August 31, 2019
For over 50 years, as a student, faculty member and now administrator, I have begun each academic year with the Mass of the Holy Spirit. This 800 year tradition at Catholic educational institutions has become increasingly important to me as the years have progressed. Each year, the intellectual questions we explore, the moral dilemmas we face, the psychological development that is needed, and the problems our world is facing, ask more of me and all of us who engage them than our natural resources alone can manage. To sustain inquiry with courage, to engage critical issues with hope, and to endure daunting challenges with integrity, moves me and so many of us to turn to God for the graces we need to persevere in the work ahead. We ask the Holy Spirit to grace us with wisdom, understanding, fortitude, and knowledge. As people of Faith, we believe that, with God’s help, we can integrate what we learn with how we live, and we can overcome our inadequacies, our weaknesses and our failures to realize our aspirations.
Both our reading from Sirach and the Gospel of Luke this afternoon emphasize the importance of humility. While the word “humility” often is described as an awareness of our struggles and weaknesses, that seems insufficient to me. I prefer to think of humility as knowing the truth about ourselves, and that truth includes our gifts and our limitations. While it is important to know what we don’t know and to be realistic about our abilities, we each have been given unique gifts from God which are an important dimension of who we are. False humility diminishes these gifts, while true humility reflects a lifetime of being reflective about our life experience, our capacities and lessons learned.
It takes humility and courage to admit that you don’t know something and to ask questions, and this humility is the origin of all learning and research. It also takes humility to listen carefully, without interrupting, as others share with us their backgrounds, their experiences, their identities, their cultures and their worldview, and openness and humility will be essential for forming community across racial, socio-economic and cultural differences in our residence halls. It takes humility to be vulnerable and seek help from student affairs professionals or chaplains when you are uncertain, overwhelmed, or in need. It takes humility to recognize that one has made a mistake or, as all faculty have had occasion to acknowledge, that one’s student has potential far greater than oneself. It takes humility and trust for a parent not to step in and try to solve a son’s or daughter’s problems from afar, but to recognize their autonomy and encourage them to get the help that they need from professionals here on campus. And it takes humility to acknowledge that in themselves advanced degrees and positions of authority don’t always provide all the answers to the needs of our students, whereas the thoughtful care of staff, chaplains or coaches might be more effective.
As the Son of God, it took divine humility for Jesus to come among us, share our struggles and weakness, and to hand over his life for us. That Jesus did, gives us the hope to face our future with confidence, because we know that He now walks with us in all the ups and downs we will face. He will be with us in our times of excitement and accomplishment, and in moments of fear and loss. He will bless parents with wisdom and trust when their children continue their journey into adulthood by leaving home to advance their education. And He will be with new students as they search for their own truth and value as they negotiate a more competitive environment with greater expectations. Jesus will be with faculty, staff and administrators as we commit ourselves to teach, form and support our students in the face of many national and international tensions and crises. Our Mass of the Holy Spirit begins each year reminding us that we aren’t expected to manage our lives and these issues alone.
Class of 2023, we welcome you with great joy and enthusiasm as you begin your four years on Mount St. James. Three months ago the Class of 2019 graduated and it seemed to many of us that they had just arrived to begin their study with us. Over the course of their four years here we supported them in their study, their service, their performances on stage and on the field, and their unfolding as mature, competent and spiritually motivated women and men. This afternoon, the faculty, staff, chaplains, coaches and administrators here are excited to begin a new year with you. We look forward to walking with you, engaging your questions, and with you and the great talent you share with this community, making a difference in our world.
Parents and family members, we recognize the importance of this moment in your lives, as well. In half an hour you will be saying “good-bye for now” to your sons and daughters as they take this next step in becoming the independent and mature adults you are raising them to be. Thank you for entrusting them to us, and please know that they will still need you in the years ahead. However, now more than ever, they don’t really need you to solve their problems, rather they need you to listen carefully to their concerns and to encourage them to take responsibility for their lives and their growth. Encourage them to work with us to manage difficulties, to discern opportunities, and to take appropriate risks. As my parents told me when I was leaving home 53 years ago, “If we let you go well, you will always enjoy coming home.” And they were right. As the years unfolded, I still wanted their perspective, their advice and their unconditional love, and I found as the years progressed, they hoped for the same from me.
For each one of us today, this Mass of the Holy Spirit marks a new beginning. And as is typical of all new beginnings, it involves excitement and surrender, acknowledging all that has brought us to this moment and facing inevitable uncertainty, and thanking God for the real blessings of this day and relying on God to carry us into new opportunities and challenges. Let us all pray that the Spirit of Jesus will bless us with the humility and faith we need to acknowledge that our loving God is here with us to lead us, strengthen us, and comfort us in all that lies ahead. Amen.