October 22, 2021
Cutberto Garza, M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Cornell University
Thank you Provost Freije.
Celebrations of achievement are always heartwarming; they are even more so when we rejoice in the accomplishments and continuing promise of friends and colleagues. I am fortunate to share such bonds with Vincent Rougeau. Moreover, coming together today is yet more significant because of this celebration’s timing. Indeed, we assemble at an uncommon conjunction.
My brief remarks will focus first on this gathering’s timing, follow up by noting the events’ fulfillment of promises that characterize institutions of higher learning, especially of those rooted in Catholic intellectual traditions, and conclude by reflecting on the character and accomplishments of the scholar we celebrate.
Why is this inauguration’s timing particularly notable? Reflect with me for a few moments on the traits that are most admired, valued, and worthy of being protected in institutions of higher learning. I spent my entire active professional life in academic institutions. From my vantage point, we are at our best when we listen, deliberate with open minds, not seeking our individual advantage but always striving for the wellbeing of others, focus on forming scholars rather than simply informing them, share openly what we know, learn avidly when we teach, walk jointly with others experiencing the joy of discovery, and continuously enhance our common store of knowledge, knowing that as knowledge increases, we come to know God more completely, simultaneously discovering how much more there is to learn and, how despite our best efforts, horizons never shrink rather we find that horizons increase steadily in magnitude and splendor inducing greater and greater awe.
What is it then about this moment that leads to expectations and values raised by these reflections? This month marks the start of a singularly important process, one that is key to the historic period unfolding before us, a period that is as significant as those experienced by Christians who lived in the times of Constantine and the Reformation.
This month, Roman Catholics throughout the world accelerate reclaiming the synodal character of the journey we are on, a journey initiated by our forebearers about 2000 years ago in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost. An event reified by a global audience listening and speaking to one another, inspired and emboldened by the Holy Spirit.
This undertaking has been described as the “biggest popular consultation in history.” The process’ Preparatory Document released last month asserts that we will have unleashed “the ability to imagine a different future for the church and her institutions, in keeping with the mission she has received.”
This month, Pope Francis launched this worldwide synodal process, a process intended to enable the convening of a Synod in Rome in 2023. The Roman synod’s designated theme is, For a Synodal Church: communion, participation, and mission. Four words in that theme, synodal, communion, participation, and mission distill much of what institutions of higher learning are about, not as expansively as the Church’s embrace of those terms, but nevertheless amply underscoring the ongoing relevance of higher education’s purpose and the importance of our continued commitment to its mission.
The Second Vatican Council sparked this process. Saint Pope John XXIII also opened that event on an October day. His words were prophetic. He said, “In the present order of things, divine providence is leading us to a new order of human relations that by men’s efforts and even beyond their expectations are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.” Staying true to the synodal nature of what we start requires listening to all, following Christ’s example of favoring no one and ignoring no one, not the powerless nor those imbued with a surfeit of influence and/or authority. The wisdom of this approach is clear from the Gospels when they focus our attention on a range of nobodies and somebodies: the shepherds at the nativity, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, Matthew, Joseph of Arimathea, the Samaritan woman at the well and others.
Where are we in this unfolding picture? By our very nature, institutions of higher learning have profound obligations and opportunities to help individuals and communities participate effectively in the discernment encompassed by communion, participation, and mission, preparing us and coming generations to engage fully in a synodal future. The moment is indeed auspicious for the inauguration of the president entrusted to lead this College, for the City of Worcester that hosts it, and the broader community to whom Holy Cross will send its graduates and from whom it will gather its students, staff, administrators, and faculty.
Does the promising nature of this time and its possibilities signal a trouble-free future?
I doubt it. I doubt it sufficiently enough to be reminded of a poem by the Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. The poem’s last stanza reads,
The next day
promises to be sunny,
although those still living
should bring umbrellas.
The stanza is laden with significance. Perhaps its most striking feature is its simultaneously hope-laden and realistic optimism ……I grant that the intended metaphor is not flawless. For it to reach wished -for perfection umbrellas would be less passive in their utility, i.e., umbrellas would anticipate inclement weather, position themselves to shelter us from its bad effects, etc. But the metaphor serves our purposes in other respects…for example, umbrellas can’t serve their purposes without our cooperation.
No doubt umbrellas of several kinds will be needed in our synodal future, especially the more ideal, active sort that I described when I lamented the limits of the mundane variety. Key to meeting likely challenges of the transition to and sustaining of a synodal future are leaders in higher education whose values, abilities, and commitments match the requirements of paths set out by the best in Catholic intellectual traditions, fully understanding that there are no conflicts among faith, truth, and discovery as long as our lodestar remains faithfulness to our Love of God and neighbor.
In the search for its new president, the College cast the net required by the times, one mindful of the comprehensiveness of examples set by past Christian leaders beginning with Paul and his co-workers Priscilla, Lydia, Titus and Timothy,…as creation groaned in giving birth to the first Christian communities throughout the world, a process that continues today in our midst. In its search, the College was heedful of Worcester’s growing cosmopolitan character, and the growing reach of the College’s students, faculty, staff, administrators, and neighbors.
A wonderful interview of President Rougeau was conducted recently by Jane M Bailey for Today’s American Catholic on the occasion of his appointment as President of the College. It’s opening sentence is very telling….the interviewer begins by pointing out that “It is not often a writer has a transformative experience interviewing the subject of a profile….though that is what the interviewer reports she experienced in her interview of President Rougeau. Her report invited me to reminisce about my experiences of my first meeting with Vincent when he interviewed for the dean’s position of Boston College’s law school. As with Ms Baily, I too was struck by his genuine commitment to scholarship, education, and discovery, his value of family and the struggles of those who preceded him, not noting any bitterness caused by their struggles nor by the adversities he encountered, acknowledging societal shortcomings experienced by many in this country and elsewhere and the unfortunate continuation of failings yet to be redressed, simultaneously remaining fully committed to making matters better not only for himself and his loved ones, but for everyone.
Entrusting the College’s leadership to Vincent Rougeau is an inspired choice. His embrace of the positive roles played by higher education, his deep and pragmatic understanding of what is needed to overcome higher education’s past shortcomings, of the concrete steps required to sustain past successes, and of the effort needed to keep one’s eyes from straying from the prize and the talents required so as to not waver in moving towards it. All of this augurs well for Holy Cross. Yes, the next day promises to be sunny….
The individual the College has chosen to lead it, the start of this presidency coinciding with our community’s recommitment to a synodal way of proceeding, and the opportunities presented by renewed commitments to communion and participation each furthers the College’s mission, i.e. an unflinching dedication to formation through learning, teaching, and discovery. Does this auspicious beginning signal a carefree future? Not likely. A carefree future comes only with the establishment of the Kingdom. Indeed, there is work to be done.
The next day promises to be sunny, although those still living should bring umbrellas.