Thursday, May 24, 2018
Rev. William R. Campbell, S.J., Vice President for Mission
Proverbs 4:10-18/ Psalm 119 (118)/ Luke 2:15b-19
Earlier this week, the Catholic Church celebrated a new liturgical feast, so new that most of us can be forgiven for not being aware of it. The feast is named Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church and was declared by Pope Francis only in February. Since Mary stood at the foot of the Cross upon which her son Jesus died, the feast reminds us, recalling Mary’s role in the mystery of salvation, that our growth in the Christian life must be tethered to the mystery of this same Cross.
That a Jesuit Pope would add such a feast to the Church’s calendar should not surprise us, for Jesuits have always been devoted to the Blessed Mother. In fact, Jesuits hold a particular devotion to Mary we call Madonna Della Strada – Our Lady of the Way. Annually on May 24th, today, our Jesuit calendar invites us to mark this feast. So, members of the Holy Cross Class of 2018, allow me to reflect for the next few moments on this Marian devotion and what it might mean for you…
The first Jesuits came to know each other as classmates who had studied together at the University of Paris in the 1530’s and through their shared interest to honor God by serving God’s people. After graduating, these “friends in the Lord” eventually made their way to Rome, where they lived nearby a small church. That church was called Madonna Della Strada, presumably deriving its name because it housed a painting of a Madonna, an image of Mary holding the infant Jesus, and because visitors could enter it directly from the street: Madonna Della Strada.
The church’s pastor befriended the Jesuits, and within a few years, he even entered the Order. When he did, he asked the Pope that control of the church be given to the Jesuits. Thus, the Jesuits came to care not just for the building but for the painting inside. Drawn to that painting’s iconic image, those early Jesuits prayed before it, some even professing their religious vows at the altar beneath it, seeking the care and protection of the Blessed Mother for all their endeavors.
Eventually, that small church was torn down to make way for a new structure, one that still stands today: the Church of the Gesu. Perhaps some of you have prayed in it while visiting Rome during a Maymester course or a study abroad year. The Gesu is now considered as the mother church of the Jesuits. Within it, in a small candle-lit chapel, just a few feet away from the burial crypt of St. Ignatius Loyola, hangs the painting Madonna Della Strada – Our Lady of the Way.
This afternoon, we have proclaimed scripture readings that reflect this feast. Not surprisingly, they tell a familiar story of Mary as Madonna, caring for her newborn son, and they call us to the sacred wisdom that invites us to walk God’s righteous way, as Mary did, from the Manger to the Cross.
Catholic biblical scholar Sr. Barbara Reid writes the following in her new book Wisdom’s Feast: “The Mary who is depicted in Luke’s Gospel is not meek and passive. Rather she actively discerns and faithfully responds to God’s call. She is a bold prophet who utters a powerful proclamation…of what life is intended to be in God’s design. When her words are echoed in those of her son, we cannot help but conclude that it was she who taught him to think and act as a prophet. She is presented as the model disciple, who hears and acts on God’s word. She is utterly attuned to God, as well as to her people, deeply contemplative as she ponders everything in her heart and obediently responds to what God asks of her.” (p. 63)
Class of 2018, can we say similar things of you? Can we say you are deeply contemplative of the world around you? Can we say you are willing to act boldly, prophetically, when needed? Can we say you are willing to cooperate with God’s grace for the sake of God’s people?
I hope so, for this is what the College has desired for you during the last four years. You know as well as any of us here that for four years, we have pushed you and prodded you, molded you and shaped you, seeking to form you into a community of learning and of faith. We have challenged you to reflect upon the larger questions of faith and of reason. We have encouraged you to be disciplined scholars, creative artists, competitive athletes and contemplatives in action, asking you to be of service, to be men and women for others, in the name of Christ Jesus.
What are the things you are pondering in your hearts now as you prepare to depart from the foot of this Cross? I will assume they are many, but among them, I ask you to keep Our Lady of the Way. Let her help you find your own path along God’s righteous way.
Last month, Pope Francis issued the fourth major pastoral exhortation of his pontificate. It is titled Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World). In it, he reminds us that we are to find our own way to the perfect holiness which God has called us to.
Let’s be honest, even the thought of imitating Mary’s response to God’s call is intimidating. Pope Francis recognizes this, writing: “We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable. There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them. We are called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness.” [P#11] The Pope concludes with this advice: “Finally, though it may seem obvious, we should remember that holiness consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration.” [P#147]
Perhaps by the phrase habitual openness to the transcendent, Pope Francis is thinking about Mary, and how she treasured what she had learned and pondered it in her heart.
Class of 2018: You have many reasons to rejoice and be glad these days as you go forth from this community of learning and of faith that we call the College of the Holy Cross. You have accomplished much in your time here, and we are confident you will accomplish even greater things in God’s name in the future. Take with you the “proverbial” wisdom with have heard proclaimed today, knowing not just the way to avoid evil but the way to embrace good. And as you go, commend your own endeavors to the care and protection of our Blessed Mother. Let her, Madonna Della Strada – Our Lady of the Way, lead you on your way as you seek to serve God and God’s people. May you treasurer all the things we have called you to during these last four years and ponder them in your hearts…