Inauguration Mass

Inauguration Mass Homily

Inauguration Mass
Friday, October 31, 2014
Saint Ignatius Church
Homilist: Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J.


St. Paul’s letter to the young church in Philippi lends itself quite well to the occasion we celebrate today – USF’s mission and ministry as a Catholic university, of and for the City of San Francisco, the Bay Area and the world.

Paul begins by greeting the bishops and the deacons – we are graced today by the presence of our ordinary, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone – Thank you so much for coming.

Any deacons in the house?

And there is also mention of slaves of Christ Jesus, by which Paul designates himself and his fellow missionary, Timothy.

It would be too easy to take the title slave on myself, and bewail the thankless toil that is the lot of a university administrator.

But actually, St. Paul is using the word slave in a way that all of my brother Jesuits would be happy to share – we are servants of our master, Jesus Christ, whose name we bear and whose mission we seek to carry forward by our work here at USF, at Saint Ignatius College Prep., St. Ignatius parish and St. Agnes parish in the Haight.

The City of San Francisco and the City of Philippi have a few things in common. Philippi was located in Northeastern Macedonia where Asia and Europe meet. San Francisco is about as far west as you can get in the lower forty eight – what French Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu has mused is either the extreme west or the “meta west,” for we not only face Asia, but indeed Asian peoples and Asian cultures make up such a great part of who we are.

Philippi was named after King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, and both were very successful warriors. San Francisco has the Golden State Warriors, but they are less skilled at conquest. And our City was named after Francis of Assisi, a man who personified peace, simplicity and service.

The first convert to Christianity in Philippi was a woman named Lydia, a leading merchant, a respected person of influence in the city’s Jewish community. We have with us today women of influence and authority who are the foundation on which the university – and the city for that matter – rest.

Both cities are occasionally troubled by earthquakes – it was a violent trembler that shook the prison into which Paul was thrown for having preached the Gospel; the resulting confusion led to the conversion of the jailor and the freeing of Paul.

I’m praying that the coming years don’t feature stories about either earthquakes or confusing jailbreaks.

The Church that Paul and Lydia founded by their initial conversation, and her offer of hospitality, grew into a vibrant faith community that supported Paul financially with repeated gifts. I have already begun this portion of my work for USF, having conversations with our alumni and with friends of the university, telling them stories about our current students and asking them to invest in these change-agents who, like our alumni, are, and will be, light and leaven for the betterment of the world.

After the formal greeting, Paul goes on to celebrate the fine relationship he has with the Church of Philippi, thinking no doubt of their continued generosity towards him, but also of their irenic unity as Christians. He doesn’t need to defend his status as an apostle, as he does in his letters to the Galatians, Romans and Corinthians, but rather can call himself a servant of Christ and then speak to the Philippians from the heart, with warmth and affection.

Interestingly, there is an ambiguity in the original Greek, Eucharisto to - theo mou - epi pasay tay mneia  humone. Such that the phrase can be read to say either, “I give thanks to my God whenever I remember you”… or “whenever you remember me.” Perhaps the ambiguity was intended by Paul, whose Greek was pretty good. He may well have intended this structured ambiguity. It defines the gratitude he holds in his heart as the result of God’s gracious goodness, a goodness that led him to share his faith with the people of Philippi and a goodness which led them to long term support of his further missionary work. Certainly, I give thanks in my heart to God who so kindly led me to USF and into the wonderful community that I have been welcomed into. Steve Privett, S.J., built a fantastic team of senior leaders, who in turn have assembled marvelous teams of faculty and staff whose unalloyed professionalism is amply matched by their care of, and affection for, USF. These people have become my professional community and are becoming my friends as well, and this leads me to that same joy that Paul expressed, and for that I give thanks to God. I am confident, as was St. Paul, that the good work God has begun through the women and men who have taught, administered, tended, guided, and in every other way enacted the Jesuit Catholic mission of the University of this City of Giants will continue long into the future.

As Paul recalls the partnership between himself and the members of the church at Philippi, he expresses both confidence and, most important, joy.

Christian joy is not happiness, for happiness is too dependent on immediate circumstances and is, therefore, ephemeral. I’m hoping that the Dons make us all very happy this year – in every sport, in every performance, and in every activity.

Joy is far stronger, far deeper, far more unshakable than happiness. Joy is that inner consolation that supports us even in our worries, that inner strength that maintains our dedication even in the face of adversities, that inner moral compass that keeps us pointed toward our ethical true north.

And if joy is different from happiness, then too Christian hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is a distinctly American national myth, faded by recessions and battered crises but still alive, that posits that we are on some sort of cosmic conveyor belt, things naturally will work out in our favor, and we will always win.

The myth of unstoppable and automatic progress is especially vibrant in San Francisco today, with the tech boom and the rise in incomes to astronomical levels -for the savvy few. There are good sides to this situation, certainly. New industries have reopened social mobility in a way that is truly color blind, and that is a good thing.

The diversity and the inclusivity of our city and our region are hopeful signs that we remain a hospitable recipient of immigrants, and I am especially proud that the great diversity of USF’s student body is rich, varied and inclusive.

We here are diverse in every measure save intelligence, where there is a mode that skews very high indeed.

To look at the City, however, we see whole communities that are being left behind, or forced out, such that, for example, first responders, teachers, ministers and others who support most directly the quality of life of families and neighborhoods can scarcely afford to live in the city that they serve. And I have been told that the percentage of San Franciscans who are African American has slipped every year for the past two decades.

In the face of this, I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. Hope is the virtue that is unblinking in its willingness to look at the world and see the gritty reality of all persons. Hope is candid in assessing the steep slope we must climb, together, to get out of the holes in which we find ourselves, regularly. Hope knows that life is sometimes difficult, and that sometimes we fail.

Hope is a species of love; it is unconditional in its perseverance – working for the good of the beloved. Hope is long suffering and knows that its final fulfillment will be at the conclusion of history, not before. This is what Paul means when he refers to God’s continued work through us “until the day of Christ Jesus.” In the end, as Julien of Norwich said, “all will be well.”

In the meantime, we have much work to do.

Which brings me to the Gospel we just heard proclaimed.  Jesus suggests for us both the “how” and the “why” we should engage in the work that has been given to us. In the scene, Jesus is once again in an adversarial situation, at table with one of the leading Pharisees.

Now, in Luke’s Gospel, the evangelist uses banquet scenes over and over again to show Jesus welcoming many types of persons into the ambit of his love, his power to heal physically and spiritually and his willingness to defend the human dignity of any individual and to repair rips in the social fabric.  At this particular meal, in the home of an influential person, Jesus encounters a person with dropsy. I had to look this up – dropsy is a colloquial term for “the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water.”

Today, we would say that the person has edema due to congestive heart failure. So, was this person an older slave? An elderly relative of the host? Whoever it was, the other guests were watching intently to see how Jesus would treat this person. Before he acts, Jesus asks the assembled notables a simple legal question: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” They remain silent. Shame on them. They know the answer, but it is not convenient for them to answer, for they are hoping that Jesus will say or do something that will allow them to label him a blasphemer, a heretic, and danger to the public order, and thus liable to the death sentence they were already conspiring to impose on him. But what is the deeper dynamic here? They seem to me to value their social standing, their cultural power, and their economic advantages, which are based upon their narrow-minded reading of the law and the prophets. They value themselves and their advantages over the plight of the person with dropsy. And over the fate of this inconvenient street preacher.

Jesus then heals the one who was suffering and only then does Jesus remind them that what he just did is indeed the fulfillment of God’s law by using the example of the legality of rescuing an animal who has fallen into danger on a Sabbath day. By extension, this elderly person is more worthy still of mercy.

And how is this Gospel scene applicable to our work as educators? Regardless of the day of the week, regardless of the relative social standing of the parties involved, regardless of narrow-minded interpretations of religious law, we opt for mercy. We opt for care. We opt for a deeper, broader, truer interpretation of the law and the prophets, and most of all, we opt for the proper lens through which to read scripture, history and the signs of our own times: Christ Jesus. USF is a Catholic university for many reasons; let the chief one be that Christ is the norm of our way of proceeding.

This means that we will continue to be a socially engaged university, a university where academic freedom is respected and where engaged scholarship is prized, a university where every member of our community is cherished and where learning is based on a global vision of the human family and a holistic appreciation of the human person. As we do so, God will continue to work through us, to our great joy.