HOMILY ON THE OCCASION OF THE PRESIDENTIAL INSTALLATION OF GREG WEINER
ASSUMPTION UNIVERSITY, CHAPEL OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
SUNDAY, MARCH 26, 2023
Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11;3-7, 17, 20-27, 33b-45
Back in my undergraduate days on this campus, I can recall rushing down the hall to the room of my friend Bill Oswald, in order to read him a passage from Nietzsche. I knew then that my Assumption education was beginning to percolate. Bill and I have been friends for life. We’re more likely to talk together these days about the fate of the Red Sox and the Mets, but friends for life is not bad.
Charles Peguy, the French poet and essayist once said that “one must always tell what one sees.” For a writer known for a number of famous quotes, this is one of his more enigmatic ones.
One must always tell what one sees…..
Presupposed here is someone to tell what you see. In that, it points to the importance of friends in our life. (I needed to have someone to hear those passages from Nietszche.)
You may have noticed that one phrase in the University’s new mission statement has quickly gained some currency around here: to seek the truth in the company of friends. Greg used it several times in his inaugural address the other day, and it’s showing up in different places around campus and in our so-called online branding. It’s taken from the Confessions of St. Augustine, who knew a thing or two about friendship.
One thing to note about the phrase: it means more than saying that they’ll be friends around as we pursue our education here. Friends are not just a backdrop or a context, but an intrinsic part of the kind of education that Assumption stands for. In Peguy’s sense, to be sure, that we need others to tell what we see, but also that in this very sharing, our friends help us to see more clearly. To see ourselves more clearly, to see the world outside of ourselves more clearly, the real presence of friends is essential.
For the last three weeks, the liturgy of the Catholic Church has given us three distinct, extended encounters between Jesus and people in need: with the Samaritan woman at the well, with a man born blind, and with Mary and Martha, grieving over the death of their brother and his friend, Lazarus. Together, they comprise a rich baptismal catechesis for those preparing themselves to receive the sacrament at Easter. In our context, I think they also say something important about befriending, about seeing more clearly, about freedom, and about communion – all of these components of an Assumption education.
The Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water in the middle of the day, under the hot sun. She comes at that time – when no one else is likely to be there – in order not to be seen. The burden of her past makes her a persona non grata to others, but in the first place a persona not grata to herself. The meeting with Jesus is the overcoming of distance and estrangement. Jesus takes the first step of diminishing the distance by, quite surprisingly, asking her to draw a drink for him. He goes on to give a name to her past estrangement, allowing her to be known – and thus to lessen the hold of her shame. These are the conditions for her to see herself more clearly, to cease defining herself by her past and to awaken a desire for something more, for the living water that Jesus is offering. An Assumption education is very much about an awakening of desire.
The encounter with the man born blind deals directly with the restoration of sight. But there is an aspect of this episode that relates to the movement toward a deeper kind of seeing. In a series of interrogations in this scene, the man whose physical sight has been restored patiently gives an account of what happened to him, without any embellishments – I was blind and now I see and this is how it happened. It’s this faithfulness to the facts, repeated several times, that leads him to the reasonable supposition that this man must be a prophet come from God. And while the granting of spiritual sight depends on the revelation of the source of his healing, his modesty in reporting what happened to him is a necessary part of his personal transformation. It does seem to me that this, too, says something important about an Assumption education –faith building upon the foundation of reason.
In the foreground of today’s Gospel scene is friendship, a friendship that Jesus shares with Martha and Mary and with their brother Lazarus who has died. Before the reality of death, Jesus weeps and is profoundly troubled. He weeps for the loss of his friend. He is deeply troubled by death itself and its bondage, by the destruction of relationship which is both its cause and its effect. In this context, his unbinding of Lazarus is a restoration of relationship, of communion, but also a sign that communion is at the very foundation of our existence. Where there is life, there is communion. Where there is communion, there is life.
It’s presumptuous to describe an Assumption education in one expression, but if pressed to do so, I would say this: an Assumption education is an education to communion. I leave you with a few images, the kind of images that have always heartened me about this place. Each in its own way is a foreshadowing of the joy and the communion that awaits us:
the Chorale’s beautiful rendition of Psalm 100 at Thursday’s Inauguration and the time and careful preparation that made this possible; the gathering next Saturday of a group of alums from across the generations to …. read and discuss in the course of a day three short pieces of fine literature, capped off by dinner together; the excitement and joy engendered by the success of Kerry Phayre and our women’s basketball team, whose hard work and resilience carried them far; the sending of two groups of students to El Paso, Texas and Chaparral, New Mexico, to participate with the Assumptionists and the Religious of the Assumption in their ministry of shelter and care for migrants at the border. And not to be missed, the adventure of teaching and learning at the heart of our mission, a communion in its own right, that prompts undergraduates to rush to read Nietzsche to one another.
So Greg, we have a good thing going here. You wouldn’t have signed up if you didn’t know that already. And we have a good thing going with you. May God, who has begun this good work in you and in all of us associated with Assumption University, bring it to completion.
By Very Reverend Dennis Gallagher, A.A