2015 Opening Mass Homily

Opening Mass of 2015-16 Academic Year
Mass of the Holy Spirit

August 25, 2015
Readings: Romans 8:22-27; John 20:19-23

Among the many books that came out for the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I was one entitled The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 by historian Christopher Clark. It is a sophisticated but accessible book and was awarded the Laura Shannon Prize in Contemporary European Studies by our own Nanovic Institute. The work skillfully portrays and analyzes the many agents and factors that led to a war that seemed to lack a compelling rationale, yet killed over 17 million people, wounded 20 million, decimated a generation and established conditions that helped lead to World War II and to many problems that are still with us today.

Clark eschews an attempt to find one or several actors to blame for the calamity. He writes that this is not “an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we find a culprit standing over the corpse . . . with a smoking pistol. . . . There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character” (557). Each of the key political and military leaders in the story pursued national or individual interests, and each embraced a narrative that fully justified their actions to themselves. No one, however, found it within themselves to lift their gaze from their own interests and preferred narrative to take account of the astounding disaster ahead, which they sensed but did not fully acknowledge. They acted, as the title of Clark’s book suggests, as “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing . . . blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world” (559)

I thought of Clark’s book as I read the important encyclical letter of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: The Care for Our Common Home. The Pope makes the point that any good biologist would make, that the natural world is a wonderfully complex, diverse and interdependent system. Change in one part of the system inevitably influences other parts of the system, often in ways we do not anticipate. The Pope also makes the point that human society and culture is also a tremendously complex and interdependent system, though one guided by choices and actions rather than impersonal natural laws. What is different about our age is that, due to technological innovations that have given us tremendous power, these two complex systems—the natural world and human society and culture—influence one another as never before. “Everything is connected,” as the Pope says. With the advancement of technology, the globalization of the economy, and the cultural influences through mass communication, our world—both human and natural—is more intimately connected and interdependent than ever in human history.

As Clark’s book points out, individuals and organizations, justified by their own understanding, can act to serve their own interests in ways that, taken together, can have dire consequences. The Pope’s encyclical urges us not to be sleepwalkers, acting in our own interests, smug in our self-understanding, but failing to take account of how our actions can affect our common destiny and lead us to collective disaster.

The encyclical letter presents us at Notre Dame with an important call. First, we are called to study, think and discuss the many complex questions raised in the areas of biology, technology, economics, philosophy, theology and others. The Pope does not offer definitive solutions to all problems, but seeks a path to dialogue. We at Notre Dame, as a Catholic research university, have a particularly important role to play in fostering such dialogue. Some colleges, schools and departments have already responded, and we will look for other ways to respond.

The more profound challenge of the encyclical letter, though, may be not to our minds, but to our hearts. “Many things have to change,” writes Pope Francis, “but it is human beings above all who need to change” (202). The letter calls each of us to examine our relationship with God, with nature, with our fellow human beings and with ourselves.

The source of the problem, according to the Pope, is an anthropocentrism that sees nature simply as a means for serving our interests, fulfilling our needs and satisfying our desires. Such an attitude is morally corrosive, for it can lead us in turn to view other people playing a similar role in serving our needs and losing any concern for those who fail to serve our needs, who are generally the poor and most vulnerable. As we throw away our trash without a thought for the consequences, so we begin to treat with equal insouciance the poor, the immigrant, the unborn or the infirm. This is extreme expression of the ‘throwaway culture’, as the Pope calls it. And most profoundly, such an attitude leads to a functional atheism, which we can live regardless of our expressed religious beliefs. Such a functional atheism no longer sees the world and people as gifts from God, a source of wonder and contemplation, but only as a source of the self-centered satisfaction.

At Notre Dame, we say, we strive to educate the mind and the heart. Laudato Si’ challenges both our minds and our hearts. We must do our best to hear and respond to both challenges.

“All creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;” says St. Paul in today’s reading. “And not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves, as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” We can see this generative urge in creation and in ourselves. The Pope calls us to discern as well an opposite tendency, that of a sinfulness that puts ourselves and our own desires at the center to the exclusion of others, and thereby strangles the life seeking to be born in us and in our world.

Perhaps there are a few practical steps we can take to develop a spirituality that resists such sinful tendencies.

First, we should beware of a compulsive consumerism that nearly constant advertising encourages. The next time we are about to click for that online purchase, we might ask ourselves: do I really need that? Is it really essential? Would my life truly be enriched by having it? Or would my life be richer if I passed up that purchase?

Second, when and in what ways do the poorest and most vulnerable in my community or the world enter my thought? Do I encounter them? What practical things might I do for them? Perhaps I can direct to them what I would have paid for that purchase that I did not make.

Thirdly, do I make room in my life for contemplating the wonder of the world about me? We are all extremely busy. As those who get Sunday emails from me know, I am really bad at keeping the Sabbath. That is a day I catch up. But though our commitment to our work and to the highest quality of our work is a good and admirable thing, we must find some regular time for rest, and in that rest, enjoy the world and other people as a reflection of God. Can I make some time for a contemplative walk or sitting by the lake? Can I find time to enjoy the simple presence of those I love? Can I take time to nurture a contemplative frame of mind that allows the prayer of St. Francis to rise spontaneously from my soul, “Praise be to you Lord, through all your creatures!”?

We at Notre Dame gather regularly at Mass, around the Eucharist. We Catholics believe that God in Christ took on the matter of the world in taking on flesh and blood, and at each Mass, through the mystery of God’s power, the simple bread and wine become again the body and blood of Christ, and we are fed by it. In every Mass, then, the material world is joined to God, and through this mystery we are joined to one another and to God. So the Pope calls the Eucharist an act of “cosmic love” that “joins heaven and earth [and] embraces and penetrates all creation” (236). Every Mass, then, is an inspiration to us to live the mystery it expresses when we leave Mass.

Let us pray as we go on with this Mass to strive to live in a way that joins us to God, to one another and to the created world in a manner that reflects the cosmic love that “moves the sun and the stars.”

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