2019 Opening Mass Homily

University of Notre Dame
Opening Mass
Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center
August 27, 2019

This summer, in June, I was able to travel to L’viv in western Ukraine to present the Notre Dame Award to Archbishop Borys Gudziak. Archbishop Gudziak was recently named the Ukrainian rite archbishop of Philadelphia. But in the 1990’s, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, he founded a theological academy in Lviv, successor to an academy which was founded there in the 1920’s, but suppressed by the Soviet regime. In 2002, the effort expanded to establish the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), a development of the theological school. In a few decades, the UCU has become a highly respected university in Ukraine, and not only for its academic quality. We were told that in that country it is possible for the wealthy to buy with bribes not only admission to top universities, but even to buy good grades in classes. UCU, however, according to general perception, does not allow that kind of corruption. For that reason, its degrees are highly respected in the country. The UCU emerged out of a deeply troubled past for the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the people of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is an intriguing joining of the Byzantine rite of the east and the Roman Catholic Church of the west. Its liturgies reflect the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but it is in union with the Pope in Rome and is Roman Catholic. At the end of World War II, under Stalin’s direct order, there was a concerted attempt to destroy the Ukrainian Catholic Church and integrate it forcibly into the Russian Orthodox Church. The KGB killed many priests. In the case of some, they attempted to pressure them by arresting and eventually killing members of the families. Its bishops, along with nuns and priests were sent to the gulags in Siberia, and many died from the conditions there. Churches were confiscated.

In the years between 1946 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, there was a concerted effort by the KGB to infiltrate the Church and indeed all of Ukrainian society. Many ordinary people were pressured to serve as informants. Not only did this succeed in providing information to the KGB, it undermined trust among people in the community. Yet the Church continued its work clandestinely, meeting secretly for Masses and sacraments.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Church could practice openly. Bishop Gudziak, the son of Ukrainian parents who had fled to the United States, returned to Ukraine to found the theological academy and eventually the UCU.

As Gudziak envisioned this new university, he and his colleagues did something quite remarkable. He had worked at a L’Arche community, and was inspired by the writings of Jean Vanier. And so he put at the heart of the university a community of people with special needs, which they call the Emmaus community. The point of this was not primarily that members of the university could help these young people with special needs. The point, rather, was that the people of the Emmaus community might humanize a people and nation that had been so dehumanized by oppression, violence, betrayal and mistrust. As Archbishop Gudziak put it, in a land in which so many were informants of a regime that sought to control and destroy, people learned to put on masks in their encounters with one another. What is so obviously characterized this Emmaus community of people with special needs, however, it is the genuineness and joy of encounters with them. It was true: as I was at the community with Archbishop Gudziak, we were talking and laughing, and one boy simply put his hand on my arm—a sign of welcome and affection to someone he had met only minutes before. At UCU, these members of the community are called “Professors of Human Relations"—for they teach us how to be human.

The response that the UCU offers to the tortured, tragic history of Ukraine is certainly not normal, in our terms. Stalin is responsible for the deaths and imprisonment of millions in Soviet states, and the Ukrainian Catholic Church of western Ukraine became one of his unfortunate targets. The normal human response to such a history is anger, vengeance, despair and cynicism. Yet on this tortured ground soaked in the blood of the martyrs has flowered this institution of higher learning dedicated to integrity and to human dignity, particularly of those with special needs who are often most marginalized, most ignored. Several prosperous nations in the West have proudly declared that they have eliminated certain chromosomal and genetic abnormalities, such as Down Syndrome and spina bifida. Of course, what they have done is eliminate people with these conditions, through amniocentesis testing and abortion. Yet here in at this institution, those with such special needs are given a central place so that their gifts can be shared and we can better appreciate the dignity of every person.

How did this response emerge to such a frightful past? What explains this reaction? It is hard to explain without the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and lives of people. It is certainly not the usual reaction of people enslaved by oppressive regimes. Nor it is the spirit of people who are enslaved to their own hateful, despairing or cynical reactions to such a history. It is, I suggest, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit behind the Beatitudes we hear about in today’s Gospel reading. The spirit of those who mourn, and yet find comfort in their morning. It is the spirit of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for so long, and finally find satisfaction. The spirit of those who, in the face of persecution, nevertheless show mercy and become peacemakers and even rejoice.

So many wonderful things happen at Notre Dame through the efforts of many:

  • Dedicated research.
  • Genuine learning.
  • Vigorous discussions and debates about issues that matter.
  • Discoveries and insights into profound problems.

Still, we will not be who we aspire to be if the Spirit is not present in our midst, helping us to respond in ways that are not to be expected in the ways of the world. None of us will likely be asked to endure the suffering that the people of Ukraine endured for much of the last century. Yet, in the circumstances of our lives, we are asked to make peace, show mercy, hunger for righteousness, to embrace and learn from the marginalized, and to respond to oppression and evil with righteousness and hope and even joy. Let us pray that in this coming academic year the Spirit may be present in our midst, enabling us to respond in these ways. Let us pray that Notre Dame will be a place where the Lord pours out His Spirit, so that: sons and daughters shall prophesy, old men dream dreams, young women and men see visions. And, through us, God will work wonders in the heavens and on the earth.

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