18th Annual Salute to Catholic School Alumni

The Rev. Michael J. Graham, S.J. - President, Xavier University
Keynote Address, March 4, 2008
Louisville, Kentucky

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. As always when I am introduced to a crowd like this I only regret that my mother isn’t here to hear this. She certainly would be pleased. Phil, thank you very much.

Let me begin by as I must this night with a set of congratulations. First congratulations to all of you present tonight supporting this really wonderful, remarkable enterprise that is the Catholic Educational Foundation here in Louisville.
I had no idea how big a deal it was even though Phil told me over and over again that it was a very big deal indeed. Your presence here tonight speaks volumes to who you are and what is important for you individually and as a community. So congratulations to you. Congratulations as well to you Archbishop Kurtz still knee deep in your rookie year. I wouldn’t go back to my first year as president for anything I hope you’re having a better time.

Certainly this is the first of many of these events that you will come to. May there be many ahead of you, rich blessings from God on your ministry here among the people of God. Congratulations as well to all of you special honorees this evening. Doug James, John Lechleiter, Angela Mason, Mary Moseley, Hamilton Simms, Phillip Stuecker.

I’ve had a number of experiences at dinners like this where we parade people up and we congratulate them for all they’ve done and I always come away with two profound senses from them. First, that we cannot say often enough thank you to people who have done special things. And second that evenings like this are at bottom when you get down to it, an opportunity to hold up before all of us the values that are the most important to us so as to light our way. So thank you very much for being the lanterns tonight that show who it is that who we hope to be andd what we must do ourselves moving forward.

If we want tonight to celebrate Catholic education at its best, and certainly we should, we can do it in no better way than by celebrating you and your accomplishments in family, home, community, at the work place, your parishes and so on over the course of your careers. So thank you very much for being here.

That’s one way that we could celebrate and must celebrate Catholic education at its best. What I would like to spend some time doing with you this evening is celebrating exactly that; Catholic education at its best. But I’d like to come at it from a somewhat different way and justify my approach by telling you a joke.

It seems that somehow by some mystical act of God a Jesuit priest, a Dominican priest and a Franciscan friar were all transported back to the moment of the Nativity there at the humble stable in Bethlehem as Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. The Dominican priest stood back, awestruck by what he saw, the whole of the wheeling heavens as it were, suddenly concentrated at this one point. My God, he thought to himself what theologies could I write spinning out of all of this? Meanwhile, the Franciscan over in the corner dropped down on his knees, totally thunderstruck by the beauty of all this and the harmony of this and how the God of love who made all of this was giving himself to us in this small baby boy. And as all this was going on the Jesuit sidled on up to Joseph and said so have you thought about where to send the boy to school?

We have that reputation for pernicious and deviousness to be sure not entirely unearned. We also have that reputation of being school masters. We came to that somewhat accidentally. Ignatius Loyola, our founder, didn’t envision that when he founded the order and wrote the constitutions. It was because the good people of Messina and Sicily came to the local Jesuit superior there and said couldn’t you open the school you have for your own young men to our young men as well. The superior wrote Ignatius who thought well we’ll give it a try and from this has come the rich and elaborate tradition of Jesuit education throughout the world.

What I would like to do tonight is to tap that tradition to some degree and to find within some signs to celebrate of Catholic education. Fundamentally to the Jesuit vision and perhaps the greatest gift of Saint Ignatius Loyola to the church are his Spiritual Exercises. A retreat manual that he wrote as he reflected on his own experience previous to founding the society while still a layman, not even a priest. This Spiritual Exercises is a kind of manual to go through for finding God in your own life and figuring out how it was he was calling you forward.

What I would like to do is sift through some elements of those Spiritual Exercises to find in them some things well worth celebrating about Catholic education at its best. Let me state my conclusions up front. There are five. That Catholic education is worth celebrating because it is holistic and integrated, because it is exacting but adaptable, because it is ongoing, because it is practical but located within a broad horizon indeed the broadest of horizons, and because it is ordered to something greater.

I’ll begin with the last one. That Catholic education is inherently ordered to something greater. If you look in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius and thumb through the introductory material, the first thing you’ll come to is something he calls a principle and foundation. Nowadays you and I might call it a mission statement. This is a short statement that Ignatius would give to potential retreatents to walk around for awhile, chew around on for a while and see how it resonated with them as to know how to proceed over the course in the coming weeks of the full exercises themselves. That principle and foundation is intended to be absolutely fundamental to anyone who would proceed further in this review.

The principle and foundation reads like this… Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means save their souls. The other things on the face of the earth are created for us to help us in obtaining the end for which we are created. Hence, we are to make use of the things of the world in so far as they help us in the obtainment of our end and must rid ourselves of them in so far as they prove a hindrance. Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things in so far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds true for all other things. Our one desire and our one choice should be that which is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

It’s important to notice that Ignatius did not say that sickness is better than health, that poverty is better than wealth, that dishonor and shame is better than honor. Merely that all of these are tools, creatures really, through which God can work. And so we should not prefer one to the other, inherently because that somehow says to God you can’t possibly be working in that direction. What is primary and always first, last and always is the praise, reverence, and service of God. And that must be the horizon against which all our actions tend. Therefore, let us celebration Catholic education you and I for it shapes men and women whose lives are organized at their best around the praise, the reverence, the service of God, of which we would of course add the service of our neighbor, the poor especially is a constitutive element.

Second, that Catholic education ought to be celebrated because it is as well practical, but situated within a broad horizon indeed. What’s that broad horizon? Well, it’s the principle and foundation that I have just said about the praise, the reverence, the service of God, as being fundamental to who we are. But early on Ignatius says a few words about that practical part. He gives a subtitle for the Spiritual Exercises. The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius says is the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.

Let me break this down. What’s an inordinate attachment? Well, it’s preferring wealth over poverty because it feels better or whatever. Ordinate attachment by contrast is one that is ordered to the end for which we are made. In other words we preferred that which leads to the greater praise, the greater reverence, the greater service of God. Synonyms that we might toss out now a days for inordinate attachments would be biases, prejudices, ignorances, unexamined presupposition, blind spots that we don’t question and take too easily for granted. And any decision Ignatius says that we should also be free before he really means any decision at all. A large decision, what we will do with our life, a small decision, what fork in the road before us to take in our day by day human lives.

And let us therefore celebrate Catholic education for at its best it shapes free people. Men and women free of basis, free of prejudices, free of preconceptions, men and women who are free to face any particular circumstance or choice, opportunity or circumstance and make the best choice which is always the freest choice before them.

Third, that Catholic education is worth celebrating because it is ongoing. We’re continual learners in some way. The people we celebrated tonight demonstrate that vividly through ongoing education, in family, work, parish, community and so on. How is it that we do this? What’s the tool by which this education becomes a habit and a way of life? Ignatius speaks of consultation and desolation. Without going into how he arrives at these words what they mean really is that when we come to know who we are at our very best we have a sensation there that tells us the direction we should go.

In other words that when we have some sense of who we are at our very best in the right place, at the right time, in the midst of the right people, doing the right thing we have a sense of ourselves as being where we should be and being where we are called to be. That privileged moment Ignatius would say what we also know is God’s plan for us. For what we experience is God’s desire for us to be in that right place. And so let us celebrate Catholic education which at its very best helps to impart to students a sense of who they are at their very best which sense can serve them as a compass to guide them through all the ups and downs and difficulties of their lives.

Fourth, Catholic education is worth celebrating because it is exacting but very, very adaptable. Early on in the Spiritual Exercises, if you just kind of crack the book open and look at the first couple of pages, Ignatius lists a whole set of directions that are geared towards people who would be directors of the Spiritual Exercises. The retreat directors who would give them to potential retreatents. These are called the annotations. If you read through the annotations you get kind of two senses from them. On the one hand Ignatius is very clear that what he says must be followed pretty precisely. An hour at prayer is an hour at prayer. It’s not 59 minutes at prayer; it’s not 58 minutes at prayer, and so on. And if somehow the director senses that something isn’t quite going on, he or she should have the power to probe what is happening within the life of the retreatent. What they’re thinking about. What they have been eating. Are they sleeping correctly and so on.

On the other hand, Ignatius understands people are different; one from another. So one person might make it through the first week of the exercises in less time than somebody else. That some parts of the exercise might be more fruitful for one person; less fruitful for the other and so he says over and over again, that retreat directors should adapt the exercises to the persons and places and particularities of the situation in which the retreat director finds himself. Moreover, the most important thing for the retreatant to do ultimately is to get out of the way and let the Creator deal with the creature directly. And so let us celebrate Catholic education which at its best always seeks to have it both ways and wisely so. To have unwavering norms and the loftiest expectations for principled excellence and yet it is always prepared as well to make necessary adaptations according to the particularities of persons, time, places and situations.

For we, you and I, we are all of us individuals and if we are to have the best gotten out of us we must be dealt with in the particulars of our own situation. Fifth and finally let us celebrate Catholic education because it is holistic and integrative. The Spiritual Exercises unfold in their fullness over the course of about a month, hence the long retreat. What happens is that the days, one by one, are spent in a series of meditations. Those meditations themselves can be broken down in various parts. First Ignatius proposes something to someone, like for example that principle and foundation I suggested earlier, most often though it’s a scriptural passage seen from the life of our Lord. And then, after reading it and reflecting it and pondering it, sort of pursuing the words and letting them resonate within a person’s heart, Ignatius often times invites the person to enter into a scriptural scene more deeply. Pretend it’s a film let it unspool in your mind. Enter into it directly. Engage your senses. Smell, for example, in the Nativity, the hay. Hear the lowing of the cows. Hear the baby’s first birth cry and so on and so forth.

And then come back later and repeat it. Because you’ll see something in it you didn’t see before. It will settle down deeper into your heart because of that. Ignatius has this multiple pursue to a meditation because of the predominant view of the psychological of the human person of his time called the faculty psychology. The soul had three properties; the memory, the understanding and the will. Memory and understanding were cognitive. A person could know the right thing to do is and still may not do it. For the person to do the right thing, the will must be engaged, which is moved by the affections, which is moved by the heart.

The strategy of the meditations is designed to simply not only acquaint a person’s mind with the truths of faith, but to let those seep down into the deep crevasses of a person’s soul where it can influence their action. And so let us celebrate Catholic education which at its best is indeed concerned with the important cognitive faculties and their development, but is as well concerned and rightly so with the whole person who must have an educated heart as well because we all know that people who know the good, people who know how to do the good, only become valuable when point in fact they do indeed do the good.

So let us then you and I tonight celebrate with great enthusiasm God’s great gift to his kingdom in Catholic education, which at its best shapes men and women for whom praise, reverence and service of God and the service of our neighbor is the mainspring of our actions. Because it helps free men and women of blinders and their biases, their prejudices, their preconceptions so as to choose this service moment by moment and choice by choice. Let us celebrate Catholic education for it imparts on men and woman a sense of who they are at their best that can serve them as a touchstone all their lives. Let us celebrate Catholic education which holds before our students and us all our highest hopes, our deepest values, our most important ideals, while never forgetting that we are all of us children of God. All of us sinners. All of us in need of mercy and understanding.

Let us celebrate Catholic education which at its best creates people of competence, that is to say skills and knowledge; people of compassion who have big hearts and people of courage who do the right thing. Let us end though as we begin. In the spirit of Ignatius, time now to move in this meditation from cognitive to the affective, so to speak. To apply the senses to the particularities, of person and place, and let these lessons settle in a little deeper to that place where our own hearts might just be tempted to change in the direction of the invitation that God has in store for us tonight. I cannot think of a better way to do that than by turning to tonight’s distinguished panel of honorees and celebrating them in whom the excellence of Catholic education had been made manifest. Let us let their stories bring up as zeal within our own hearts. May their stories strengthen us and light the way before us. Let us do that don’t you think. Thank you very much.