is with the many good things we do.

Pelagianism is a heresy—an assertion of something incompatible with Christian teaching.  But we can also think of it as a kind of spiritual pathology.  It begins in the belief that I alone am responsible and deserve credit for the good deeds I do, whatever they are.  Thus, insofar as I set about doing some good work, my hope of success is in my own goodness and strength—I am the object of my hope.  And, to the extent I succeed, I alone am deserving of the praise.

And there is, I believe, another side to this pathology.  Because my good deeds are my creation, those who fail to do them—those who fail to succeed—are deserving of contempt.  To the extent I am the object of praise for what I do, those who fail are deserving of derision, not compassion. 

Universities are such wonderful places where people of great talent apply those talents to learn and discover important things.  We cherish and celebrate genuine excellence in any chosen field.  And here at Notre Dame, we will do all we can to help our students and faculty achieve that excellence in their work.

Yet, at the same time, we should recognize that this pursuit of excellence can, if we are not careful, contribute to the development of this Pelagian pathology.  It can contribute to the belief that the wonderful things I and others do are due to ourselves, that we alone deserve the praise and that those who don’t achieve—and those who have not had the opportunity to achieve—are worthy of our indifference, and perhaps even our contempt.

In July, Pope Francis made his first official trip outside Rome to travel to an island in the Mediterranean called Lampedusa. It is the port of entry for immigrants, mainly from Africa, who seek to come to Europe to live a better life.  It is common for poor migrants to board makeshift rafts in the quest for a better life in Europe, and then to have their vessels capsize and for them to drown at sea.  As the Pope said, their “vehicles of hope . . . become vehicles of death”.  The Pope mourned a number who had been killed in recent weeks, to the general indifference of the world.  The Pope’s purpose, he said, was to “challenge our consciences”.

Pope Francis spoke of Adam’s sin, which, at its heart, was the sin of believing that “he could be powerful, able to control everything, to be God.”  This attitude is at the heart of what I am calling Pelagian spiritual pathology:  it is making oneself the ultimate object of hope and praise.

And this pathology of Adam, the Pope noted, led to another sin: the murder of Able, Adam’s son, by his brother Cain.  “Cain, where is your brother?” God asks in the Book of Genesis.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain replies. Someone who believes himself all powerful and self-sufficient can be deaf to the needs of others. And that leads to a culture of comfort and self-satisfaction that is indifferent to others.  And, on a global scale, it can lead to what Pope calls the “globalization of indifference”—a spiritual pathology on a global scale.

And so we need, at the start of this academic year, to celebrate the Mass of the Holy Spirit.  We need to ask the help of God’s spirit so that we can learn, grow, and discover in the coming year.  But we also need to remind ourselves that all the good that we have done and are now capable of doing are, in very large part, God’s gift to us.  So our achievements should lead, not to our own glorification, but to praise of and gratitude to God.

And, as people grateful to God for our gifts, we should seek to be gracious to others.  We should treat the struggles, tragedies, and suffering of others not with indifference, but with compassion and care.  Our call is to transform the globalization of indifference into the globalization of compassion and solidarity.

As we begin the year at this Mass of the Holy Spirit, let us pray that this year is full of discovery, growth, the building of community, and many, many good works, but that we never fall to the temptation of thinking that we alone are the objects of praise for our accomplishments.  Let us pray  that we never lose concern for, compassion for, those who are less fortunate than we are or who have not accomplished what we accomplish, and that we do all we can to be agents of the globalization of humble gratitude and solidarity.

Let us dream dreams and see visions.  Let us pray: Lord, pour out your spirit upon us. 

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