On October 17th in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Holy Cross Brother André Bessette. He will become the first member of Holy Cross to be officially named a saint by the Church. Starting on Sunday, August 29, Holy Cross priests and brothers from around the world will be reflecting on what Brother André means to them personally in their lives and ministry. As a preview to that series, we are sharing the homily that Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., preached at the Opening of the School Year Mass for the University of Notre Dame. The homily reflects on what this humble saint has to teach those of us engaged in study or ministry in the apostolate of higher education.
I find the beginning of a new school year is both traumatic and invigorating. It’s traumatic because you are pulled out of the more restful and reflective time of summer and thrown into the frenetic pace of the year. It’s invigorating because of the excitement of new classes, meeting new students and faculty, and undertaking new initiatives. I hope all of you find that spring in your step, that shot of adrenaline, as you consider all the possibilities of this new year.
Notre Dame is – and I hope will always be – a busy and ambitious place. Students, I hope your classes are not only intellectually engaging but demanding. If we are not pushing you, we are not doing our job.
Faculty, I know the dedication you have to both scholarship and teaching, and the long hours you put into both. You work hard to make your classes as inspiring as they are intellectually engaging and you spend long, long hours to make important contributions in your fields.
The people who make up Notre Dame—faculty, staff, and students—are an exceptionally talented and hard-working group of people and we want to make Notre Dame a truly great university. I hope that will always be true. In the coming academic year we will work hard, ask a lot of ourselves and one another, and spend a long time in conversation about issues that matter.
Yet Notre Dame especially should also be a place where we make time for prayerful moments. In the midst of our plans, projects, and work we should be a community that finds time for quiet prayer and reflection. Jesus lived a busy life—preaching, teaching, healing, traveling, responding to the requests from the crowd who pressed in on him everywhere he went. Yet in the Gospels he periodically goes away by himself to pray. The time of prayer punctuated everything he did.
The reason that these times of prayer are important is that they allow us to listen to the subtle promptings of the Spirit—not our spirit but God’s Spirit—that speaks to us and guides us. “I have said these things to you while I am still with you,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel. “But the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
That is true of all of us. God sends the Spirit to us all, and asks us to listen. So much in our nation—and sometimes here at Notre Dame too—is about making plans, solving problems, achieving goals. All that is good and, indeed, essential. The danger, though, is that this can lead to the belief that I alone am or should be in control, managing all my problems through my intelligence and initiative, the master of my life and my environment.
Today’s readings suggest that we must also listen to, and rely on, the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
In October I will have the opportunity to travel to Rome for the canonization of the first saint in Holy Cross, Brother André Bessettte, C.S.C., of Montreal. André was born in 1845 to a French speaking Canadian family of ten children. He knew tragedy in his life: his father was killed in an accident when he was nine, and his mother died of tuberculosis three years later. He was raised by a relative, had only rudimentary education, and began life as a laborer. At 25 he applied to become a brother in the Congregation of Holy Cross, but was initially rejected for poor health. The bishop intervened, André was accepted, made his vows, and was assigned the very humble job of minding the door at the community house.
He did so, humbly and well. People came with their physical and spiritual ailments, to speak to André, and he would counsel and pray with them. He acquired the reputation for being a holy and wise man, and many he prayed over were healed of the ailments. He had a great devotion to St. Joseph, and remarkably built a majestic shrine that today remains a place of pilgrimage in Montreal.
In many ways this simple man lived a life so different from our lives here at Notre Dame. You are receiving or have received the highest level of education; André had only rudimentary schooling. You are gifted intellectually and will use those minds to do important work; André began life as a physical laborer. We will expect you to take positions of leadership and influence; André was assigned to mind the door.
Yet despite these differences, André has something to teach us. He was a person who always found time for quiet and prayer. He did not make great plans, but simply watched the door . . . and waited. He could not control who entered, but he saw each visitor as a call from God to respond with compassion, attentiveness, and faith. And, remarkably, miraculous healings occurred.
Engaged in our work, executing our plans, striving for our goals, we can forget to do what André always remembered to do: find time for prayerful, quiet reflection, and patiently and humbly watch the door. For through the various doors that enter into our lives come people and events to which we are called to respond with compassion and faith. Beyond personal plans and projects of our lives, the Spirit can guide our hearts in responding to unexpected visitors and events and can, through us, bring about wondrous things.
That knock on our door may be an individual in need to whom we are called to respond. It may also be one of the pressing human and moral questions of our time. This year we will hold a forum entitled “The Market and the Common Good”. One of the most powerful forces in our world, for good and ill, is the market and the many businesses, large and small, that compete in that market. The globalization of that market has brought prosperity to people who had struggled simply to survive. And it has disrupted the lives of millions as they move from traditional occupations to try to find other work. What should our response be? What is the intelligent, compassionate, and just response to which we are called? What is the Spirit prompting us to do?
Pope Benedict put before us in the encyclical Caritas in veritate when he wrote, “the risk of our time is that the de facto interdependence of people and nations is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development” (Para. 9). What can we do to facilitate this interaction of minds and consciences?
So let’s get on with the exciting, invigorating, busy work of this semester. Let’s set high goals, and direct our individual and collective energies to achieve them. Let’s teach well, learn well, and achieve much. But let’s also remember that humble, simple, brother of Montreal who did little aside from find quiet, listen to the Spirit, and watch the door. Let us try to imitate his prayerful, compassionate attentiveness, and wait for wonders to occur.