2017 Opening Mass Homily

Mass for Mary, Seat of Wisdom
Opening of the Academic Year Mass in Celebration of Notre Dame's 175th Anniversary

August 26, 2017

On November 26, 1842, Fr. Sorin and a few companions arrived in South Bend after an over-250 mile trek from Vincennes. He had good reason to rest after the long trip, but he insisted on making the three-mile walk to campus that very day. He arrived here, as you walkers arrived today, and was overwhelmed with the beauty of the campus that, unlike today, was covered in fresh snow.

Then the more difficult journey began. That was the journey involved in building a great University, dedicated to Our Lady, Mary, that would be a force for good in this new land. Sorin and companions would have to endure financial uncertainty, disease, occasional hostility from neighbors and fires to realize this dream.

As Sorin and his successors built Notre Dame, many joined to help. There were Sorin’s companions, the Holy Cross Brothers and their successors, who literally built the buildings, farmed at St. Joseph farm that fed the University community and taught in classes. The Holy Cross Sisters came in 1843 and opened a school in Bertrand, a few miles to the north, and in 1855 moved to the current site of St. Mary’s College. Members of the local South Bend community provided invaluable help, and the state legislature of Indiana approved a charter for the University in 1844, even though it was at the time a fledgling operation that lacked the ability to offer anything resembling a university education.

Sadly diminished at the time were the Native Americans from the Potawatomi Tribe, who had lived in the area. In 1838 they had been driven on a tragic march—the Trail of Death—to Oklahoma, and were decimated by the journey. Yet the remaining Potawatomi of the Pokagon band became friends of Sorin and remain friends of the University to this day. We were fortunate to have Chief John Warren of the Pokagon Band on our walk today.

And through the years so many others—students, faculty, staff, benefactors and friends—have joined in the journey of building Notre Dame.

I began the Notre Dame Trail two weeks ago with the hearty souls who traveled the whole 300 miles, but I had to leave after two days to come back to campus. However, that group kept walking, and as they did many others joined them, particularly today.

That is the way it has been with Notre Dame. It began with a small group and a dream and, as they struggled to realize that dream, so many others joined them to help and be part of the Notre Dame family. We celebrate and thank all those who have made this University what it is today. Today, as we conclude the Notre Dame Trail, we commit ourselves to our journey together to continue building this great university.

Today, then, is a joyful day of celebration and excitement as we start a new academic year. Yet we cannot ignore that we begin this year in troubled times for the United States and the world. We have seen on another college campus, the University of Virginia, open advocacy of neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, white supremacist, racist, anti-immigrant and homophobic chants. The protests and counter-protests led to violence, injuries and the death of a young, innocent woman, Heather Heyer.

In the aftermath of the disturbance, a faculty member at Virginia wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that we should not look to universities for moral clarity. Universities exist, he argued, for epistemic virtues: openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry and attention to detail. As valuable as these are, the author argued, they are insufficient for responding to the hate that fueled these protests and the violence they engendered.

Perhaps we at Notre Dame, following in the footsteps of Sorin, can offer something more. We are certainly committed to these epistemic virtues in the pursuit of truth, but, at this Catholic university, we add to them other values, such as a commitment to the dignity of each person, a willingness to take responsibility for the common good and a special concern for those who are most vulnerable. Both sets of virtues—the epistemic virtues of the head and the moral virtues of the heart—should shape the life of this University.

Racism, anti-Semitism and hatreds of any kind are malignancies of the heart. If we allow these cancers to spread, they will destroy our community, our nation and ourselves. Yet we do not effectively counter them by hating the haters or doing violence to the violent. We counter them most by providing an example of a university community where we pursue truth openly, speak freely and at times disagree passionately, but show respect for those with whom we disagree and care for the community we share. We counter them by giving witness to a different set of values.

That is Notre Dame: we walk together in mutual support on our journey, or we do not walk at all. Either we are all Notre Dame, or none of us are.

As we strive to do this, we can find help and inspiration in the patroness of the University, who reminds us daily of the special calling, the special gift, we have at Notre Dame.

In October 1893, almost exactly 51 years after arriving on this site, Fr. Sorin died at the Presbytery, just short distance from here. After his death, Sorin’s successor as president of Notre Dame, Fr. Corby, said of the woman for whom the University was named:

So great was [Sorin’s] affection for her that he seemed to live for Mary, to work for Mary. To her he told all his troubles. In her he confided with a confidence truly born of the liveliest faith . . . If Notre Dame holds a prominent place today . . . it is due to this devotion [to] and confidence in Mary, and the lesson should not be forgotten by us who survive Fr. [Sorin].

Mary has such a prominent place in the Christian tradition and particularly in Catholic spirituality, yet she speaks so few words in Christian scripture. What can we say about her? It may be, though, that it is precisely her silence that speaks most powerfully. After the astounding events of Jesus’s birth; after being forced to the flee because of Herod’s slaughter of the infants, after the remarkable prophecies of Anna and Simeon, when Mary was told a sword would pierce her heart too; and after finding her son speaking with teachers in the temple; the Scripture says that Mary “pondered all these things in her heart” (Luke 2: 51). Mary continued to keep all these things in her heart and silently ponder the mystery of God’s love, the reality of suffering and evil and the meaning of Jesus’s suffering, death and resurrection.

Like other universities, Notre Dame is the hub of so much wonderful activity. It is a place where dedicated and talented faculty grapple with questions, make critical contributions to debates, conduct important experiments, and through various creative endeavors contribute to our understanding and help shape our culture. It is a place where students learn, grow, confront the great issues of the day, challenge injustice, engage with the intellectual heritage that is our common possession, deepen their faith, form lasting friendships and become women and men of character. There are admirable endeavors to serve those in need, great football games, beautiful musical concerts, theatrical performances and a lot of just good fun.

All these activities are commendable, and we share them with many other institutions. There is something more at Notre Dame: the silent pondering of Mary.

The special gift of Notre Dame is that at the heart of this hive of activity is the silence of St. Mary’s Lake, tranquil and shimmering in the evening with the colors of sunset, that seems to hold so much under its surface. It is the silence of the Grotto, with candles flickering for a thousand prayers. Above it all is the image of Our Lady, Notre Dame, in gold, overseeing it all in the silence of love. As in the Gospels, the silent, pondering, loving presence of Mary is always there. It is the heart of Notre Dame.

That silence invites us and gives us a space to pray and reflect. It calls us—in the midst of all our important work, strenuous debates and many activities—to pause and prayerfully ponder the mystery of God’s love, and what that love demands of each of us: to love in return.

As we go on with Mass, then, let us pray that we will always be a place of important inquiries, much learning and dedicated activity, but one that holds at its center the silent pondering of the mystery of God’s love and the call it makes to each of us. Let us ask for God’s help to make our University even more a force for good. Let us make it a place worthy to bear the name Notre Dame, the University of Our Lady.

Fr. Sorin would have wanted nothing more . . . and nothing less.

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