The Catholic University of America

Homily for the Opening of the Academic Year
Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., University President
The Catholic University of America
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church
Sept. 3, 2009


Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., university president

Imagine what it must have been like on the shore of the Lake of Gennesaret that day. The activities described in Luke's Gospel today (Luke 5: 1-11) occur at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Jesus had already been baptized by John, had experienced the temptation in the desert, had been rejected by his countrymen in Nazareth and had moved on, had worked a few miracles, had begun to attract the attention of large crowds and, now, stands in the midst of a handful of fishermen who would become his first apostles.

"Put out into deep water," Jesus tells them, "and lower your nets for a catch." Simon, of course, counters, "We have worked all night and have caught nothing but at your command I will lower the nets." The nets are lowered and they catch "a great number of fish." Simon then calls Jesus "Lord." The rest is, as they say, "history."

And the history from that day at Lake Gennesaret forward is one filled with drama and doubt, excitement and fear, enthusiasm and exhaustion, miracles and misunderstanding, acceptance and rejection, life and death and life again. Simon and those first apostles Luke tells us, did "put out into the deep," an act of great faith: without knowing the path before them, "they left everything and followed him."

"Put out into the deep water." Jesus was not making a recommendation here; he was giving a command. For those who really seek to follow him, life cannot be a superficial experience where we simply dwell on the surface of things. And to make the point even clearer, you'll notice in the story that Jesus did not stay on the shore and simply send Simon and the other fishermen out alone. He got into the boat. Jesus accompanied them across the lake where he, with them, "put out into the deep." And when the nets began to tear and the catch was beyond their expectations, when the going got rough, he was right there inside the boat to tell them "Do not be afraid."

My sisters and brothers, our community here at The Catholic University of America begins a new academic year. It is a very fitting Gospel passage for all of us to hear on this occasion. For today, we, too, stand on the shore of Lake Gennesaret, looking out into the deep waters before us. What do you see?

The newest members of the community, no doubt, will see something different than those of us who have been around for awhile. The place is new. The routine is new. The people around you are new. You might be a bit nervous, unsure, overwhelmed, homesick, perhaps, even a bit fearful. While all is new to you, what is not new is the One who tells us, "Go on now, put out into the deep. I am with you. Do not be not afraid." Remember, it was all new to those first apostles in today's Gospel. The Lord Jesus called them each to do something new.

For the others among us who have grown accustomed to the university and its rhythms, the place and the routine and the people are all familiar. You might find yourselves saying with Simon "We have been at it all night, throwing these same nets overboard, day in, day out, year after year." Your view of the waters - different from the newest among us - is colored by past experiences, some positive thank God, others less so. You may feel tired or lacking in energy. You may feel cynical or weighed down by the past, clinging to hurts and slights or disagreements. Let it go. The Lord Jesus is calling out to you today, "Go no now. Forget all that. Don't hold on to burdens, anger, things that weigh you down. Don't sink. Put out into the deep. I am with you. Lower those nets again and don't be afraid.

And so, also, for those veterans among us who are ready to begin, with your characteristic enthusiasm and energy: Get out there into the water!

Deep water is dark and cold - dark, so we really need to have faith in the one who invited us there, whether we are new or old. Christ brings light into darkness. Deep water is dark and cold - cold, so we really need one another to successfully accomplish what he asks of us, whether we are new or old. Deep water is dark and cold for all of us, yes, but it is also rich with possibility. That's the promise of new beginnings. The Lord did not push us out into the deep alone. Remember, He is in the boat! When they had lowered their nets, Luke also reminds us, "they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them." Faith and community are the essential elements of what a Catholic university is all about. Faith, that "confident assurance concerning things hoped for and conviction about things we do not see." Put out into the deep of this new year, with faith. Community, that visible bond that marks us as one university, united by a strong and common identity and a clear, incredible mission that we share. Put out into the deep, in this community, with this community, for this community to whom we belong. But remember the words of St. Gregory the Great, patron of teachers and students, whose feast we celebrate today: "Things are not to be loved for the sake of a place - places are to be loved for the sake of their good things."

For us, those good things are teaching, research and service.

For us those good things are faith and community.

For us those good things begin and end in the One who calls out to us today: "Put out into deep waters … Do not be afraid."