St. Ambrose Baccalaureate Mass homily

Fr. Dunn

(Editor’s note: The following is the homily that Father Edmond Dunn gave during the Baccalaureate Mass at St. Ambrose University in Davenport on May 15, 2010.)

“I saw one like the Son of Man… I fell at his feet… but he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid.’”

The recent, renowned Dutch theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx has said that those four words, “Do not be afraid” sum up the whole good news message of Jesus Christ.

“Be not afraid,” we sing in the popular religious song,


“I go before you always; Come follow me, and I will give you rest.”

Bishop Amos, honored guests, faculty, parents and friends of the 2010 graduates of Saint Ambrose University, and especially, graduates: Fifty-two years ago, here, at Saint Ambrose, I was where you graduates are today. As I try to think back to that day, I believe that I was ready to graduate; I was anxious to move on; I do not think I was afraid.

Presiding at that Baccalaureate Mass at that time was our bishop, Ralph L. Hayes. He had been the rector of the North American Seminary in Rome, and there he was known as the “braccio di ferro,” the iron arm, or iron fist. We thought because he was such a stern disciplinarian. Only later did we find out that “braccio di ferro” was nickname the Italians gave Popeye (you remember, the cartoon character). They thought Bishop Hayes resembled Popeye. (I do no know if Bishop Amos has any nicknames, and if I did know, I do not think I would mention them now!)

I was in the college seminary here from halfway through my freshman year until the beginning of my junior year. Then when I dropped out, I was told I should go and inform Bishop Hayes of my decision. There, I must admit, I was a bit afraid. Escorted into his office I sat down before a desk that seemed to be at least a mile long and a half mile wide. He sat behind that desk in a big chair, puffing on a cigarette, the smoke curling up around his head. He looked at me and said (in his deep voice), taking a puff between each phrase,  “Well now, Edmond, I don’t want to seem facetious, but I think the Catholic Church can get along without you.” (I hope Bishop Amos does not stand up and say, “And I agree!”)

Bishop Hayes used to come to the seminary each month and before the evening meal give us conference on what was expected of us as seminarians. Three words that he used again and again are drilled into my memory and may have some meaning for you graduates today. He would often begin his talk with the three Latin words, “scientia, disciplina, pietas.” Scientia – knowledge, science; disciplina – discipline, and  pietas – piety, but piety not just as being pious or devotional, but loyalty, the virtue that was expected of the Roman soldiers of  old to their leaders.

Scientia – Knowledge – science.  Graduates, you have gained a considerable amount of knowledge in your time here at Saint Ambrose, at least we hope so. You are not afraid to face and contribute to the world with your intellectual acumen. My dear graduates, if you did not come to Saint Ambrose with a Bible, you should be leaving with one. Do not be afraid to find in that good book good news that can deepen your life immensely. Hopefully, like Apollos in the first scripture reading of  this morning’s liturgy, someone like Priscillia and Aquila, took you aside explained to you “the way of God more accurately.”

 No one should leave Saint Ambrose thinking that the Book of Genesis is a book of science. It is a beautiful story that tells in a poetic way why we are as we are. The new atheists, making so much noise in our society today, base much of their argument on a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of scripture. Do not be afraid to say, “That is not the way to read the holy book.”

When I first came to Saint Ambrose, I was blessed in being able to have as a biology professor, one our university’s claim to fame, Monsignor Ulrich Hauber. “There should be no conflict between science and faith,” he insisted. Do not be afraid to admit the gift Darwin gave to theology – the basic insights of the evolutionary process. Evolution need not preclude God. The dialogue between faith and science can result in a deeper insight into our world and into our faith from two different, legitimate perspectives.

Neither be afraid to explore inner psychic world that Freud uncovered, a world in which each of us participates. If neuroscientists can pinpoint the area in the brain where the religious urge originates, why can we not accept a God, not as the outside deist watchmaker or Intelligent Design intruder, but rather as the One who embedded into that singularity within which the entire expanse of the universe was compacted before the Big Bang? God as the Inexhaustible Energy involved not as an observer, but as a participant in on-going creation. One of the most important statements of the Second Vatican Council was, “We have moved from a static to a dynamic, evolutionary understanding of reality.”

Do not be afraid to contemplate the vastness of the cosmos or the minuteness of subatomic particles, but at the same time accept “the principle of uncertainty” in the subatomic world in which “high probability” rather than absolute predictability must be accepted, or that an electron “is” sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave, depending on your viewpoint. One thing can be two?

On the other hand, do not be afraid to look into the postmodernists’ perspective that the absolute center may be multiples. Is that not what we ponder in our Christian perspective on God as one yet three – Trinity? We should not be afraid to accept, with Karl Rahner that even our most solemn statements of dogma, point to, rather than completely capture the, incomprehensible Truth that is God. Does that not fit into our understanding of the development of doctrine?

Disciplina – discipline – yes, obeying, or as Father Miclot likes to trace its roots, “to give a hearing to.” In today’s passage from John’s gospel Jesus tells us that he will not ask the Father for what we need, “for the Father/Mother loves us,” because we love Jesus. John’s great insight into the very nature of God: God is love. And, of course, love is dynamic, not static, ever growing, ever new. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that if we believe in him and obey, we will be saved. And what is that commandment we must obey? To love others. To love others as Jesus loves us, as God loves us. Do not be afraid to love the stranger, the immigrant, the outcast, yes, evens your enemies. That is the great gift of the non-violent approach of Jesus, of Gandhi, of Martin Luther King, Jr. Love your enemies and eventually you will change them – by the force of love, not the love of force.

Love not just the ones you meet on Facebook, or those whom you are in constant contact with through texting or cell phone. My dear graduates, do not be afraid, do not be afraid, to turn off all those marvels of technology at times, and taste the silence. That calls for discipline. It is in the silence that you will find God. Not in the whirlwind of Ipods or Ipads or Blackberries, nor in the constant thunder of rap or hip-hop, but, like the Prophet Elisha, in the quiet whisper of the gentle breeze. With William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

and a heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

Take a chance of encountering that world that is “charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins suggests. “Be still and know that I am God,” as Teresa of Avila learned. Do not be afraid to take time at times to experience that world, to be alone for a little while. It takes discipline, as does a life of faith itself.

Pietas – piety, loyalty. Be loyal to your parents, to your country to your school, your church. But do not be afraid to challenge any one of them if they are wrong. During the Vietnam War, the then president Nixon would invite a church leader from a different denomination to celebrate a religious service each Sunday in the Blue Room of the White House. That in itself was not a wise idea. Separation of church and state is one of the gifts that our founders bestowed on us. That is not to say religion and faith is not to have its influence on society as a whole.

After one of those services in the White House, a leading Catholic churchman came out and remarked to the press, “My country right or wrong, but my country.” That my friends is heresy. Our ultimate loyalty belongs to God alone. My country, right, I support; my country wrong (especially in a democracy such as ours),I work to right it. Do not be afraid to take to heart what the British political philosopher, John Stewart Mill said, “My love for an institution is in direct proportion to my desire to reform it.” That goes for church as well as state, family as well as friend. You may not have the solution to every problem, but when you see things wrong, do not be afraid to express your prophetic “no!” But that can only be done if you love the institution or person – before your “no,” during your “no” and after your “no.” “Love it or leave it?” No! If I love it I will not leave it, and we are called to love.

Do not be afraid to show your loyalty to the faith in which you have been baptized. Stick with it, and enjoy it. That is what Jesus and his friends did even in the face of great challenges. Do not forget the wise words of Hilaire Belloc:

Where ever the Catholic sun doth shine,

there is always laughter and good red wine.

At  least I’ve  always found it so.

Benedicamus Domino!   Let us bless the Lord!

And my dear friends in Christ Jesus, there is no better way to “bless the Lord” than in continuing with our bishop in the Eucharistic celebration in which we give thanks to God for what God has done for us in Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sciencia, disciplina, pietas. Maybe the “braccio di ferro, the iron hand bishop, the Popeye look-alike, had something worthwhile to say even to you graduates here this morning. “Be not afraid, come follow me,” Jesus is saying, and I will give you “laughter and good red wine,” and so much more. Why not?  Benedicamus Domino.

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