Commencement Address during Vespers?The Most Reverend Terrence Prendergast, SJ


Commencement Address During Vespers, Archabbey of Saint Vincent, Latrobe, Pennsylvania
Text: Hebrews 5.8-10

The Most Reverend Terrence Prendergast, SJ
Archbishop of Ottawa

11 May 2012

Saving Civilization Again

Archabbot Nowicki, Father Rector Whelan, Board of Regents Chairman Maher, Dean Therrien, members of the faculty and staff of St. Vincent’s Seminary, distinguished guests, family and friends of the graduands, dear graduates of 2012—dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

As a faculty member of the Atlantic School of Theology and Regis College for a total of twenty years and as Chancellor of Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University for nine years and, more recently as Chancellor of Saint Paul’s University in Ottawa, I have attended many graduation ceremonies. In my latter role as chancellor, I have been privileged to confer honorary degrees on captains of industry, learned academics and civic officials, generous philanthropists and even on several hockey players (these universities are in Canada after all!)

Each time I have been struck by how deeply moved each individual has been when receiving such an honor and how remarkably humble and self-effacing they were.

Now, I have been honored by this marvelous monastic foundation which reaches out to form priests spiritually, intellectually, pastorally and humanly for the Church of the third millennium and the new evangelization. I am awed and deeply grateful. Thank you.

* * *

The Scripture appointed for this evening’s liturgy of prayer and praise speaks of Jesus as God’s obedient Son, who was made perfect through what he suffered, and thus has become the source of our eternal salvation, for he is indeed a priest—in the Order of Melchizedek.

Now Jesus did not call himself a priest, but he did claim to be light and life for the world, a fruit-bearing vine, and the beautiful or ideal shepherd, one who freely offers living water that wells up within the believer’s heart. Not only that, he feeds with true food and drink that can ground all those who come to him in faith on the true way, satisfying minds and hearts with the truth of God.

Richard Nelson in his work, Raising Up a Faithful Priest: Community and Priesthood in Biblical Theology (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993) laments the Reformation’s rejection of the term priest to describe the faith community’s minister of Word and Sacrament and argues that the life and ministry of the priest needs to be recovered and appreciated. He explores the New Testament priestly identity found in Hebrews and First Peter.

In Hebrews, the image of Melchizedek figures prominently, an icon that needs to be rediscovered, as that evangelical writer (whether Paul or a successor of his) adds considerably to the understanding of Christ Jesus, our Risen Lord, by pointing to his particular priesthood, not of the Aaronic or Levitical type, but that of the shadowy figure Melchizedek who offered a sacrifice of bread and wine.

Over the years I have acquired a collection of ordination cards that constitutes a social history of how the priesthood has been viewed by ordinands. It is striking how often reference was made to Melchizedek’s priesthood prior to the Second Vatican Council and how little after. The priesthood of Melchizedek is an image I am striving to recover for a retreat I am preparing to give to priests in early June. I commend the image of Our Lord as priest in the Order of Melchizedek to your reflection and prayer.

* * *

The dates of significant events accompany us through life. For me, 2011 marked fifty years in the Society of Jesus, and 400 hundred years since the Jesuits first arrived in what is now Canada. This year, as was noted earlier, I will celebrate forty years of priesthood. For our graduates today, and for those ordained to the holy priesthood this year, 2012 will be the year that you commemorate, marking it ten years hence, and then twenty-five, and please God, even fifty years from now, should the Lord keep you busy in His vineyard until then.

This year marks two significant anniversaries that the Holy Father has decided to mark by declaring a special Year of Faith. October 2012 marks fifty years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and twenty years since the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For a Church of apostolic origins, twenty or even fifty years does not seem like much. After all, 2012 also marks the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and one could argue that the triumph of Constantine was one of the most important events in all of history, sacred or secular. The statue of Constantine on the Scala Regia up to the Sistine Chapel has the soon-to-be emperor looking up into the sky at the Cross, with the inscription “in hoc signo vinces” – in this sign you will conquer. More recent archaeology suggests that it was not the cross that Constantine saw on the eve of his triumphant battle, but the Chi Ro. For a Jesuit, with our company’s special devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, that Constantine would win his victory under the sign of the Holy Name is a consoling thought. It reminds us that even our historic devotions are more ancient than we might at first think.

You graduates have been immersed in a tradition much older than twenty or fifty years. This Archabbey was founded in 1846, which makes it one year older than the Archdiocese of Ottawa, founded as a diocese in 1847 under the name of Bytown. The monks here would be quick to insist that the tradition they hand on is much older than the 19th century, but is rooted in the genius and holiness of Saint Benedict. As Jesuits, we are justly proud of four centuries in Canada, or nearly five centuries since our foundation, but all orders in the Church – Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Salesians – pay deference to the Benedictines, saving civilization for nearly 1500 years. We need that tradition today, for that is the task of the Church in the 21st century, to save civilization once again.

A new and somber theme has emerged in public affairs commentary these last few years, namely that of civilizational decline. Some of our graduates were little children when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, so they might not recall the great sense of historical triumph that marked the liberation of central and Eastern Europe. After a long struggle against godless totalitarianism, in both its Nazi and communist forms, the free society had triumphed. So to find ourselves a few decades later in a spirit of civilizational anxiety is something of surprise to some. The economic crisis of 2007and 2008 shook our confidence, and with Europe falling back into recession and the United States reaching levels of indebtedness beyond the capacity of any man to number, we are realizing that the expectation that each succeeding generation will be more prosperous that the previous one is about to be abruptly disappointed. For the last several weeks the streets of my hometown, Montreal, have been full of striking and violence, as university students have protested that they are losing the full measure of entitlements that their parents had.

This disappointment, or uneasiness, is not only economic. A look around the world is sobering: Russia and Japan are declining in population; Europe is in a demographic crisis exacerbated by unassimilated immigrant groups; the Muslim world is entering its fourth decade of a violent theological struggle over how Islam ought to be lived in the contemporary world; China is going to become very old before it gets rich, and will lack the wealth to ameliorate the grave social, generational and ecological problems caused by communist rule; and here, in the United States, Americans pollute their own homeland and innumerable nations abroad with the toxins of a debauched popular culture. It is not only a sobering scene; even for people of faith it can be a frightening one.

A graduation is not the best occasion for a senior citizen to tell the freshly-graduated that the world they are about to inherit is in a parlous and perilous state! But it is true. Civilization does need saving again. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on the night before Blessed John Paul II died in 2005, gave an address at the convent of St. Scholastica in Subiaco, upon being granted the St. Benedict Award for promoting life and family in Europe. He began that address alluding to the drama we face today: “We are living in a time of great dangers and great opportunities for man and the world; a time which is also one of great responsibility for us all.”

On the threshold of the papacy, Cardinal Ratzinger said: “Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience, either by denying him altogether, or by judging that his existence is not demonstrable, uncertain and, therefore, belonging to the realm of subjective choices, something, in any case, irrelevant to public life. … In Europe a culture has developed that constitutes the absolutely most radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but of the religious and moral traditions of humanity.”

What Cardinal Ratzinger said about Europe, in a shrine honoring the Benedictine tradition that formed and saved European civilization, does not apply with the same force in Canada and the United States. But it does apply here at least in part. And so if the bad news is that we are facing a radical contradiction of Christianity, what is the good news?

The good news is that we know what to do when it’s time to save civilization – summon the monks! My hope for you graduates is that, formed in the Benedictine tradition here, you will be capable of becoming the civilization savers that our countries and our cultures desperately need. Let me suggest three ways in which you may be equipped to save our civilization.

First, the long monastic tradition teaches us the contemptus mundi – the contempt for the world, or at least a capacity to resists its allurements. I am aware that for American Catholics, immersed in a toxic culture and facing an unprecedented attack on your historic liberties by your own government, perhaps the contemptus mundi comes rather easily these days. Yet I have something rather different in mind. The manifold crises the world faces will not be solved by worldly means alone. It may be that you will find a new opening to the supernatural by a society that realizes that worldly solutions are simply not sufficient. Yet the monastic contemptus mundi is more than this; it is both evangelical and salvific. The monks withdraw from the world in order that the Gospel might be better preached and that the salvation of souls might be advanced. The Church in 21st century America will have to learn to withdraw from much of the corrupt culture that surrounds her, precisely to create authentically Catholic communities that in turn evangelize that very same culture. This may be the most critical challenge for leaders of the Catholic community in our time. Having studied at this venerable Archabbey, you have already seen how that may be done.

Second, your time at St. Vincent’s has trained you well not only in identifying the disease, but in prescribing the remedy. The remedy for the Christian disciple is always the same: Jesus Christ is Lord! How that remedy is administered is the task of pastoral work, and at the heart of pastoral work is theology. We cannot prescribe the Lord Jesus unless we first know Him and know about Him.

Here the first of our anniversaries will help us. The Second Vatican Council taught marvelously about the Word of God, and reminded us that the sacred page is the soul of theology. One of the breaths of the Spirit in the years since the Council has been the new movements in the Church, devoted as they are to biblical study, reflection and sharing. An impressive number of parishes have found the key to parish renewal in serious study of the Word of God. Even more encouraging, young missionaries on campus have met with great success in presenting to an increasingly unchurched student body the Gospel story, told simply and clearly.

You know that the Council Fathers taught that the preaching of the Gospel is the first task of the priest. You have studied the sacred page for years, and you had an advantage that I did not have during my long years of biblical study and teaching, namely the presence of a supremely-gifted and biblically-rooted theologian on the Chair of Peter.

During my career as a biblical scholar, there were many debates about how biblical scholarship should be done. Pope Benedict has through his long career, and in particular in his study Jesus of Nazareth, shown an attractive model. But merely knowing the Gospel does not mean preaching it, as too many homilies about too many different things have long taught us. To paraphrase St. Paul: How will civilization be saved if the remedy of the Gospel is not administered? And how can it be administered unless it is preached? And who will preach it if not those who have been trained in it? This is your task: theologically informed preaching arising from study of the sacred page.

Third, I hope your time at St. Vincent’s has given you the confidence that a 1500-year-old tradition ought to provide. It is not a secret that many who lived through the Council and its immediate aftermath do not look back on those years with fondness. There was much excitement, but also uncertainty. Many in the Church seemed to lose confidence that she indeed had the words to eternal life, entrusted to her by the Lord Jesus for the salvation of the world.

Our second anniversary helps us in that regard. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992 was an achievement of immense significance. There were great doubts at the time that the project was even achievable. Was it possible anymore to speak concisely and confidently about the Gospel in a world of diverse cultures and modern communications? Yet it was done, and in only a short six years.

Blessed John Paul II would call it a “symphony” of the faith, and Pope Benedict would say that it was a “beautiful” book. Music and beauty – the Catechism is not a dry resource book, but a true work of art, in the way that the theologian is best understood not as a scientist, but as an artist. It may be that when history looks back on this period – the long pontificate of Blessed John Paul II and succession of his chief lieutenant – it will be the Catechism that stands out as the enduring achievement. Yes, the Catechism instructs us what it is that we believe, but the fact of the Catechism is a testimony that the Church is confident in proclaiming that belief. We are not ashamed of it – it is our faith, readily explained and presented, for we are confident that this is the remedy our ailing world needs. Saving civilization is not for the timid or embarrassed; the Christian life is for those confident and courageous. The Catechism is the mark of a confident and courageous Church. Our graduates ought to take their lead from it.

There are, I am sure, other reasons to expect great things from this graduating class. But these three aspects of your Benedictine formation will serve you well in the somewhat intimidating mission field that you face in today’s America. Intimidating, yes, but exhilarating too, for we live in times which demand greatness from the disciples of Christ, and we should desire nothing less. Saint Benedict concluded his Rule by referring to it as a beginning. You graduates have been blessed with a good beginning. May the Lord then bring to completion the good work He has already begun in you.

Congratulations and God bless you.