The Catholic University of America

Mass of the Holy Spirit Remarks
John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church
Aug. 28, 2014


  University President John Garvey

I’d like to thank Cardinal Wuerl for celebrating with us today.

It is a great honor for The Catholic University of America to receive the Cardinal’s Award. I am proud of the work our faculty and students do in the pursuit of truth and beauty. And it is wonderful to see the effects our efforts have beyond the bounds of our campus. Our work nourishes the Church and our country, as our founders hoped it would. It is a good reminder of why we return each fall for another year of studies.

Sometimes we may wonder — particularly the younger members of our community, who are often the most passionate and questioning – whether it is right to put aside other important and worthy work to return to school. Some of you spent your summers in internships that prepared you for a career after college. Others volunteered in hospitals and homeless shelters, in schools and at camps, at home and around the world. How do we justify setting that valuable work aside to read Jane Austen, or memorize Greek verb endings, or learn chemistry?

C.S. Lewis asked a similar question in a talk he gave at Oxford in Autumn 1939, just weeks after England declared war on Germany. “Why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”

Lewis took the question a step further. How can we justify a life of study even in peace time, he asked? Can a Christian, knowing that at every moment he advances either to heaven or hell, justify spending “any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology?”

The answer he gave is surprisingly simple: In war and peace human beings are still human beings. We can’t suspend our intellectual and aesthetic inquiries even for a worthy end, because an appetite for truth and beauty is part of human nature. If we don’t feed that appetite well, we’ll feed it the intellectual equivalent of Froot Loops. So we may as well read good books and surround ourselves with beautiful things (like our choir’s music this afternoon).

Lewis went on to make a third point. The appetite for truth and beauty that craves feeding (one thing or another) was given to us by God. And God makes no appetite in vain. So satisfying our natural appetites can be a way of advancing toward God. I say ‘a way,’ because it’s not necessarily so. We might study hard to be praised for our intelligence. We might drink until we get, in the words of Bertie Wooster, “completely sozzled.” The key is to keep in mind what we do these things for. As St. Paul tells us, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

* * * * *

When you entered the basilica this afternoon you got a prayer card for Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Fulton Sheen taught philosophy and theology at Catholic University for 23 years and was a prominent apologist (and on one occasion a mystery celebrity on What’s My Line?) He is a good example of how academic studies can overflow the boundaries of an academic discipline. He has been declared venerable by the Church. I encourage you to pray for his intercession throughout the coming year.

As we begin our work this year, let us generously feed our appetites for truth and beauty. And let us do so for the glory of God.


More news from CUA