2014 Opening Mass Homily

Mass of the Holy Spirit
Opening of the School Year Celebration

August 26, 2014

Many of you could probably tell more interesting stories than I can about how you spent the summer!  Nevertheless, let me tell you about one adventure I had – my first trip to the shrine of Our Lady in Lourdes, France.  As many of you know, this shrine is the model for our grotto here on campus, so I was anxious to see the shrine in France.

Many of you know the story.  On February 11, 1858 a very poor, 14-year old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous was gathering firewood near the river in Lourdes.  She heard the sound of wind and saw first a bright white light above an alcove in a rock wall on the river bank, and then she saw a beautiful woman clothed in white with a blue sash across her waist.  In subsequent visits, the woman told Bernadette to dig in the ground for a spring, which bubbled up, and which many believed had healing powers. Although initially opposed by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities – who at times treated Bernadette harshly – the apparition was judged to be credible, and the site became a place of pilgrimage for people around the world.

At Notre Dame, Fr. Sorin cultivated the devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes.  And in 1896, a Notre Dame alumnus gave the funds to build the grotto currently on campus modeled on the grotto at Lourdes.  It has been for over a century a powerful place of prayer, reflection and petition for the Notre Dame community and visitors to campus.

Many people are understandably skeptical about claims of apparitions and miraculous healings.  On my trip, I witnessed no miraculous healings. I did, however, observe some remarkable events.  The shrine at Lourdes, though crowded, is a relatively quiet, tranquil place where people come from around the world to pray.  I saw the infirmed in wheel chairs, on stretchers, with canes, and I saw the people at Lourdes treat them with extraordinary care and compassion.  No one stood up from a wheelchair or stretcher healed, but many stooped down to help them with great kindness, even reverence.

And this is what made a lasting impression on me: extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion seemed common – the normal, characteristic actions of people there.  Witnessing these actions convinced me that it was a holy place, that the Holy Spirit was at work there.

Today, as we do every year, we begin the academic year by seeking guidance and inspiration from the Holy Spirit.  In the reading from Isaiah, the Prophet speaks of the Spirit of God resting on God’s anointed. It is a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. 

In the Christian tradition, these seven attributes from the Book of Isaiah are understood as gifts of the spirit.  It is interesting how these gifts are understood among theologians in the tradition.  The gifts are created characteristics in a human being, but they do not of themselves lead us to the corresponding virtuous actions – acts wisdom, knowledge, understanding, fortitude, etc.  Rather, the gifts make us receptive to the working of the Holy Spirit – God Himself – in our minds and hearts to help us to act well.

I am getting into some theological metaphysics, so bear with me – let me try to explain.  If you have any questions, students, you can direct them to your friends who are theology majors.

There are, on one hand, human qualities that God creates in us. These are the gifts.  And then there is God himself, the Divine presence in you and me in the person of the Holy Spirit working in us.  This is, of course, not something God creates – it is God Himself working in our hearts to help us to do what is wise, good and most of all, loving.

It is worth pondering that for a while – because it really is a really remarkable claim.  And it may sound a little weird. It is almost as if we are saying that we are possessed – God takes over our minds and actions to have us do good.

We might say that if it were any other being than God.  But the God who created us is, in the words of St. Augustine, “more intimate to us than we are to ourselves”.  As such, this most intimate God acts in us in a way that does not do violence to our freedom, but brings that freedom to its highest expression.  And so in receiving God’s grace – in receiving the Holy Spirit to help us to do what is right – we realize the highest expression of who we are.

I mention all of this because I believe it captures well what I observed at the shrine at Lourdes.  I saw ordinary people acting with extraordinary compassion, kindness and faith. And, yet, as they were drawn out of their ordinary way of behavior, their actions seemed the truest and best expressions of themselves.  And this, it seems to me, is the sign of the Spirit working within us: drawn out of ordinary behavior, we nevertheless find the best expression of who we are.

Perhaps such actions are what join in a deep way our campus and its grotto with the shrine at Lourdes.  There are many stories about the grotto. One of my favorites is recounted in the book Grotto Stories about a student who was a senior in the fall of 1969 and was subject to the draft for the Vietnam War.  At that time there was a lottery of birthdays, and people were drafted by birth dates according to the order those dates were drawn in the lottery.  If your birthday was drawn early, it was likely that you would be drafted; but if your birthday was drawn late, it was likely you would not be called.

This senior, Griff Hogan, did not want to go to Vietnam, and on the day of the lottery went to the grotto to pray that his birthday would be drawn late and he could avoid the draft.  “Lord,” he prayed, “no low number for me. Let it be somebody else.” After a moment of silence he heard a voice – he was not sure if it came from in his head or from outside, respond, “Like who?”  At that moment, he realized how selfish his prayer had been. He was asking that he avoid the draft, but he did not much care whether someone else went over and got killed. 

When he had that insight, he found the strength to accept whatever happened, and he felt great peace.  When he went back to his dorm room, he learned that his birth date was the very first drawn, but he accepted that with peace.  As it turned out, to his surprise, he was declared medically unfit to go to Vietnam. But the experience gave him a life-long commitment to hold every life as sacred and precious and work for peace.  That extraordinary commitment became part of who he was.

We often look for miracles in a dramatic healing or a spectacular event.  But God’s spirit works more often in less spectacular ways. To find oneself drawn beyond ordinary, selfish tendencies, and yet to find those actions are the truest and highest expression of who we are – that is a sign of the presence and working of the Holy Spirit.  And perhaps such occurrences are the deepest connection between the grotto at Notre Dame and the one at Lourdes.

All of us know that our ordinary selves are often drawn to what is selfish and small.  I know that I am. But the call of this Mass, of today’s readings, is to receive the gifts that will make us receptive to the quiet, subtle working of God in our minds and hearts to do acts of love, acts that draw us beyond ourselves, and yet are the highest expression of ourselves.  Let us pray for the work of the Holy Spirit in each and every one of us this academic year.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

President, University of Notre Dame