2020 Opening Mass Homily

Opening of the Academic Year Mass
Notre Dame Stadium

August 9, 2020

At the start of every Mass, we, as we did today, bring to mind our sins and ask God's forgiveness. We do this so that we don't come to Mass pridefully, but with hearts open to, and recognizing our need for, God's love and mercy so we can be open to the graces that Mass offers. I personally was well positioned today to do that. Because, as you all know, Thursday I had to confess to all of you in an email that I was sorry for posing for a photo with the women of Farley Hall without appropriate physical distancing. In defense, I would say, who can resist a photo with the beautiful women of Farley Hall? 

Nevertheless: bad example by me. The experience reminded me that we are all on a journey this semester as we learn to live with this pandemic. We will make mistakes. We will try to correct them. We will learn as we go along. Let us challenge one another as needed. Let us accept correction. Let us learn together and make this campus safe. Not just for ourselves, but for our rectors, for our professors, for the people that work in the dining halls, for our custodians, and perhaps for a classmate who has a health condition that you don't know about that makes them vulnerable to the virus.

Speaking of journeys, in our Gospel, we hear about a very short, but remarkable journey by St. Peter. Jesus goes away to the mountain to pray and the Disciples go out in the boat on the water. It's a night when the wind as strong and Jesus comes walking on the water. The Disciples are terrified, but then they recognize that it is Jesus. Peter asks to come out and asks that he, himself, should walk on the water to Jesus. Jesus invites him to do so. Peter begins well. But, aware of the strong winds and the waves, Peter becomes frightened. He falters and begins to sink, crying out, "Lord save me!" Jesus puts out his hand to steady him and they walk back together to the safety of the boat.

That simple story about Peter miraculously walking on the water tells us a lot about our own lives. When we attempt something difficult, we have those moments of fear and doubt when we falter and even cry out. The threat of the virus to ourselves or someone we love may be a source of fear. So too, uncertainty about the future in this COVID era. Perhaps there are questions about your success here at Notre Dame or in your studies. Maybe there are difficulties at home, uncertainty about your future, trouble with social relationships. Those are moments when we can grow afraid - when we experience doubt and sometimes falter.  So what are we to do at those moments? The Gospel reading suggests the first thing we should do is take the opportunity to feel the comforting steadying hand of Jesus, as Peter did. How are we supposed to do this? Maybe, a few quiet moments in the chapel of your dorm. Maybe a visit to the grotto or a prayerful walk around the lake. Quiet yourself in God's presence and feel the steady hand that calms you down, gives you peace and confidence.

Our lives are so busy with so many engagements. Prayer is just putting yourselves quietly before God to feel his calming presence. You shouldn't expect some dramatic voice from heaven. In our first reading, Elijah goes out to Mount Horeb and experiences great wind crushing the rocks. God is not in the wind. There is an earthquake. God is not in the earthquake. There is a fire. God is not in the fire. Then there is a tiny whispering sound. And there, Elijah finds God. God often speaks to us in the tiny whispering sounds. If we just find time and space to be quiet so we can hear what He has to say. 

Once you feel that comforting presence, the second thing to do is simple: take the next step. In our Gospel, Peter looked down, saw he was walking on a stormy lake, and panicked. Jesus steadied him and enabled him to simply put one foot in front of the other to go back to the safety of the boat. That is one of the most underrated human skills: in a moment of crisis, the ability to find some calm and simply do the next thing you need to do. If you are anxious about a test coming up, go do some studying. If you are worried about how you fit in, find someone to strike up a conversation. If you are worried about your future, find an advisor, go to the career center. 

I recently saw a film streamed on TV called Greyhound. It starred Tom Hanks who played a captain of a fleet of combat ships escorting supply ships across the Atlantic in World War II. At a critical stage in the war, when the U.S. was shipping supplies to the Allied countries, the transport ships would have air cover for the first part of the journey, but then had to go the rest of the way on their own, making them easy prey for German submarines. What Tom Hanks did so well in this movie was play an ordinary man who felt the strain of responsibility and was deeply afraid. He communicated that simply through the tension on his face, hesitation in his voice, and the look in his eyes. He was terrified that he, his crew, and the whole flotilla would be torpedoed and sunk. The heroism of Hanks' character consisted in that despite the fear, he was able to do what was needed to continue the journey and respond to the threat. He assessed the situation, rallied his crew to the assigned tasks, and brought the ships safely across the ocean. For Peter, for Tom Hanks' character, and for all of us. God does not act by removing our fear, doubt, faltering, or struggles. God acts in our life by giving us a steady hand that calms us and simply allows us to take the next step. Our job is to do the next thing we need to do. 

We are in a challenging time. But we can do this. Let us look first for God's steadying hand when we need it; the wind may be blowing; the storm may be present; the darkness may envelop us; the waves may be high; but we can make this journey together. Let us simply put one foot in front of the other. We can be assured the Lord Jesus will be walking with us.