Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation: Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization
Today, at the University of Notre Dame, classes resume. In the previous days, freshmen were exhorted to get involved on campus; to commit oneself to live fully the Notre Dame experience through engagement in research opportunities, in the intellectual give and take of the liberal arts classroom, in expanding one’s horizons through studying abroad; and the commitment to offering one’s education for the benefit of the community and the world at large.
Of course, today is not simply the day in which the pedagogical work of the University recommences. It is also the opening school year Mass. Indeed, a sizable collection of students and faculty (less sizable) will gather in the Joyce Center on campus to celebrate the Eucharist. The readings will emphasize the gift of the Holy Spirit, the homily will set forth a Christian vocation of higher education, and the provost will exhort students to the intellectual task at hand. It will be followed by a picnic.
Indeed, there is ample reason to critique these opening school year Masses (present at most Catholic universities and colleges throughout this country). They often seem less dedicated to ruminating upon the memory of Christ’s death and resurrection, of standing in awe before the Eucharistic presence of the resurrected God-man, of receiving the medicine of immortality and more focused on celebrating the virtues of this community. Such a liturgy, albeit carried out with the best intentions, can easily devolve into an idolatry of self-worship. Dear God, thank you for creating this university, which has a community and intellectual life that is better than all other colleges ever imagined by your other creatures.
But there is a different way of looking at these opening school year Masses. As students undertake the study integral to their intellectual formation, as faculty immerse themselves into the hectic duties of teaching, research, and service, as the residence halls begin to bustle with their own agendas for student formation, we turn elsewhere. We turn to the Eucharistic worship of the God who became flesh. By celebrating the Eucharist at the beginning of the school year, Catholic universities are not simply carrying out a tradition marking their identity qua Catholic. We are confessing that the ultimate saving reality of the cosmos is not our education, it’s not our research, it’s not our student programming. It’s a logic of Eucharistic love, of gratitude, of total self-gift defining of Christian existence.
Indeed, the life of the modern day university is fundamentally dedicated to teaching and research. The Catholic university, of course, seeks to inculcate students into intellectual and moral habits, which will enable them to succeed in participation in public life. It seeks to develop faculty, who publish top notch tomes on Reformation-era poetry and conduct research that expands our knowledge of the sub-atomic world. But, the Eucharist liturgy at the beginning of the school year serves as a sacramental interruption to such agendas. It reminds us that our studying and teaching is circumscribed by Christ’s Eucharistic gift of love.
What separates a Catholic university from its counterparts is not merely a commitment to justice in the classroom and abroad; it’s not merely maintaining a robust tradition of the liberal arts; it’s not simply putting up posters that promise the formation of the whole person. It’s the reality that our study, our teaching, is made possible through a gift that we have first received.
- The gift of creation, of human relationships, of language, which manifest the beauty of the Creator.
- The gift of the intellect, capable of discerning complex truths in the midst of a sometimes dizzying array of data.
- The gift of an imagination that can conceive of other possibilities within the world, one that can move beyond the veil of slogans and assumptions and discern truth.
At the Eucharistic altar, we give thanks for all these gifts; and we constantly remember that such gifts are not ours alone but bestowed for the life of the world.
Thus, celebrating the Eucharist at the commencement of the school year is not a mere tradition. It is a medicine for that academic hubris, which can so easily infect the modern day research university. Our work at the university, among believers and unbelievers alike, is not simply dedicated to receiving accolades from our peers. It is not about receiving a degree, which will elevate our social standing through a lucrative position in finance. It is about an encounter with reality, of gift, at the heart of the cosmos.
The daily celebration of the Eucharist at such universities, even in the midst of many non-Catholics, is a perpetual reminder that the work of the university is ultimately not salvific. For in the University, we come to know truth through the myriad of disciplines. Our knowledge may allow us to develop new life-saving technologies or develop practices for peace-making in war torn countries. But in the Eucharist, we constantly remember that truth became a person who loved unto the end, who dwells among us here and now in bread-once-bread and wine-once-wine. Our salvation is not dependent on our research agenda, on our acumen, on our talent in the arts. Salvation takes place insofar as we shape our lives according to this logic of love in the course of our research, our study, our performance. Love alone saves.
As we undertake another year of the deadly serious business of Catholic higher education, as we set ambitious agendas for research and teaching, let us remember the Eucharistic quality of gratitude, of sacrifice, of self-giving love that should come to inform the work of the University. There are rankings to be announced, studies to be undertaken, external reviews to be conducted. But beyond all this, there is the gift of truth and love that pulsates at the Eucharistic heart of the Catholic university. Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.