Homily for the Close of the Summer Session
Sitzmann Hall – University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN
25 July 2019
It is no coincidence that that those of us who given ourselves over to considering questions of the nature and dynamism of Christian culture have been gathered for a final time in this way, in this place, on this day, the liturgical memorial of St. James the Apostle. (Those of you present from the wider campus community are no in no way off the hook.)
How fitting it is that we gather to celebrate and for prayers from one of the men who stood with Jesus on Mt. Arbel, the highest place in Galilee with a view of everything, and heard the words of the Great Commission, what our friends Guardini and von Balthasar have called, “this missionary mandate”: “euntes, ergo, docete.” Go, then, and teach.
“Euntes ergo docete” are the words above the doorway as one exits the main chapel at Mundelein Seminary; the last thing a new priest would read on his way out of there after his ordination. Perhaps we need to nag Dr. Naughton with a bit more vigor to put those words on the door frame of Sitzmann Hall, a fitting reminder of the purpose of what we’ve all been doing here.
But is that really all we’ve been doing? Teaching and learning? Half of us have been doing one, and half of us the other? Have we been doing anything together?
Obviously. We’re not just studying God or speaking about the impact on human thought and culture of the coming of God among us. We’re not just studying God, we’re looking for him! We’re infatuated with his face, and we’re obsessed with his gaze; Lord Jesus, show us more of you!
During my second year of college, which was my first year here at St. Thomas, I somehow ended up taking Astronomy. For our final project, we were to submit the portfolio of a semester’s worth of research on the setting sun. We were asked to pick a place near campus that was high enough and accessible enough to watch the sunset at the same time, three times per week, and measure from a fixed landmark the changes in the location and movement of the sun as the summer ended, and the autumn brought us toward winter.
I picked the top of the Fowler Veranda overlooking the St. Thomas football field, and measured the sun, at the same of day, three times a week for 15 weeks from September to December using one of the stadium lights as my landmark. That was the semester I learned to love to the sky, and I learned to love the setting sun.
I tell you that to tell you this: I didn’t stop going there after the semester of Astronomy had ended. I kept going back to the Fowler Veranda to watch the setting sun throughout the next two and a half years of my time at St. Thomas. I went back there almost every night this summer, using that time and that place to read both The Betrothed and The Circle.
Most of you have heard by now, mainly because neither acceptance nor silence are virtues of mine, that due to the bad weather last Saturday morning I was stuck in St. Paul for the weekend; by the time I would have been able to fly home, I would have been at the parish for a grand total of 14 hours simply to celebrate two Masses before returning to the airport and, eventually, to St. Thomas. It didn’t make sense.
I was bummed, though, to miss our annual “Christmas in July” family reunion which I was going to be able to attend for the first time in several years. I drove back melancholically from the airport, being sure to stop at McDonald’s on the way, and came back to the seminary and watched the West Wing pretty much all day.
The weather cleared up, and so I picked up The Circle and around twilight I headed to the Veranda to read. Long story short, I looked up from my book and saw the most incredible sky. Normally at this time of year, the sun is somewhere over the baseball field. But, and I mean this honestly, for the time I found myself looking at the evening sky over the Anderson Student Center, and all I can tell you is that it was the most magnificent thing I’ve seen in a very, very long time.
Immediately, I was filled with a presence and voice within me said, “this is all for you.”
For me? All of this for me? There’s no way all of this could be for me. I thought of all the other people around the Cities seeing the same sky, the same sun, and surely there must be someone more melancholic than me in Ramsey and Hennepin counties. For me?
Then, the voice again: “This is all for you. Because you are the only one who sees it from this place, with those eyes, having had this day, in the midst of this life which is anchored in this moment in all of history. This is all for you.”
And suddenly I knew why euntes ergo docete made such a difference in the life of the disciples, and why one single command to a group of men on some mountain in Palestine could change all of history, could have an impact on human thought and culture at all. The living Christ is with me. Me! The living Christ is with me!
The heart of the missionary mandate received by St. James and all the others wasn’t books or talks or conferences or classrooms or endowments; the heart was Christ. The heart is Christ. The living Christ, who is with us.
I want to close our summer session together with a question. I am aware that for those of you who live and work here, today might not seem so final as it does for those of us who must return to our daily work. So perhaps I should not say “close the summer session” but rather, “I want to begin the next moment of our history” with a question.
It is a question posed to me by Father Giussani, a man who has changed my mind, my heart, my soul, and indeed my very life.
Here’s Giussani: “The fundamental question for the human person, for any person, in any time, until the end of history, ever since the message that God became man was brought, entered the world, the greatest question of life is this; no greater question is conceivable, that is, no human person can imagine a greater question for his freedom; Christ: yes or no?”
Come, Lord Jesus, give us more of you, that we may always say yes.