Graduate Degree Conference

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

These words of St. Paul from the Letter to the Romans, in naming the attributes of our Divine Master, ask each of us an important question as well: Who are you?

This, of course, is a very deep existential question. Nevertheless, as we begin our time together this year, I think it is an important question for us to ask.

Who are you? Who am I?

Blessed John Henry Newman offers us some insight here, I believe, or at least my invoking of John Henry Newman offers you some insight about how I perceive things. In his seminal work, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Newman spends considerable intellectual energy on the idea of how we become who we are.

Against, the reductionist tendencies of his time, the middle of the 19th century, Newman refuses to accept easy answers to what he considers complex questions. For example, we know that Marx reduces human endeavor to the least common denominator of capital. Freud sees sexual energy as a defining factor of human experience. Likewise, in Newman's time, religion was seeking simple answers, even to the complex question of God.

Newman, however, sought a different approach. In his way of thinking, drawn from what he believed to be theexperienceof every human person, life was complicated. We would like to believe it is easy. We would like to think it was solvable, but it is not. We cannot be reduced in the depth, the richness of our experience, our perceptions. And this, of course, is a glorious by-product of having been created, not only by God, but in the very image of God.

Listen again to the words of St. Paul:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

Newman understood this passage quite well. He knew that God was a mystery, something that was infinitely pursuable, infinitely knowable, and infinitely capable of loving and being loved. And we are created in the image of God. For Newman, this meant that human relationships, human societies, and human situations were filled, absolutely filled,overflowinglyfilled, withpossibility.

In Newman's vocabulary, this was a sensibility of the human person known as the illative sense. The illative sense is the power of the human person to process data, sensory perceptions, emotions, sounds, feelings, everything we experience, and to use all of that, twisting it into a kind of rope, so that our ideas and our ideals are completely and securely our own and are built up over time, strong, powerful and brilliantly complex.

In other words, to truly know another person, we must enter into a relationship of depth with that person. To truly know our parishioners, we must become intimately involved in their lives in the most pure sense. To know you, I must take time and invest energy in finding out who you are, what makes you tick, how you think and, also, how you are broken.

Let me give you an example of this: Say, over time, a period of several months or even years, I begin to notice certain tendencies or ways of behaving in a person. He does this. She copes with problems like this. She acts like this under pressure. Often, this will prompt me to go ask myself questions. What were her experiences here and here, as a child or a young adult? What is his family like? What about past relationships?

In no way, absolutely no way, do I view these past occurrences or tendencies as any kind of fatal WAY in which you will necessarily engage the world, but they might be pointers to why you are doing this or that, acting in this particular way. Of course, that is just one way. Another way, a better way, is for me to ask the person. Depth analysis of our relationships here begins in honest conversation. But what do we sometimes do?

We judge and we pre-judge. This one is dumb. This one is too effeminate. This one is a drunk. This one is intelligent. This one is … fill in the blank. But the other thing we have to remember is that in reducing our brothers and sisters to stereotypes, or relying too heavily on first impressions, we are failing to deal with the complexity that is in each person, the illative sense of that person, and our own need to look deeply into not only the souls of our brothers and sisters here, but our own souls.

Sometimes, reducing our brothers and sisters to stereotypes allows me to reduce myself to a stereotype. I become prejudiced against myself. Many times in my years of formation, I have had to confront a student's perception of himself as stupid, or worthless. We learn some of those lessons early on.

They are hard to unlearn, but brothers and sisters, you may have this or that character challenge, we all do, but you are also capable of becoming more that you have been led to believe that you are. When we harshly judge others, it is usually because we harshly judge ourselves. When we hate something in others, it may well be that is the thing I am most ardently seeking to deny in myself.

We are complex people, and your success as a minister or just a good member of the Church, that is, if you are going to give people what they truly need, is going to come from realizing the illative nature of life and acting on it, always seeking depth and meaning after the pattern of God Himself:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

Here is what I know: I have been involved at some level with formation for the last 30-plus years. I have seen it all. I have seen tragedy and triumph. I have experienced laughter and tears. I have been on target and I have made mistakes. This is the drama of life. It is lived out here.

I would say, through my experience, that today, in our schools, we have the best group of folks in formation that I have ever seen. Of course, I say that every year because I believe it every year. We are getting better. You are getting stronger. You are talented people, good people, holy people, struggling people, broken people, wild people, tame people.

There are many wonderful attributes of our students today. The first is that you take your faith seriously. If you are here, you take your faith seriously. In general, the generation to which you belong is fading away from the Church. We know this statistically. Many young people are leaving the Church and so, if you are staying, and more so, if you are here, you are serious about your faith.

You take God seriously. You take the Church seriously even in times of trial and, sometimes, really gross error. You take it seriously and you want to be evangelists. You view your work, or even your presence in the Church in the coming years, as a kind of missionary work. In general, you understand the problems facing our world today and you know, that even in a country such as ours, there is real missionary work to be done.

There is a mission to announce the Good News in the cities. The urban sprawl has created a kind of perverse anonymity that allows people to fall through the cracks of the sidewalks. Broken and afraid, they need to have the message of hope and Truth preached to them.

Who will go? Who will go as announcers of God's love to a people who have lost the ability to even ask the question of Love? How can we preach to those who have so lost their way that they no longer even believe there is a way, except perhaps in the depth of their souls, a place they have been assiduously taught to avoid?

There is a mission to announce the Good News in the rural places. If we believe that the countryside has been exempt from the cultural challenges faced by the cities, we are wrong. Many of you are preparing for ministry in farm communities and smaller towns.

The challenges and problems are there. Drug abuse is there. Prostitution is there. Poverty and destitution is there, here. But you also have cynicism, hopelessness, prejudice, a lack of values. These sins, these evils, are no respecters of population or property lines.

There is a mission to announce the Good News on campuses. What are our schools like today? Undoubtedly, many are the same wholesome institutions they have always been. But school violence, shootings, a lack of serious funding, teachers at the end of their ropes, students at the end of their hopes, all of these make for an environment that exceeds the drama of adolescence and young adulthood and sinks into the quagmire of destitution and desperation.

Instead of schools becoming places of hope, they become places of danger. There is something wrong when the Department of Education stands back and allows teachers to arm themselves with monies earmarked for education. There is a deep problem there.

There is a mission to announce Good News to families. It is interesting to me that the teachings of the Church on the family, so rich and so profound, are, in many places today, seen as quaint and out of date. The Church stands for something, but that something is seen as too idealistic. Broken families, divided families, angry parents and children, isolated and lonely. All of these characteristics speak to a world in which the ideal of family life, spoken by our heritage and attested to in our teaching, is under attack.

Look at what is happening in Catholic schools regarding sexuality and sexual preference. Look at the divorce rate among Catholics. Look at the attitude of Catholics toward issues like same gender relationships. Our teaching is not getting through. How can we change that? How can we convince a jaded world that the depth and richness of Catholic teaching will make them better human persons in the observance?

But likewise, how can we help people who sin and struggle to come back to the faith and not feel ostracized or left out? It is one thing to pass judgment on sin. It is another thing to love the sinner and make him or her feel welcome in the Church. We are all welcome in the Church, and that is our pastoral challenge and our personal, as much as the careful and deliberate conveyance of doctrine.

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

All of these are challenges, but here is what I know. You, all of you, are not only ready to meet those challenges, you are on fire to do so.

That is not to say there are no challenges for students of theology today. There are challenges.

There are challenges presented by the world. These I have spoken of at length. In our world today, largely created by the reductionist tendencies of the Enlightenment, there is an alienation of the human person. Because we do not, or cannot, accept Newman's complex vision, we are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of a message sent by culture and a message drawn by God in the sinews of our hearts.

There are challenges presented by the Church, and again we know these. I won't rehearse them again this morning; there are sins in the Church. But we also have to hold true to the reality of what I have been trying to emphasize here. The Catholic Church is the fullness of God's revelation, and we as minsters of the Church must remain faithful and true. We must stand winnowing away the smoke that obscures the world's vision of the pure and holy Church, a smoke often created in the furnaces our failings and our sins.

And of course, as I have said, there are challenges presented by WHO YOU ARE and WHO I AM. How well we meet those challenges demonstrates the quality of our theological education and our formation.

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

May God bless you as you embark on this new endeavor. You will be challenged here and loved here; your illative sensibility will be promoted here. It is my hope that you will also be blessed here. Many blessings for your days and months to come.