The Catholic University of America

Mass of the Holy Spirit Remarks
John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
Great Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Sept. 1, 2011



This year The Catholic University of America celebrates its quasquicentennial. I promise I won’t use that word again. Today we begin our celebration in the most appropriate fashion, with a mass. When we started planning for the year I imagined myself saying a few well chosen words about the course of our intellectual life over the past 125 years, since our founding in 1887. There’s a lot I could say.

Think how different our curriculum is. Had we had a School of Engineering (and we didn’t), it would have had to wait several years for technologies we take for granted – from the airplane (1903) to the zipper (1890). Our Schools of Music, Philosophy, and Arts & Sciences (if we had had them) might have been concerned with the latest intellectual fashions. In 1887 Verdi wrote Otello. Nietzsche wrote On the Geneology of Morals. Van Gogh did a number of self-portraits you would recognize. We did have a School of Theology, and we built Caldwell Hall to house it. We didn’t build the DuFour Center, because basketball hadn’t been invented yet either.

But I’m not going to talk about all that. Instead I am going to address the virtue of charity. This might seem a little off the mark, as a theme to begin the academic year. But it’s actually not. The first mass of the academic year is traditionally a mass of the Holy Spirit. And charity is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

St. Paul calls it the greatest of the theological virtues. Without it, he says, we have nothing.1 St. John of the Cross says we will all be judged by our charity at the end of our lives. Today’s gospel helps understand why. Jesus instructs the disciples, “If I . . . the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”2

So charity is really great. But you knew that. I want to make two points about the virtue of charity that connect it to the beginning of this special anniversary year.


First, Christian charity is a different thing from the (praiseworthy) service admired by social revolutionaries and given tax-exempt status in the Internal Revenue Code. A Franciscan friend of mine put it this way: Let us not talk about ‘giving back’ (to whom?) or ‘concern for others,’ as though those were sufficient explanations for, or arguments in favor of, charity. Let us start instead with Jesus. Because the poor will not necessarily lead us to Jesus; but Jesus will always lead us to the poor. Charity is the fruit of a change in us. Jesus didn’t say “I have washed someone’s feet, now you do the same.” He said, “I . . . have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s . . . .” He transforms us first, so we might do his work.

What does this have to do with our celebration? The work of the Catholic University is to help bring about that transformation in us – to help us to know Jesus, so we can do his work. When Blessed John Paul II visited the University in 1979 he said “The goals of Catholic higher education go beyond education for production, professional competence, technological and scientific competence; they aim at the ultimate destiny of the human person[.]”3

We grapple with Nietzsche and learn to play Verdi. We study and sometimes imitate Van Gogh. We lay the groundwork for becoming doctors and lawyers, physicists and authors. At Catholic University these pursuits are not a game, or a utilitarian investment. They are a search for the Truth – an effort to come closer to God. Charity is the fruit of that relationship. That’s my first point about the virtue of charity.


The practice of charity also changes the course of our intellectual life. This is my second point. Last year we spent a lot of time talking about why the virtues are important for our university. I said many times that the virtues aren’t just accessories to the intellectual life. They are integral to it. “Virtue,” Aristotle says, “makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.”

The habitual practice of virtue makes a difference in the way we think. Nietzsche argues in The Genealogy of Morals that the weak deceive themselves when they say things like “Blessed are the meek.” Iago, Verdi’s arch-villain, agrees.4 He begins act 2 of Otello by singing Credo in un Dio crudel:

I believe in a cruel God . . .
I believe the honest man is a mocking actor,
In his face and in his heart,
That everything in him is falsehood . . . .

Whether Nietzsche and Iago are right is something we can judge only with experience. If we cultivate meekness, we know that it is not a deception, and that Nietzsche is wrong. If we love God, like the psalmist, we know that “the Lord is [our] light and [our] salvation”, and that Iago is wrong. Charity works this way too. If we are in the habit of loving our neighbor, then we are better equipped to evaluate the deficiencies of totalitarian political regimes, or to appreciate the exuberant humanism in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This is what I mean when I say that the practice of charity changes the course of our intellectual life. There is an essential connection between intellect and virtue. The cultivation of virtue keeps the intellect pointed in the right direction.


That is why we have decided to celebrate our 125th anniversary in a uniquely Christian way. Today we launch the Cardinal Service Commitment. We are asking our students, faculty, staff, and alumni to contribute 125,000 hours of service as we count down to our 125th birthday on April 10, 2012. You can read the details at, or visit the Cardinal Service Sign-Up Tent, right next to the food tent on the University mall. In two weeks we will participate in a nationwide day of service in honor of 9/11. That will be a good opportunity for us to dive into this commitment to service as a community.

As we begin our anniversary year, we acknowledge the special role that serving others plays in the life of the university. We urge you to do something more than service, though. We urge you to serve virtuously. If you go to Jesus first, he will transform your service into acts of charity.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Catholic University in 2008 he asked: “Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice, and respect for God's creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold.”5 Our 125th anniversary is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to being a Catholic university. May God bless our efforts as we learn, pray, and serve.

1  1 Corinthians 13.
2  John 13: 14-15
3  Bl. John Paul II, Address to The Catholic University of America, 1979.
4  Verdi was fascinated by Shakespeare. He came out of retirement to write Otello, and then Falstaff.
5  Pope Benedict XVI, Address to The Catholic University of America, 2008.