Friday, October 22, 2021
The Very Reverend Joseph O’Keefe, S.J. ’76
Provincial, USA East Province of the Society of Jesus
I bring congratulations and best wishes from the USA East Province, aka the Big East or the I-95 province, which goes from Portland Maine to Atlanta, and includes Micronesia and Fiji. On behalf of its 637 Jesuits, countless lay colleagues, 30 schools, 18 parishes, 4 retreat houses and especially your 10 sister higher ed education institutions, I want to express joy and gratitude at the important moment when our beloved College of the Holy Cross begins a new chapter. As an alumnus, I am especially happy to be leading us in prayer as we begin this joyous day together. Vince, I am especially delighted to be with you today – and a special shout out to you, Robin, and to Alex, Christian, and V.J.
Now to the homily…
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
“And so today, at this time and in this place, let us start afresh. All of us. Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another.”
I expect all the historians and political science majors in the congregation recognize the strand that binds these three quotations together.
Yes, these quotations are taken from inaugural addresses:
Abraham Lincoln March 4, 1865
John F. Kennedy January 20, 1961
Joseph R. Biden, 60 years later to the day, January 20, 2021
You might be asking yourself, “where is he going with this homily?”
Well, the gospel passage we just heard is, pardon my anachronism, an inaugural address called the Sermon on the Mount. In the gospel of Matthew, previous to this passage, Jesus has been baptized, acknowledged as Son of God, and he’s been tested through temptation in the wilderness. He has been through several cities teaching in synagogues and performing miraculous healings. Only then, according to Matthew, was Jesus ready to present his most expansive teaching on how to live as God’s people. The eight statements present the counterculture of the kingdom. They address those who experience various kinds of oppression as well as those who have been targeted because of their pursuit of righteousness. They promise blessings to each of these oppressed groups. He turns our accepted views of what it means to be blessed upside down. Jesus challenges our thinking (to use Ignatian terminology) that pride, honor and riches signify God’s blessing. We are called to something deeper, more authentic, long-lasting and not ephemeral. The Beatitudes occur within the literary context of inauguration of a new community. The sermon is Jesus’ manifesto for transformation of the community he will lead.
The tone of Jesus’ inaugural speech is unmistakably prophetic and the priorities are undoubtedly clear. Jesus comes to proclaim a time of liberation from all that enslaves people: prejudice, racism, xenophobia, – to set them free from the narrowness of human constructions to be who they truly are; not in the eyes of the powerful, but rather in the eyes of God. Jesus’s mission is to proclaim a reign of God where all God’s children receive the dignity, respect, and care they deserve. And, as Saint Ignatius reminds is, He calls us to do as He did, to labor with Him under the banner of the cross, to give of ourselves without counting the cost, to be women and men with and for others.
How fitting indeed, Vince, is your choice of this reading as an inaugural address.
You also chose a reading from the prophet Micah. Micah was the first prophet to predict the downfall of Jerusalem. According to him, the city was doomed because its beautification was financed by dishonest business practices, which impoverished the city's citizens. He also called to account the prophets of his day, whom he accused of accepting money for their oracles. Micah rebuked Israel because of dishonesty in the marketplace and corruption in government. He warned the people, on behalf of God, of pending destruction if ways and hearts were not changed. He told them what the LORD requires of them: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Indeed, altogether consistent with the message of Jesus. Yes, do justice and love kindness. And humility. A number of years ago, some Boston College friends gave me a gift, a gift to goad me, knowing that I am a proud alumnus of the College. It is a small purple pillow on which is embroidered these words: “It’s hard to be humble when you’re from Holy Cross.” OK, I admit, this may well be true. Vince, in choosing the reading from Micah, you remind us that greatness, prestige, honors and rankings must always be espoused in a spirit of humility and graciousness, always in the service of the greater good, beyond the walls of our beloved college.
As we inaugurate this new era in the life of the college, we recommit ourselves to seek wisdom not only in the customary habits of place and mind, not only from the mouths of the highly esteemed, but to seek wisdom in place where we might not expect to find it. Pope Francis, as he leads the Church in a spirit of synodality, reminds of the importance of listening; his first step in synodality, “escuchar.” Listen to the experience of people of good will. Vince, in your choice of an epistle, you bid us remember how Paul taught the people of Corinth about the way the Holy Spirit works: “For there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” Yes, everyone.
What’s my point? As we celebrate an inauguration today, let us remember that wisdom is to be found in many quarters, not to be measured by gray hair alone. Let us heed the measured wisdom of those in this community who have borne many years. And let us also heed the ebullient wisdom of the young. For if we are to be receptive to God’s transforming spirit, we need to listen to each other across the spectrum of experience: the emeriti as well as the first year student; those who reside on this campus as well as those we encounter in the greater community; Catholics as well as people of other faith traditions; conservatives as well as liberals, women and men, poets and scientists, athletes and artists, trustees and custodians, red and blue; all of us have much to learn; all of us have much to teach. Let us not be afraid to differ, to debate, to argue about important things in an ambience of mutual respect and civility.
I end with an anecdote about civility, a gift of the Holy Spirit, which is, sadly, too often lacking in our world today.
Ira Bock, Physician and Dartmouth faculty member recounts this story:
Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones. But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.
And so, as this blessed community embarks on a new chapter, I urge you - care for each other. And the “each other” reaches far beyond the ornate gates on College Street. As individuals and as a community, prompted by the outpouring of the Spirit, on campus and off campus, remember Jesus’ inaugural speech, the Sermon on the Mount, and commit yourselves to following His agenda: stay with those who fall, bind up those who are wounded, carry people to safety, tend people through recovery.
In other words, as a Catholic, Jesuit, Ignatian community inspired by the Spirit of Jesus, as we inaugurate a new chapter in the history of our beloved college, I urge us to heed the insight of Margaret Mead, “Be civilized.”