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2024 Baccalaureate Mass Homily

Read the homily preached by Rev. Zachary Mabee on April 27, 2024 at the 99th Baccalaureate Mass at Sacred Heart

by Rev. Zachary Mabee

I was reminded twice recently of an anonymous quotation that is aptly associated with Catholic educational institutions: “Be it known to all who enter here that Christ is the reason for this school. He is the unseen but ever-present teacher in its classes. He is the model of its faculty and the inspiration of its students.” The first reminder came at the recent gala dinner for Spiritus Sanctus Academies, where I taught before entering seminary. A student—with whom I worked nearly 20 years ago—reminded the crowd of this line, which hangs prominently in the school buildings, as he was reflecting on his own ministry there now as a teacher and the way in which the school formed him deeply in the Catholic faith, in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. The second reminder came several days ago. I stayed earlier this week at Immaculate Conception Seminary and School of Theology on the campus of Seton Hall University, where I was attending a conference in honor of the eminent priest-physicist-theologian Fr. Stanley Jaki. The seminary has this quotation hanging prominently in its lobby.

This is indeed our hope, brothers and sisters, that Christ—who himself is the way, the truth, and the life, and the only way to the Father—is the reason for our schools—and, indeed, for all of our many Catholic institutions. Our hope is that places like this hallowed institution are loci of a life-giving, heart-enflaming, and mind-illuminating encounter with the King of the universe, whose triumph over sin and death we especially continue to celebrate liturgically, with Paschal joy.

Reflecting on the aforementioned anonymous quotation and its standard leads me to ponder, too, on the newly refashioned mission statement of the seminary, which reads as follows: “Sacred Heart Major Seminary primarily forms priests according to the Heart of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, and further prepares priests, deacons, and lay ecclesial ministers for the work of ministry in the New Evangelization.”

Take a moment, if you will, to consider two joint dimensions of the quotation with which we began and the seminary’s mission statement. First, Christ himself is the reason for this place—the only-begotten Son of God, who took on our lowly flesh to teach, save, and sanctify us—the Eternal Word, as St. Paul reminds us, through whom all things were made and in whom they all hold together. This place has a purpose, brothers and sisters, and it is that the God-man would be honored and glorified, and that his name and saving grace would be heard, known, and received by the people we’re sent to serve. There is a risk that such a reminder sound almost trivially true in a setting like this. It’s the kind of thing we can grow dangerously familiar and comfortable with hearing and repeating.

Looking around us more widely, though, this reminder might be more staggering than we think. Many believe—rightly, in my opinion—that there is a mounting crisis in higher education, regarding the ends or purposes of colleges and universities—what they are truly for. Many of us who studied at prominent secular universities, for instance, probably became accustomed to hearing that our university studies were mainly about—in addition to growing in career-specific knowledge and skills—helping us to think independently and for ourselves, to learn to question the ideas, norms, and mores we received unthinkingly in our youth. Such a paradigm, however, which I grew accustomed to as an undergraduate in the early aughts, seems hopelessly dated to many nowadays, who believe that colleges and universities are hardly keen, on the whole, to encourage independent, pioneering, or courageous thought and reflection, but instead so often to inculcate, in the “safest” of spaces, a sort of canned devotion to the bromides of an uninspiring, self-loathing progressivism.

Even though many such institutions—whose annual tuition is often near six figures—still have keystones once romantically engraved with flagship ideals like scientia, religio, or veritas, the question of what they are for—what purpose they are serving—is nowadays ever more pressing, and the best available responses are ever thinner and less substantial, it seems, at least on the part of those who steer them. Whether our colleges and universities are anything close to united in mission or purpose is a deeply pressing concern. The late Don Briel, who founded the Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas—a program which has birthed plentiful offspring—preferred to think of the contemporary university as the multiversity. Inspired by St. John Henry Newman, on whom he wrote his doctorate, Briel emphasized that our universities have effectively lost their principles of unity, their souls, and become something like—to draw together insights from the late Francis Cardinal George and a former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis—high-ticket trade schools that can hope at best to make students well rather than good, by which, in the latter case, we mean formed deeply and comprehensively in virtue—intellectual, moral, and spiritual.

Thanks be to God that our principle of unity, our cornerstone who was rejected by the builders, the Lord Jesus Christ, is ever-present for us here—and not just in the words of a mission statement, which can so easily seem ossified. He is present with us in Word and Sacrament every day in these hallowed halls. However much we as faculty or administrators—or you as students—at times flounder in aspiring to the call that is before us, we never can ultimately lose heart, as the Lord is truly here with us, guiding us, nourishing us, and sustaining us every step of the way.

May we never, though—reminded of Christ’s ever-present, supremely consoling company—fall into that ubiquitous contemporary snare of sluggishness or inactivity, mistakenly content in his support for us. I think our mission statement calls us out of this too: We who minister as or who are becoming priests are to have the heart of Christ the Good Shepherd, and all of us who serve at and are dispatched from this place are to be about the work of the New Evangelization. The harvest before us is indeed abundant, brothers and sisters, and the laborers are few. We are to be those who labor in the Lord’s vineyard with steadfast devotion.

Our mission statement affords us another safeguard, I think, against the decadence of many of our contemporary educational institutions. It’s the sort of concern that my parents would warn me about as I went to university, which I probably often scoffed at unduly. Strikingly, it’s a similar concern to what Pope Francis has reiterated vigorously for the contemporary Church. In university and church settings alike, that is, we can come so easily to be consumed by the quandaries that preoccupy us in our respective silos. In doing so, we risk becoming (1) fractured from the real world and the concerns of ordinary human life and also (2) auto-referential, frenzied about the ideas and problems that our ever-narrowing field of vision prompts us to see as important.

This sort of deep worry particularly about the paltry self-referentiality of the academy is something that has motivated searing critiques by, among others, some of our most noteworthy pessimistic philosophers in the Western tradition. I’m thinking here, for example, of Arthur Schopenhauer’s screed against university philosophy or the example of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously left academia for a time to teach kindergarten in rural Austria. Wittgenstein also famously encouraged one of his brightest pupils, Rush Rhees, to be a welder rather than an academic philosopher, confident that the former avocation would better serve the common good.

I should note, in a counterbalancing effort, a risk that besets us, especially those of us engaged in ministry. To be sure, we don’t want to succumb to a kind of self-absorbed ivory-tower irrelevance, but we also don’t want, as is probably more typically seductive within these halls, to fall into a kind of cheaply pastorally rationalized intellectual acedia, which I hinted at already. I mean the kind of disposition that would lead one unselfconsciously to note, as some of the brethren occasionally do, that one hasn’t read a book since leaving this place. (Indeed, hopefully one would have read at least a few while here.) Lest we ever slide into this sort of self-contentment we might quickly recall, for example, St. Teresa of Avila’s reminder that she would prefer, other things being equal, a learned spiritual director to a holy one. In a similar vein, I’m reminded of the words of Father Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Priestly Society of Saint-Sulpice, who said of his and other seminary communities of formation: “If in a seminary there were three apostolic men with the Gospel virtues of knowledge and wisdom … they would suffice for the sanctification of the entire diocese.” Not three apostolic men, I stress, of prayer or zeal—though these are of course, as Olier would surely concur, foundationally indispensable—but three apostolic men of knowledge and wisdom. Not the knowledge that puffs up, of course, as St. Paul warns the Corinthians, but the knowledge that grows as we are built up in love of Jesus Christ—whom, we’re so beautifully reminded in yesterday’s and today’s Gospels, is himself the way, the truth, and the life, and the singular path to the Father.

Brothers and sisters, the Lord Jesus Christ is truly the reason for this place. Especially in our celebration of the sacred mysteries here, he is the locus and lifeblood of this institution day by day. He is the one who animates our souls by the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit and who invigorates our hearts and illumines our minds with true Gospel wisdom and knowledge. Let us never fret or despair of the orientation or direction of this place, amidst our deeply disoriented world. For it is in the hands of the living God, through Christ, its cornerstone. Indeed, we are in his hands—at times a fearful place to be, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us—as we take up each and every day of formation, study, and ministry in and from this place. Let us be consoled always that he is—as St. Thomas Aquinas comments on yesterday’s Gospel discourse of our Lord—both our destination, in his divinity, and the path always to take there, in his humanity. Let us cleave to him and seek to make him known and loved. Let us allow him to invigorate and enlighten our hearts and minds. May he be known, honored, and lifted high in these halls and by those who issue forth from them, now and always. Praised be Jesus Christ.

by Rev. Zachary Mabee

Rev. Zachary Mabee

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.