2016 Opening Mass Homily

Mass of the Holy Spirit
Opening of the Academic Year Celebration

August 23, 2016

We all know that if we are to be successful in the coming year, we must work hard, be disciplined and use our talents so we can learn, grow as people and serve the world. Yet we also believe here that all our efforts will not bear fruit unless we are guided by God, by the Holy Spirit. So, as important as it is to buy our books and supplies, complete our class syllabi, prepare lectures, it is equally important that we invoke God to send the Holy Spirit into the minds and hearts of each of us as we begin this academic year. And in this Mass, we read readings from the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit on the disciples.

In this passage we just heard from the Gospel of John, Jesus stands up in the crowd and proclaims that if anyone thirsts, he should come to him and drink and “rivers of living water will flow from within him.” The water Jesus offers does not just quench our thirst; it does not just serve our needs. No, through us, rivers of living water will flow to the world. The gifts of Jesus are of a kind that they enable us to give gifts to others.

The first reading today from the prophet Joel speaks of the day of the coming of the Lord, that “great and terrible day,” to which we look forward. On that day, says the Lord:

I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
your young men shall see visions.

These readings speak to two gifts: first, those that God gives each of us to be people who can give generously to better the world, and second, the transformation of the world on the “last day” when, as Christians believe, Christ will come again to return all things to God.

In our day-to-day Christian lives, we probably do not think much about this second hope in the return of Christ and the final destiny of the world—which is often called the apocalyptic or eschatological hope, but it is central in Christian and Catholic teaching. At the Eucharistic Prayer at each Mass, we look forward to it—when I will say, for all of us, that “we look forward to [Christ’s] second coming.” The teaching here is that the world, which came from God at creation, will return to God in glory. The hope, then, is that it is not just our individual souls, but that the whole of creation will be drawn up by God into the fullness of His grace.

Perhaps, then, there are two questions we can reflect on today. First, what is the Holy Spirit leading me to in my life today?  And, second, what role does the hope about the final destiny of the world play in our collective efforts? 

Regarding the second question, in the course of history, we find a perennial tendency to identify the divine deliverance of the world with the culmination of some particular historical development, national aspiration or social movement. The Book of Revelation in the Bible speaks of a thousand-year reign of the saints before Christ comes for the Last Judgement, and numerous monarchs, revolutionaries and religious groups have seen in their endeavors the advent of apocalyptic expectations.

As several historians have pointed out, this identification has been prominent in American history. In an address on the 4th of July, 1837, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, asked:

Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior?  That it forms a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer's mission upon earth?  That it laid the corner stone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity, and gave to the world the first irrevocable pledge of the fulfillment of the prophecies, announced directly from Heaven at the birth of the Savior and predicted by the greatest of the Hebrew prophets six hundred years before? (Address at Newburyport, Massachusetts)

Adams’s oration is a full-throated expression of what other American leaders and thinkers have suggested—that biblical prophecies have found their fulfillment in the United States and its people as in some way the culmination of God’s work in the world.        

Yet, despite the sincerity and ardent hopes of believers throughout the ages, these apocalyptic expectations have again and again been disappointed as the usual and sometimes dreary progress of history has taken its course. In our nation, the bloody tragedy of the Civil War was a particular blow to this hope for the United States. As our own Professor Mark Noll has pointed out, the Civil War can be understood as a theological crisis in which both sides, armed with their theological understanding, saw themselves as fighting and sacrificing for a divine cause.

In the midst of this human and national tragedy, Abraham Lincoln, a man of uncertain religious conviction at the start of the war, offered a profound reflection on the need for humility as to whether our cause is in fact God’s cause, and how confidently we can discern God’s work in the world. Lincoln wrote:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong…  In the present civil war, it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. (Meditation on the Divine Will)

There is wisdom, I think, in Lincoln’s caution about identifying the will of God with any particular movement or set of events, particularly when we are inclined to flatter ourselves by supposing that we, above all others, know and are realizing His will in the world. We may have faith that God will reconcile all to Himself at the end of time, but we should be cautious in presuming that we know the time and manner in which God will accomplish His purposes.

Perhaps this is a good spiritual meditation for all of us today in our complex and uncertain world. Often those who seem most sure that they know God’s purposes do the most damage.

But what, then, are we to do?  How are we to do God’s will in the world if we are uncertain what God’s will in the world is, and how we are to help in bringing it about?

The answer to these questions can perhaps be found in a near contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, John Henry Newman. Newman was a brilliant, celebrated theologian and man of letters in 19th-century England, and he caused a good deal of uproar in the British society when he announced that he would leave the Church of England for the Catholic Church. He wrote some pivotal theological works and composed the classic work, The Idea of a University, while attempting to found a Catholic university in Ireland. But the effort to found a university, like a number of endeavors he undertook in his life, ended in failure and frustration.

It is perhaps in reflecting on such frustrations that he wrote:

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons…

I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.

Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. (Meditations and Devotions)

Newman, like Lincoln, is skeptical that he can know God’s broad purpose in the world or even in his own life. He urges that we strive simply to be faithful to God and trust that He will use our actions for important service, for some valuable mission, even if we do not fully understand what that service or mission is. Rather than bringing about some particular outcome, we should strive to live lives characterized by justice, compassion, courage, humility and love, and trust God will have us do the service we should.

We live in a complex and anxious world, and we often—and particularly you students might—feel anxious and uncertain. But if we have faith, we need not presume that we must understand the larger plan of bringing about God’s purposes, and certainly not that we must by our own efforts accomplish them. We should pray for the humility to live good and just lives and trust that God will have us serve the purposes we should. If we do that, we can be, as Newman put it, a bond of connection, an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, even without knowing or intending it. And if we do that, we will see the visions and dream the dreams we should, and through us, rivers of living water will flow into the world.

As we begin this new academic year, let us pray that the Spirit enables us to live such a good and faithful life, and we fulfill the particular mission God has given each of us.

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