“The Catholic University: Restoring a Civilization of Truth, Beauty and Goodness”

Opening Speech for Christendom College’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae
Presidents’ Round Table


On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame Cathedral burned.  You likely remember as I do this tense moment, when the whole world, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, looked on shocked and appalled as flames threatened to destroy sacred beauty.   It was an uncanny moment of unity in suffering, suffering together the potential loss of an ancient beauty: the soaring beauty of that great Cathedral which meant so much to so many over so many centuries, Catholics and non-Catholic alike.

Truth, Beauty and Goodness

I still remain struck at how the whole world, regardless of faith affiliation or lack thereof, mourned the destruction of that great edifice to the glory and majesty of God.  It especially hit home to me when I attended a commemoration service of that great Cathedral at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, home church of the Episcopal Diocese and modeled after the iconic Notre Dame de Paris.  The French general consul was there, of course, and it was one of those moments of solidarity in which the sentiment was “we are all French,” for truly, Notre Dame is the physical expression of all that is great in French culture and legacy, and is the mother of every French person, even as secularized as that country has become.

Truth, Beauty and Goodness: we know these as the three great transcendentals, the doorway to a God Who is the perfection of each.  We live in an age that contests what is good, renaming even the murder of infants as a good, as a constitutional right.  Reason itself has become the subject of controversy.  The Enlightenment – with France, of course, being perhaps its greatest protagonist – believed in truth and its pursuit through reason.  While a sound principle, it is incomplete, for the Enlightenment privatized faith, relegating it to a matter of private opinion rather than one of the sources with which to apprehend truth.

One of the great hallmarks of the Catholic intellectual tradition, of course, is the understanding that faith and reason must work together, each making its own unique contribution and serving as a necessary check on the other, in order to come to an understanding of the truth.  After centuries of a modern world trying to understand truth on the basis of reason alone, what do we have now in the post-modern world?  Neither faith nor reason is a source of truth; rather, truth itself is privatized, a matter of private opinion by which I am entitled to live and which everyone else is obliged to respect.  So, in the quest for truth, the long arc of Western history has moved from faith and reason, to reason alone and not faith, to neither faith nor reason but only will to power.

However, let’s go back to that tragic fire that destroyed the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris: the world’s response shows that the language of beauty, especially classic beauty, continues to touch hearts in our troubled, divisive, anxious and uncertain time.  It does so because what is classic attains that status because it has withstood the test of time: it is universal, beautiful in every age and in every culture.  There is something intuitive about that, which is not subject to personal opinion or argumentation.  It is, to a large extent, an untapped resource for reaching people, especially young people, with the Gospel in this deconstructed age in which we live.

Cancel Culture Nothing New

The timelessness of sacred beauty gives it the power to lift us out of the world of time and give us a glimpse of that which transcends time, of what ultimately lasts, of what our goal and our final home is: ultimately, the reality of God.  A key to the path of renewal of both Church and society, then, is to recapture the importance of beauty, to recognize its universality, and its power to evangelize and open hearts to the truth.

Such beauty as that which Notre Dame Cathedral offers to the world is a brief respite in the incessant deconstruction and violence to which our society is subject nowadays, and which we all find terribly disconcerting, to put it mildly.  The movements marked by these trends are often carried out by protagonists of what social commentators refer to as the “cancel culture.”  Yes, we are living in an age of “cancel culture.”  We are all painfully aware of this.  The online “Urban Dictionary” defines “cancel culture” as:

A modern internet phenomenon where a person is ejected from influence or fame by questionable actions.  It is caused by a critical mass of people who are quick to judge and slow to question.  It is commonly caused by an accusation, whether that accusation has merit or not.  It is a direct result of the ignorance of people caused [by] communication technologies outpacing the growth in available knowledge of a person.[1]

If anyone thought that cancel culture was a new phenomenon with our time, though, such a one can stand corrected.  The Church reminds us of this every year on Good Friday.

Was not our Lord ejected from influence because he posed a threat to the worldly power of the governing authorities and the leaders of his own people?  Were not the people quick to judge without thinking things through, including even the scholars of the Law who should have known better?  Do we not see here a growing mob mentality that erupts in violence against an innocent man?  This is the story on the human level.

However, this is also the same story we are seeing played out before our eyes today.  What do the cancelers really want to cancel out?  It is far more than those who disagree with them.  The real activists are seeking to discredit the great protagonists of Western civilization, both in the history of our country and of our Church. 

How else can one explain the toppling of statues of such giants of our history as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, as happened in my own city of San Francisco?  Along with them the cancelers on rampage in Golden Gate Park also tore down the statue of St. Junípero Serra (as you may know, I’ve been engaged in a multi-year effort to defend his legacy, and obtain restitution for the second Serra statue that was pulled down, this one on the parish property of Mission San Rafael).

But rest assured.  The future does not belong to those who cancel, but to those who create on the rock of Christ.

The Building of a Christian Civilization

We should not be naïve, though: the cancel culture wants to cancel out Western civilization, which is another way of saying the Church.  So the way there is to cancel out truth, beauty and goodness, the building blocks with which the Church built a Christian world.  They certainly have gone a long way in canceling out truth (despite the relativists’ claim that “you have your truth, I have my truth,” the secular culture has its own infallible dogmas that it forces on the citizenry as their own gospel truth).

 Beauty, though, is a bit harder to cancel, as witnessed, again, by the sadness of the entire world at the burning of Notre Dame de Paris, not to mention all of the other great medieval cathedrals of Europe to which people from all over the world have come for almost a millennium to admire, and to this day are reduced to silence with their timeless beauty. 

The Church’s witness of her commitment to goodness may also be difficult to cancel out, but the promoters of the black legend have done such a good job at perpetrating myths and distortions of the Church’s historical record that ignorance and hatred of the Catholic Church now dominate the secular cultural mentality.  The ongoing attempt to transform St. Junípero Serra, a man who gave his life to serve, protect, educate and evangelize the Indians he loved, into a symbol of colonialism, slavery and oppression is a prime example.  We do not know our own history: it was the Catholic Church that early on vigorously denounced the dehumanization of Africans and indigenous Americans.  It was the Church that perceived, when the culture did not, that these were people made in the image of God, people with rights.

Very early on in the encounter between the Old World and the New, in his Papal Bull Sublimus Deus of 1537, the Roman Pontiff Paul III declared that the indigenous people of the Americas “are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property”:

The sublime God so loved the human race that He created man in such wise that he might participate, not only in the good that other creatures enjoy, but endowed him with capacity to attain to the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good and behold it face to face ….

The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation to the people: … that the Indians … should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith….

Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare … that … notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved ….[2]

Let us tell the truth about the past as we strive for a better future, but let that truth include the sublime examples of Catholic heroes, which we not only need to tell as history but also express in the arts and even in the liturgy.

That is why this year I’ve commissioned a new musical composition for Mass by the Benedict XVI Institute’s composer-in-residence Frank La Rocca honoring St. Junípero Serra, which will be celebrated for the first time on his feast day (July 1) at Mission Dolores, founded in 1776, one of the nine of the chain of 21 Franciscan missions along the California coast personally founded by St. Junípero.

These missions are an example of what the Benedict XVI Institute’s poet-in-residence James Matthew Wilson calls “America’s other founding,” the Catholic founding.  This focuses attention on what was taking place all over the territory of what would eventually become the United States of America at the time of the nation’s political founding.  Did you know, for example, that there is an extant letter from St. Junípero Serra in which he asks his brother Franciscans to pray for the success of George Washington and the American Revolution?

Professor Wilson cites the example of the River of the Immaculate Conception, about which he wrote a series of poems that was inspired by Frank LaRocca’s first commissioned Mass by the Benedict XVI Institute, the Mass of the Americas.  It’s likely a revelation to many of you, as it was to me and everyone else I know: the “River of the Immaculate Conception” was the original name of what we now call the Mississippi River, given to it by the first Jesuit missionaries in what is now the state of Michigan.  Remembering his voyage to discover that great legendary river, Fr. Marquette wrote: “Above all, I placed our voyage under the protection of the Holy Virgin Immaculate, promising that if she granted us the favor of discovering the great river, I would give it the name of the [Immaculate] Conception.”[3]

We do not know our own history as Catholics in our own country.  One goal of the Catholic university is to be the place where scholars and artists come together to tell our own stories of our own place here, not only in history but also in art, literature, music, poetry, painting.  We must tell the truth of course, but in that truth we must never neglect the beauty and goodness our faith has inspired.

Indeed, let us recall that the very job you all have – President of a Catholic university (or college) – came from the Church, as the opening sentence of St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution from which this Roundtable takes its name makes clear: “Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic University is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the University as an institution.”[4]  And of course the Church has been equally attentive to evangelizing through goodness, witnessed especially in how, in her history, she organized health care into hospitals, born from her constitutive commitment of service to the sick and the poor.

Hospitals and the Church’s other such organized endeavors to serve the poor is “service” in the authentic Christian sense: not simply giving from what one has left over to help someone else less fortunate, but solidarity with the poor.  This explains the flourishing of religious orders founded not only to serve the poor, but actually to be poor.  Citizens with claims to wealth and nobility would divest themselves of such in order to be poor in service to the poor, such boasts of our history as St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Frances of Rome, St. Margaret of Scotland, and, the most famous of them all and patron city of my city, St. Francis of Assisi.

As Presidents of Catholic colleges and universities you are the custodians of this truth about our Catholic history.  Taking seriously the long history of Catholics in Europe, around the world, and especially here, of America’s “other founding,” will reveal new villains of course, but more importantly new heroes and new symbols of truth, beauty and goodness.

This is the civilization, the Christian civilization, built by the Church founded by Jesus Christ.  And on the day that those who sought to cancel him out thought they had succeeded, we see God’s blueprint for this plan.  St. John tells us in his Gospel that, when Jesus was crucified, “Pilate … had an inscription written and put on the cross.  It read, ‘Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews’ … and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.”  Here it is: the essence of the plan of Western civilization, of the Church that would build a Christian civilization.

The Blueprint

It begins with God’s original Chosen People.  God gave them the Law, the Torah, through Moses.  Not just rules and regulations to help the people get along, but the revelation of His higher truth.  From this people the Church was born, to whom God gave the fullness of revelation in His Son Jesus Christ.  As the Church began to fulfill the Great Commission and proclaim the Gospel throughout the known world of the time, she came more and more into contact with Greek culture. 

As you know, Greek thought and the Greek language were the predominant cultural influence in the world of the time, much like the English language and American culture are in the world of our time.  So this is the next step in building from that blueprint: Greeks being the great philosophers that they were, the early Church Fathers understood how to translate Semitic thought into categories of Greek philosophy in order to bring the Gentiles to salvation in Christ.

Then, when Rome became Christian, the Church was able to avail herself of the physical and social infrastructure of the Roman Empire that had spread all throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  Thus the third stop: the roads and law and governing models of the Roman Empire are what gave the Church the infrastructure she needed to build a common Christian community all throughout the world.

The Mass: Crux of Western Civilization

Now, where does all of this come together in our everyday experience as Catholics: truth, beauty and goodness; Latin, Hebrew and Greek?  It comes together, traditionally speaking at least, in the Mass: there at the Mass we have the Bible, the Church’s Magisterium through her Tradition, art, music, architecture, poetry, and poetry in motion in the form of ceremony.  And, we have Latin, Hebrew and Greek.  Notice how the Church has always been careful to preserve something of the previous official language of prayer in those rare occasions when that language changed.

So, the first Christians prayed in Hebrew, because they were Jewish.  But, with the success of the evangelization of the Gentiles, the language of prayer changed to Greek already within the first generation.  However, in her liturgy the Church held onto the traces of her first language, as she does to this day: Amen, Alleluia, Hosanna and Sabbaoth.  About two hundred years later, when the Church in Rome started to celebrate the Mass in Latin, the Christians there still retained some Greek words – Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison – in addition to continuing to hold onto the Hebrew words.[5]

It is thus that the Mass encapsulates all of Western civilization; it is the distilled essence of that civilization, of which it was the prime force in building.  It brings together truth, beauty and goodness all in one place.  Your institutions already excel in the transcendental of truth.  You are the boast of the Catholic Church in our country, and a great source of hope and inspiration to us who are laboring arduously in the Lord’s vineyard!  And I know you also take beauty very seriously; just a glance around Christendom College, and especially its new Chapel of Christ the King, makes that clear.  I know the same is true of the campuses of the other institutions represented here. 

I would ask you, though, to give a special focus to beauty, especially in the Mass.  This applies above all to music.  Music in the Church’s high sacred tradition has a power like no other to touch souls, to elevate and ennoble the worshipper with a heightened sensitivity to the sacred and the majesty of God.  As Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”[6]  And chant is easy to sing; even those without musical experience catch on right away, because it is so intuitive.  I know this from my own personal experience on a regular basis: when I invite groups of benefactors over to my home for discussion and dinner, we always begin with sung Vespers (in English); the chants are written and led by a Benedictine monk on the faculty at our seminary, and after he practices with them for one minute beforehand, the whole group sings the chants beautifully, even though most of them had never done that before.  Plus, in addition to this, Gregorian chant is our music of worship, our ancient patrimony: Gregorian chant is the music of the Latin liturgy just as Byzantine chant is the music of the Greek liturgy.

Of course, the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy goes on immediately to add: “But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.”  If your students are not already singing chant at Mass, start!  And if you have not yet developed a sacred music choir capable of singing some of the Church’s most beautiful music – polyphony – start!  Such a choir can be featured at the regular Sunday Masses on campus as well as the other principal Masses of the year, such as the Mass of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the academic year and the Baccalaureate Mass at the end.

The work of rebuilding Western civilization begins with repairing the Mass.  Your students will be the principal agents carrying that work of rebuilding beyond the walls of the church.  Their education at your institutions – forming them in truth – and their worship experiences – forming them in beauty – will in turn help to form them in goodness, but only if coupled with an explicit effort to form them in virtue.

Formation in Virtue

As leaders of institutions of higher education, you are in the truth business.  Your professors, in particular, are the ones privileged to accompany your students at a most critical stage of their life’s journey, a stage that for many of them will determine the trajectory of their entire life.  Pope Francis, as we know, places great emphasis on the theology of accompaniment, and this is exactly what our Catholic educational institutions are called to do: journey with our young people out of the darkness into the light of the risen Christ.  As you know better than I, students receive much more than book knowledge from their professors.  Students look to their professors for guidance; they want to understand life, which poses so many conundrums to them.  The students listen to their teachers and watch them for guidance.  The culture of any Catholic educational institution should, then, be both challenging and reassuring for students and teachers alike. 

I would, then, like to shift the attention in my presentation now to the closely related topic of forming students in virtue, and, of all of the classic virtues, to focus on two that are of particular importance because they are both foundational and the most countercultural, even despised, of the virtues in our contemporary society.  That is not as true of all of the classic virtues, at least in concept.  Courage, for example, still has its admirers.  Wisdom as a concept is not shunned.  What, though, are the two key and indispensable and now derided virtues your students need to cultivate in order to fulfill their God-given vocation in life and attain holiness?

The Virtue of Humility

First of all, the mystics all tell us that the necessary first virtue on the path to holiness is humility.  Already we have a huge challenge: it means counteracting the entitlement mentality so prevalent today.  Our young people are bombarded with the message that to achieve their dreams they have to believe in themselves.  We know, though, that this type of blind promotion of the individual self gets students off on the wrong foot.  From 4,000 years of saints and scholars reflecting on the truth revealed from God and experiencing the work of God’s grace in their lives, going back to our Jewish ancestors in the faith, we know that to attain true human flourishing one must begin by believing in God.  One must also know who he is before God, and to know what God is calling him to do with his life so that he may serve God faithfully.

Modern society belittles the virtue of humility.  In our entrepreneurial society, the attitude tends to be “nice guys finish last” – not exactly esteem for the virtue of humility.  Correctly understood, however, humility is a virtue based on reality, on the way things are.  As you likely know, “humility” comes from the Latin word “humus,” which means “earth.”  Humility means lowliness, as in being close to the earth.  But the earth is the ground upon which we walk, so humility is what grounds us in reality, so that we can walk successfully through the many vicissitudes of life.  Humility means that we realistically account for where we are now and where we are going.  This is the most startling way in which humility is fundamental.  If we lose track of our basic reality or where we are heading, whatever happens down the line may be disastrous, even though in the eyes of the world we may seem to have made great progress materially.

The virtue of humility is a Christian virtue based on the reality of a finite person, made by God in the image and likeness of Infinite Being.  God instills in human nature a desire to seek and respect the basic goals of human existence.  Respecting basic human goods means one conforms to norms, objective norms which exist as givens in the created order – in other words, the natural law.  According to these norms, certain human goods must always be respected: life, truth, beauty, love, friendship, and others as well.  These are general goals for all humans.  Particular goals get sorted out in prayer, our conversation with God.  As the young person matures, he or she gains more skills, experiences and insights.  A humble person approaches God in prayer and asks: “Lord, what do you want me to do?”  This is the question every young person must ask themselves in order to discern their vocation, and it is incumbent to our Catholic educational institutions to assist them in doing so and in finding the answer.

The reality is that humans are made by God to know, love and serve Him in this life in order to be happy with Him in the next.  The virtue of humility is the regular disposition and practice by which a person acknowledges his or her true defects and gifts, and in light of those, submits to God’s will and to the good of others for God’s, and the other’s, sake.  That is, the person accepts the fundamental reality of both imperfection and of God inviting the person to use his or her gifts to praise God and serve others.  St. Augustine is said to have once responded to an enquirer with the words: “This way is first humility, second humility, third humility”; also attributed to him is the saying, “Humility is the foundation of all other virtues, hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”[7]  And in her Autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila says “there is more value in a little study of humility and in a single act of it than in all the knowledge in the world” (chap. XV).

In imparting truth to their students, professors help students to discover the truth, and they teach their students skills in how to evaluate whether something is true or simply an erroneous view shared by some people.  Catholic teaching is that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  This means that the Bible and the truth in Christ are compatible with truth in the sciences and the humanities.  Faith and reason working in sync bring together the Bible and science, the truth Christ teaches through the Church’s Magisterium and human knowledge we derive from the humanities.  Thus, faith and reason working together leads students ever more fully into the light of Christ.  A Catholic university relies on its teachers to share basic Catholic insights concerning truth with students, so that teachers might accompany their students on the path of discovering, appreciating and appropriating the truth.  As all teachers realize, sharing a conviction occurs in two ways: one can verbally state what one’s convictions are or, by one’s actions, one can demonstrate what one’s convictions are.

It is the great call of professors to teach and practice humility in the classroom in the fundamental sense that I have laid out here.  As I have portrayed it, the truly humble person has three convictions.  It begins with the response Pope Francis gave in the interview published in America magazine when he was asked, “Who is Pope Francis?”  True to his Ignatian charism as a Jesuit, he responded, “I am a sinner.”  This is the start, the first conviction.  But it is seen in the light of the second conviction, namely, that I am made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore I recognize both faults and gifts within me.  And third, I strive to fulfill God’s plan for me.

True, humility by itself is not enough.  However, without helping students practice the virtue of humility, that is, the three convictions I just mentioned, we leave out the most important foundation for all learning.  So, humility alone is insufficient, but without it, learning is impossible.  And not only learning, but every other human and theological virtue, including the one for which everyone is yearning in the deepest core of their being, and so often search for in the wrong places: love.

The narcissistic obsession with the cult of self we are now witnessing in the culture is, I believe, a symptom of a very deep insecurity and loneliness in our society.  People are yearning for love, intimacy and companionship, yet very often fail to attain it.  It is clearly true that many people are incapable of, or at least not disposed toward, persevering in a committed relationship in their life.

The Virtue of Chastity

Which leads us to the other foundational virtue, the one which more than any other is abhorred by the contemporary culture and so the one where we find the greatest challenge of all to instill: chastity.

While many people do not value humility as a virtue, they will at least give basic human respect to someone who is humble even if they don’t aspire to emulate the person.  When it comes to chastity, though, most people see it as a purely a negative thing, a deprivation, giving up something they intensely desire for no payback at all, nothing more than a suppression of the sexual appetite.  Furthermore, if people think of chastity at all, most people think it applies primarily to young people and the unmarried.  In fact, chastity is a virtue for every age and every state in life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition of chastity as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (n. 2337) can be expressed another way, inspired by the insights of Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body: the constant disposition to love another person the way that person should be loved, corresponding to the person’s intrinsic human dignity.  This takes us far beyond the very superficial understanding of chastity which sees it as simply “no sex outside of marriage.”  Certainly observance of this moral norm is absolutely necessary for one to be chaste, but by itself this is insufficient for acquiring the virtue of chastity in all its fullness.

As you know, we have a huge challenge before us in helping people nowadays understand the true meaning of love, the love that is agape.  When I do Confirmations, I sometimes ask the confirmandi precisely this question: What, really, is love?  After the usual long, uncomfortable silence as I wait for someone to raise their hand (that even happens when I ask questions that I know they know the answer to!), I answer for them by pointing to a crucifix.  When you say, “I love you,” you are saying, “I am willing to give everything for you, to give up all of my selfish habits in order to please you, even to the point of giving up my life for you.”  Love, then, is the giving of oneself to the other for the good of the other.  It means respecting and affirming the intrinsic dignity of the other at all times and in every way, and never treating the other as a means to an end, as a way of getting some benefit you are looking for, even unconsciously.

Chastity as genuine love for another person (not merely physical attraction) stresses the person’s willingness to extend himself to the utmost limits in order to do things that are for the good of another person.  A necessary characteristic to act always with this motivation is that one must be selfless.  But one also has to understand that some acts, such as the marriage act, have attractive qualities, but only work for the good of the other person, including the offspring, when they are performed in the context of marriage.  Chastity is also obviously central to the vocation of priesthood and religious life.  Also in these cases, candidates for these two vocations have to integrate well their sexuality with their interior life.  If this does not occur, the priest, nun or brother will not be able to interact well with other people.

College students are still at a critical early stage in their lives, a stage when they are exploring the mystery of life and trying to find their place in it.  We certainly want to encourage them to consider the vocation to be a priest or consecrated religious.  But most of them will be called to the vocation of marriage, and marital chastity is equally central to a couple’s happiness and perseverance in their vocation.  Our young people will simply not find true, deep happiness in life if they do not acquire the virtue of chastity.  I would say, then, that one barometer that could be used for gauging a young person’s prospects for attaining true, deep happiness in life and perseverance and success in their vocation is their capacity for fidelity in marriage, regardless of what their vocation actually is.

Chastity, then, together with humility (without which chastity – and all other virtues – is impossible) is what enables a person to live beyond a mere superficial, banal existence to one which is other-centered and open to the transcendent; it enables one to look beyond the surface, beyond the physical, to the other’s interior life.  And it lives these deep human goods in very concrete ways, in the body.

Practical Applications

We do, of course, need to help our young people grow in all of the virtues: the theological, cardinal, and moral virtues.  Humility and chastity are the virtues upon which to build.  Some of the other virtues, yes, are esteemed in the secular culture, but without a Christian perspective they can easily become self-serving.  Take, for example, the virtue of charity.  Yes, of course, it is absolutely essential that the graduates of our Catholic colleges and universities be well-formed in the virtue of charity.  But they also have to understand what that really means.  It is not simply giving some of your extra time, talent or treasure to someone in need, and then go on with your life unchanged.  No, because Christians give to give and not to get, because that is how God made us to be and that is what pleases God.  Charity is love in action, the love of agape.  It involves a very human encounter in which both come away from it changed.  Pope Benedict XVI has a wonderful reflection on this in his first Encyclical, “God is Love”:

Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for the human person, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ.  My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.[8]

This is love in action that affirms the dignity of the other as an intrinsic good.

However, while these virtues serve the good of the individual, leading the individual down the path that leads toward eternal salvation, we know that they also serve the good of society as a whole.  Some of you may be familiar with the work of Alana Newman, a young lady who was the product of IVF.  She speaks about the personal harm she suffered not knowing who her biological father was, and all that she tried to do to track him down in order to know her connection to her heritage, how she has had self-destructive tendencies and felt that she had no value.  She also speaks about the negative consequences to society when fathers become disposable, which, as we know, happens in a whole lot of other ways as well.  Pope Francis has also not been reticent to emphasize the importance of the role of the father in the family, such as the following which he spoke in one of his Wednesday General Audience addresses:

The first need, then, is precisely this: that the father be present in the family.  That he be close to his wife, to share everything with her, joys and pains, difficulties and hopes.  And that he be close to his children as they grow up: when they play and when they pursue their interests, when they are careless and when they are distressed, when they talk and when they are quiet, when they are bold and when they are afraid, when they make a mistake and when they recover from it; the father must always be present, always.[9]

As inspiring and lofty as all this may sound, though, to respond to this call with integrity requires a lot of heavy lifting, because there are a lot of hard parts involved with it.  That is to say, promoting the faith in our contemporary society is difficult primarily because the ambient culture either explicitly or implicitly promotes secular values that often run counter to Catholic values, to the point that now there is a culture that is working vehemently to cancel them out.  For this reason, in order to live a faithful Catholic life nowadays one needs to be very intentional, even to the point of developing a very deliberate strategy, so as to counteract the impact of secular society on our students.  And the answer to this is the complete blueprint for Western civilization.

Canceling Sin

Jerusalem, Athens and Rome; Hebrew, Greek and Latin: these are the building blocks of a great Christian civilization.  And we have all of the elements of Western civilization at the Mass, the distilled essence of that civilization, represented by the sign Pilate had placed at the top of the Cross.  But to see the most distilled essence of all, what truly is at the heart of it all, and must be at the heart of a Catholic educational institution, we must look below the inscription; if we fail to do that, it will all be simply a façade.  Pilate said, “Behold, your king.”  We need to gaze upon Christ on the Cross, and truly behold our King, the one who gave everything for us, even though he had no need to receive anything from us.  Jesus himself – not only his teaching, but he, in his death on the Cross – is the blueprint for a civilization of truth and love, a civilization imbued with a Christian ethos.

The drive to cancel this out, then, ultimately is the attempt to cancel out the founder of the Church, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  This really, though, is nothing more than the old and ugly tendency toward sin, a tendency that affects all of us in our human weakness.  All of us, in some way and to some extent, are with the crowds in the story: instead of beholding our King, we claim, “We have no king but Cesar.”  It is our sins that, with the crowd, shout out, “Crucify him!”  No, there is nothing new about this.  We are back in the Garden of Eden at the time of the fall: it is the attempt to cancel out God, in order to do things our own way.

There is, though, one cancel culture our Lord did come to establish: canceling out sin.  He has done that on the Cross, paying the debt we owed to God but which we could not pay ourselves.  Since it was man who incurred the debt, man had to pay it back.  So that is the one thing the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity did need to receive from us, a human nature, so, as man, he could pay back what we could not without his divine nature.  But he only “needed” this because he condescended to come to our rescue, not because he stood to get anything out of it himself.

That is the Good News, and the pattern for how the human person lives in accordance with the original human dignity that God gave us.  But someone needs to tell this to the world, to open deaf ears and break through the cacophony of post-modern cancel culture so the message can get through and penetrate hearts and take root there.  You have the privileged position and awesome responsibility of leading Catholic institutions of higher education that accompany young people in journeying from darkness to light, from sin to grace, from self-centered indulgence to altruistic love, after the pattern of our Savior on his Cross.


Yes, this is truly Good News.  And not just because of what we receive, but also because of the lesson it teaches us about how we are to live together well.  That comes not from looking at what one gets out of it, but rather looking to the good of the other before one’s self.  And only our Savior makes that possible.

It is good that we behold our King on the Cross.  And it is good, too, to see in the inscription above him his plan for our living in a world in which his truth, beauty and goodness can thrive.  All of this comes together in the Holy Mass and is made present there; the greatest gift of all, though, is his presence there.  He comes to meet us in every Mass, to bring us his truth and love.

This is the civilization that leads all into the true and lasting happiness with him that he came to win for us, a civilization born from the heart of his Bride, the Church, from which also springs the chief protagonist that builds that civilization and is one of the Church’s greatest gifts to the world: the Catholic university.  Thank you for the critical leadership you provide in making Catholic higher education all that it is called to be: a beacon of truth, beauty and goodness to a world weakened by error, evil and sin; and a community where students, professors and administrators alike grow more perfectly into the image and likeness in which God originally created us.  May He continue to bless you and give success to the work of your hands for the good of the souls of the young people learning and maturing in your institutions, for their flourishing here in this life and forever in the life to come.  Amen.

[1] https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cancel%20Culture.

[2] https://www.papalencyclicals.net/paul03/p3subli.htm

[3] https://nobility.org/2018/04/marquette-finds-the-mississippi-and-names-it-the-river-of-the-immaculate-conception/.

[4] Apostolic Constitution of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on Catholic Universities, Ex corde Ecclesiae.

[5] Since after Vatican II the Church decided – despite Sacrosanctum Concilium’s admonition that “[p]articular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (n. 36) – the entire Mass was to be translated into the vernacular, I would have liked to have seen the Kyrie retained in Greek and not just the Hebrew words in Hebrew (which, in my opinion, should have also applied to the word “sabbaoth”), and also some words in Latin, in order to preserve this pattern.  On this last point, it would have been most appropriate to keep the dismissal at the end along with the response in Latin, as this is where the principal Catholic worship service gets the name “Mass” (Ite Missa est/Deo gratias).

[6] Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 116

[7] https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2015/a-touch-of-the-grace-of-humility/.

[8] Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est, n. 34.

[9] Pope Francis, General Audience of 4 February 2015, Paul VI Audience Hall.