1 Inaugural Address – October 4, 2008

Today we inaugurate the tenure of the 14th president-rector for this school of the Lord’s service, Saint Meinrad School of Theology. We are privileged to do so in the presence of three of my predecessors, Archbishop Daniel, Fr. Eugene and Fr. Mark. My only other living predecessor cannot join us today, but we must be somewhat understanding, since Fr. Theodore is 107 years old.

Each of these men, in his own way, has contributed to the legacy of Saint Meinrad creatively, faithfully, productively. Each of them has also realized that Saint Meinrad is more than the vision of a single person, and so I hope that today is more than the inauguration of one person, but as all inaugurations must be, the opportunity to renew the charism of an institution, the spirit of a place, and the mission of a school that has served the Church for almost 150 years.

In those years, Saint Meinrad has fearlessly risen to meet the challenges that the Church has faced in good times and in not-so good times. Saint Meinrad has responded to the needs of the Body of Christ in countless large and small ways so that the mission of the Church, the evangelical mission of Christ, might be perpetuated to the ends of the earth.

Saint Meinrad has given thousands upon thousands of ministers to serve in places far and near to literally millions of men and women. It has weathered a great civil war, two world wars, two ecumenical councils, a great depression, the social upheaval of the ’60s and thrived. What more can Saint Meinrad do? What more can it be?

I would like to begin my address this afternoon with a short reflection on the physical properties of sandstone. I know it seems like an odd beginning, but I hope it will make some sense, like so many things in life, if we merely look around. What are the properties of sandstone?

The first one we might mention is that it is one of the most rapaciously absorbent building materials available. Everything soaks in. Building blocks of sandstone are etched with the rivulets of thousands of tempests and turmoil. For 150 years, these sandstone walls have soaked in rain and hail, soot and dust and about a million stories. If these walls could talk!

They would tell the stories of young, impressionable boys who were tossed off a wagon or a bus at the bottom of the hill and cried their first few nights away in a strange place. They would tell of adolescents struggling in the wee hours of the morning into a black cassock, or perhaps into the role it represented, as they headed off for silent hours of recollection. They would tell of discoveries of the deepest secrets of the human heart, its most impenetrable longings, its confusions, discernments and debilitations.

They would tell of triumph, of glory, of achievement, of anointing. They would conjugate a billion Latin verbs and a thousand lives. They would laugh and weep, rejoice and scream the limitless expressions of real men and women whose lives have been transformed. They bear scars, these walls, real scars. Sandstone absorbs and remembers.

The second property of sandstone is that it is malleable. You can carve it into anything. It yields to the tools of formation. It can be transformed into strong foundation blocks or beautiful sculpture. It is subtle and can be changed. It seems almost to change of its own volition over time. It can be made into anything.

The walls of this school have endured fire and flood, hurricane and winter snow and they have given. This school has expanded to include every kind of person under the sun. It has embraced people of countless cultures, myriads of ages, complexions, temperaments and intentions.

It has taken all of them in because sandstone is malleable; it changes with the times and the needs of the Church and the world. It becomes one thing for one generation and something else for the next, remaining all the while resolutely itself. Sandstone shifts with the times. It is malleable.

Finally, sandstone is beautiful. It is beautiful because it is absorbent and malleable. It bears its scars well. In fact, its scars become a remarkable facet of its fabric. The walls of this school bear the unmistakable patina of experience, of hard knocks, of gentle caresses. The sandstone of the walls of this school is etched, richly etched, with the unmistakable palimpsests of idealism, promise and hope. It is the idealism of youth, the promise of the Church, the hope of Christ’s cross.

The history of this institution is written in its walls, an absorbent, beautifully aged, malleable history. But these walls do not stand as bulwarks to a formless, ideal past. They stand rather as the prow of a great ship sailing confidently into the future. We build upon the past, we honor the past, we are distinguished by the past, but the past is gone and Saint Meinrad exists for today. And formation today, education today, is not without its challenges.

Inundated as we are in the utilitarian vision of education and, indeed, of life, we must take pause in the face of a past filled with so much bold idealism, so much promise and so much hope. In our modern world, we may often despair of what has been. We may lament that the great legacy of the Church is dead. We may decry that its message will fall on deaf ears, that, at least in Western culture, we no longer have the means of hearing the Gospel, much less of living it out.

Or, if we are to hear the Gospel, it must necessarily be a perverted Gospel, a commercialized, sanitized and soundbit Gospel. In spite of these cultural sirens, Saint Meinrad, firmly grounded in its past, remains committed to a set of truths that we have relentlessly pursued these many decades. It is these truths we must take into the future. It is my prayer, indeed it is my pledge, that the future of Saint Meinrad is solidly built upon these foundational truths, truths that we, their bearers, must now enunciate for a new generation.

The first of these truths is that people want to hear the Gospel and they want to hear the whole Gospel. In spite of what we may be told, the clarion call of faith is not dead, nor does it sleep. The ears of humanity are tuned to hear its faint signals against the ever increasing uproar of its foes, the din of so-called civilized, cyberized existence.

In the recesses of the human heart, there is a yearning for meaning that only Christ can give. The challenge of preaching and teaching the Gospel message today is not so much the indifference of its hearers as the lack of fortitude in its preachers. As ministers of the Gospel, we give up, we despair, we count our weakness as loss.

In fact, we need to attend to the true voice of conscience that cannot be stilled in each of us and hear in that voice the cry for and of the unspeakable name of God, the name that leaps across the plains of generations and through the cacophonies of history, the name that utters its forceful syllable against the violence of wars, both external and internal, the name that is now, in the fullness of time, manifested in the blood-stained face of the Savior, in his searching eyes, in his patient voice entreating, admonishing us to do this, do all of this in memory of him.

Flannery O’Connor once remarked: For the deaf you must speak loudly, for the blind, you must draw big pictures. People want to hear the Gospel, they are dying for it and we must be willing to believe that call if the work we do here is to make any sense at all. This must be our primary value, the source and sustenance of our mission, our daily bread.

Why? Because this Gospel is the Truth. The great folly of the postmodern world is the perversion of Truth in radically devolving particularities. Truth cannot be determined by science alone. Truth cannot be established by economic legitimation alone. Truth cannot be sustained by language games alone, nor can it be merely the distillation of a social engagement that will inevitably, rapidly degenerate into a sociological contagion.

Rather, his Truth is firmly established in the heavens and it dictates to the earth, to quote the psalmist. Cardinal Newman remarked that people will never be satisfied with anything less than certainty. People want to hear the Gospel and they want to hear the whole Gospel.

The second value we represent is that people want something challenging. They want to know that their life’s quest is meaningful. People will devote themselves to a task if they recognize in that task the ultimate concern of the great adventure. People want to do something serious with their lives. Even in a death-dealing culture, there is a respect for life, a respect for the modicum of self-respect that cannot be robbed from us by commercialism and consumerism.

As Pope Benedict has said, “The knowledge of Christ is a path that demands the whole of our beings.” People want to engage the fullness of living in the paths they pursue. The intensity of our mission is a product of the intimacy of what we encounter in the Eucharist, nothing less than the living God.

As the Holy Father has also noted, “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self giving.” As Christ gives Himself in the Eucharist, completely and without compromise, so we are inspired to give all at the risk of compromising our understanding and appreciation of the Eucharist.

We want to be challenged and Saint Meinrad, to be true to its mission, must be a place where people are challenged, challenged to be disciples, men and women of the Eucharist, challenged to move beyond the mendacity of daily irritations, challenged to be saints.

The third value that we embody is the value of community. The culture of unrelenting secularity devolves into the culture of isolation, of the human person’s increasing preoccupation with his personal loneliness. The long loneliness of the human condition ended with the sacrificial act of Christ on the cross; his blood draws us into a corporate reality. We are for each other. We cannot exist without each other.

As the late Pope John Paul remarked: we are made for one another, created for one another, bound for one another. Father Von Balthasar repeatedly remarked that the great fundamental lie of modern humanity is the loss of belief in the corporate subject, the erroneous belief that we can do it on our own. As he said in his work In the Fullness of Faith, “The loss of ability to participate in the corporate subject signifies the direct loss of Catholic instinct. Where this instinct is absent, people settle for what can be known within the parameters of the world.”

If there is a message that Saint Meinrad must continually proclaim, it is that we are not alone. The bonds of this community, in good times and in bad, in joy and sorrow, hope and despair, teach the world a mighty lesson. These sandstone walls engulf us in a profound reality. We are here for each other. We are part of one another because we are part of Christ, brothers and sisters united in a common hope, not sojourners bound on other journeys.

We cannot witness this value by words alone. It must be witnessed in the very fabric of our being here, woven, knitted, quilted together into a mighty tapestry that convinces everyone who steps on this holy ground that love is still possible, that the witness of the disciples together in one place is still possible, that unity of heart and mind is still possible, that compassion is still possible.

If these are our values, then to what will Saint Meinrad commit itself in the coming years? First, we commit ourselves to the loving formation of each person who comes here. Vivified brains or ambulatory hearts are insufficient in themselves to fulfill the great task before us. We must be people of clear heads and holy hearts. The task of ministry must touch every fiber of their being.

Saint Meinrad must be a place where people leave better than when they came, regardless of the outcome of their formation. Saint Meinrad is a place to form ministers, who likewise respond to the whole person, the whole community, because they themselves are whole beings. Human formation is the bedrock of what we do.

As Pope John Paul remarked in Pastores Dabo Vobis, if our human development is neglected or disregarded, then “the work of formation is deprived of its necessary foundation.” The minister who is intelligent without emotional maturity is no minister; the minister who is good and kind but unable to explain the basic tenets of faith is no minister. Priests, deacons, lay ministers today are those who can bring the often-disparate strains of the song of postmodern man into harmony. The minister today is a harbinger of harmony. We can accept nothing less.

Second, we commit ourselves to formation as a way of living. Saint Meinrad is not a place to prepare ministers. It is a place to be ministers. It is not a place to train future disciples. It is a place to live discipleship. We are already into the work of ministry when we step on this hill. We learn to live with one another, put up with one another, take care of one another, love one another.

We learn that the first lesson of ministry is to be here. We learn to be truly present to one another, to uphold one another, to appreciate one another. This is a school of charity. This is a school of consideration. This is a school of mercy. This is a school of being for the other.

In this regard, we also commit ourselves to the pursuit of intelligence. The obligation to be intelligent is, as Lionel Trilling has noted, a moral obligation. In Christian ministry, it is even more so. Saint Meinrad has been blessed through the years with excellent faculty members, men and women fully committed to the Gospel and to preparing quality ministers for the Church. That is a gift from God.

As Archbishop Sheen noted in The Priest is Not His Own: “The intellect of the priest is bread to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. Our faith is the satisfaction of the soul’s desire, not the didactic presentation of a syllogism.” The intellectual must meet the pastoral if true theological education is to take place.

Cardinal Newman remarks:

This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for the sake of others, for the perception of its proper object, and for its highest culture; it is the standard of excellence.

Third, and most significantly, we commit ourselves to prayer. The truth of all this frantic action only comes home in the intimacy of a life inundated with prayer. Prayer is our communion, our living breath, our blood. It connects us to the source of who we are, as Fr. Guardini remarked: “Prayer creates that open, moving world, transfused by energy and regulated by reason. Behind it is the history of all cultures, interwoven with humanity. It is an arch of the sacred room of revelation where the Truth of the living God is made known to us.”

Prayer is our way of life and unites all of the varying actions of our lives together into a living edifice, a solid wall of stone, stone that is malleable, absorbent and beautiful. I cannot lead this school except on my knees. Our staff and faculty cannot do what they do, except on their knees. We cannot learn except humbly on our knees. We will be a community on our knees, in perpetual adoration of the source of our being, in fundamental thanksgiving for the gifts we have received in every heartbeat, in every word spoken, in every act of love.

If we can do that, then we will fulfil the goal of our existence. As Helen Keller once said: “It is for us to pray not for tasks equal to our powers, but for powers equal to our tasks, to go forward with a great desire forever beating at the door of our hearts as we travel toward our distant goal.”

Finally, in all of these things, we commit ourselves to excellence, the Greek virtue of arête. Excellence in all things is our goal and our guide. Excellence in the great arcs of formation and in the minute details of daily existence. Excellence, in our context, cannot be accidental. It is purposeful and driven. It must be the reason for our living.

Each person here, no matter what role he or she may fulfill, is called to fulfill that role with integrity and excellence. Excellence that is habitual, continual and purposeful fulfills in us, as individuals and as a community of faith, a sense of self-esteem worthy of the dignity of the sons and daughters of God.

Mediocrity, half-heartedness, a spirit of the mundane have no place at Saint Meinrad. We are called to nothing less than the excellence of sanctity, growing in holiness and fulfilling our destiny in Christ. In this pursuit, we cannot doubt that the great legacy of the Church is alive. We can be assured that the message of the Gospel will fall on anxious ears, that we will have the means of hearing the Gospel and living it out in the daily joys of discipleship.

Why? Why to all of this effort, all of this commitment? Because the Church deserves the best priests and permanent deacons and lay ministers. The Church deserves intelligent, healthy, creative, prayerful, loving ministers. The Church deserves ministers who can work with them and for them in evangelizing our world about the Good News we preach.

And when the Church has quality ministers, the faithful are enriched, built up like living blocks of stone, strong and beautiful, able to weather the vicissitudes of these tumultuous times, stones of living faith built into a solid temple. That is Saint Meinrad.

Twenty years ago this summer, a 25-year-old man drove up this hill. He was young, energetic, a little scared, thin and had lots of hair. He was trying something, trying his vocation as a priest. He was unsure, nervous but also full of hope. It didn’t take long for the blessings, the mystery, of Saint Meinrad to take hold in that young man’s life. He lived within these sandstone walls.

He prayed, he learned, he worked, he cried, he argued, he became frustrated, he was consoled, he pleaded with God, he laughed, he made friends for a lifetime and he became attached to a place, Saint Meinrad, a place that was ultimately not only a school and a place to learn the skills of ministry, but a home. He was transformed by Saint Meinrad. Saint Meinrad made him the man he would become. Twenty years later, that energetic, scared, thin and hopeful young man has become the 14th president-rector of this School of Theology. But my story is not an unusual story; in fact, my story is a story I hear every day.

One of the great privileges of my new work is to hear how Saint Meinrad has made a difference, a real difference in the lives of so many men and women around the world. It is a privilege to know that we are still preaching the Gospel, that we are still providing the challenge of people’s lives, that we are still doing that in the cradling boughs of community life.

It is a privilege to have you here this weekend, not to celebrate the 14th president-rector, but to celebrate our school, our alma mater, this unique and holy place called Saint Meinrad. God bless you for your presence and your patience. Pray for us as we pray for you each day. God keep you. Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.

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