The Catholic University of America

Mass of the Holy Spirit Homily
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington and Chancellor of The Catholic University of America
Great Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Sept. 1, 2011

The scene from today’s Gospel is ritually enacted only once in the course of the liturgical year — not at the beginning of an academic year at a university — but at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Here we see Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The act of a servant. The ministry of diakonia. Yet even his closest disciples do not understand.

This is the night before he is to die and Jesus is doing his best to teach us what service, diakonia, is all about. His greatest act of service is to lay down his life for us. This is something else that his disciples did not yet understand. So much of what Jesus came to teach us — to reveal to us — was something we would find so hard to understand.

Years ago, in 1977 to be exact, in Franco Zeffirelli’s movie production of Jesus of Nazareth, the scene of today’s Gospel is presented with great drama. How difficult it is to accept Jesus’ message.

“Master, you will never wash my feet!” Peter exclaims.

Earlier, Peter had said to Jesus, “Master, you said you were going to Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem they would kill you. If that’s true then it’s our duty to keep you from going. You must not allow it to happen!”

Jesus replies, “Peter, you are thinking as men think, not as God thinks.”

Later in another scene where Jesus points out that forgiveness and mercy are part of discipleship and life in the kingdom of God, Peter, who has such a hard time putting all of this together, says to Jesus, “Forgive me, Master. I’m just a stupid man.”

Perhaps the reason that dramatization touched so many people is because we can all resonate with it. Of course we do not always understand. Jesus is the eternal Word of God made flesh speaking to us that which he has seen and heard in the presence of the Father. Even when he speaks in words and parables using images and signs that we can grasp, who can say we fully understand.

Yet our limitation does not stop Jesus. As we see in today’s Gospel, he still washes the feet of the disciples, even though they may not understand what he is doing and, as in the case of Peter, even object.

Then weeks later, after his death and Resurrection when all has been accomplished and as he prepares to return to his Father in glory, Jesus says to the same bewildered yet loving disciples, “You will be my witnesses.”

He then turns over the entire effort, the announcement of the kingdom, the claim to have restored all that had been broken, to these same disciples who he knows do not fully understand the depth of the mystery.

“Go out and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you, baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Today the disciples of our Lord, now considerably more numerous, continue the same mission, the same task, the same challenge to be witnesses, to proclaim a vision of life, a way of living, a kingdom and a glory that to all around us appear as not particularly real and, at best, of secondary importance when we look at what preoccupies the waking hours of most of us.

Why we begin this academic year with a Mass invoking the gifts of the Holy Spirit is precisely because we know we do not fully understand, but we do want to be with the Lord.

In the Sermon on the Mount we hear of a new way of life and how it involves the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit. Here we learn of the call to be salt of the earth and a light set on a lamp stand. In the same Gospel we hear the extraordinary dictum that we should see in one another the very presence of Christ. Jesus’ disciples are challenged to envision a world where not only the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given drink, the stranger is welcomed and the naked are clothed, but also most amazingly sins are forgiven and eternal life is pledged.

We have come to this campus — students, faculty, administration, friends, family, pastors — all because we recognize that Catholic education in all its forms has as its primary task the communication of the person and message of Christ. This unfolds through a wide range of efforts, but the goal is always the same. At every level of intellectual development, the threads of the encounter with Christ and his life-giving message are woven into the fabric of our human experience.

Already three years ago when Pope Benedict XVI visited this campus and spoke to Catholic educators, he proclaimed, “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the good news. First and foremost, every Catholic institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4).”

We on this Catholic campus are engaged in fostering the very relationship that Pope Benedict XVI underlined and that Peter in the dramatization cries out: I do not always understand but I just want to be with you. We come seeking deeper and fuller understanding precisely so we can be closer to Jesus. We try to know him more clearly so that we can follow him more nearly and love him more dearly — in the words of Saint Richard of Chichester.

As Jesus took on the role of Servant to the Truth of his mission, message and identity, so we are invited in our own way into the dynamic between personal encounter, knowledge and Christian witness, all of which our Holy Father tells us are “integral to the diakonia of truth which the Church exercises in the midst of humanity.”

The reason we invoke the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is because we realize what we are dealing with is something so far beyond us that only with an opening of our minds and hearts to the impulse of the Holy Spirit can we achieve the lofty goal we have all set for ourselves at this University.

This is why we begin this year with the Mass invoking the Spirit. It is the Spirit that nudges us to understand more clearly what it is we are asked to do, accept and live, and it is certainly the light of the Holy Spirit that guides us along a coherent path to achieve that task.

Today as we celebrate the opening of this academic year, and as schools all over this country open for another year of studies, we renew in our hearts the realization that this campus, that every Catholic school, must always be a place where Christ’s vision, message and wisdom is taught, lived and shared.

When we take on that mission in our diakonia of truth, we can be forgiven as was Peter if at times we say, “Lord, we do not always understand.”

But we can also add that “all of us here, each of us individually and all of us collectively, simply want to be with you, Lord.”

To achieve this we turn our hearts and minds to God in prayer:

“Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.”