By Fr. Michael J. Graham, S.J.
I was staring out my Commons living room window back a few Friday nights ago, waiting for a friend to pick me up for dinner, when I found myself suddenly startled. It wasn’t the usual view that surprised me, the new construction going up before my eyes—the new Williams College of Business and the Learning Commons beyond it. That’s a view I’ve been delighting in for months now, anticipating how it will enhance our ability to make a difference in the lives of students beginning next year.
No, what startled me was what I could see going up past these newest buildings of ours, going up past them and beyond them. I couldn’t see it completely clearly, for it isn’t really there yet to be seen. It is still a distance away, though a distance measured in time, not feet. Five years maybe, 10 years max. It is what Xavier University will be next. That’s what startled me.
Curiously, it wasn’t really buildings that I saw, though new buildings there will certainly be: a new residence hall and dining facility just north of the new Williams College of Business, diagonally across from Bellarmine Chapel, and a new classroom building to replace that venerable but almost-exhausted workhorse of a building, Alter Hall. These buildings that we are planning for now will finish out our core campus and point towards whatever might take place on what we call East Campus—all those blank acres between Dana and Cleneay west of Montgomery Road. The next Xavier University will be a more complete and cohesive campus community than anything that you or I have known before, with lots of what they call “curb appeal.” But finally, that wasn’t the vision of what Xavier University will be next that startled me.
Good as our campus is and will be, the next Xavier University will be less about the buildings than about what goes on inside them—not the outward sign, so to speak, but the indwelling grace. Make that graces: the bedrock core of our animating Jesuit, Catholic identity; the expertise and creativity of our faculty; the energy and dedication of our staff; our institution-wide commitment to the success of our students; our strong reputation for a vibrant and nurturing campus community; the passion and support of our alumni, friends and benefactors. Those are the kinds of things that always make a place what it is, not the buildings, however good they might be. And ours are pretty good and getting better. But however good our buildings ever become, we will always be better than they are by a mile.
And yet, it wasn’t all of these important, tangible yet intangible assets that startled me exactly either, though they certainly did warm my heart. Not the buildings. Not the assets. None of that, exactly. Rather, what set me back on my heels as I waited for my friend to pick me up was imagining all those students who someday will be ours. The women and men, undergraduate and graduate, traditional and not, who will pass into our doors and then out of them again the better for what we do here.
Sticks lit one by one become a torch, then a bonfire, then a conflagration. What do human hearts become when they are lit one by one over the course of generations? A holy radiance indeed, and a good reminder of what Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, our former Jesuit superior general, once said about these Jesuit schools of ours: That our ultimate measure is to be found in who our students become. Not in buildings. Not in lists of faculty publications. Not in sizes of endowments or the academic heft of the incoming freshmen class and all their brilliant board scores. But in their hearts—especially as those hearts mix with the futures that will be theirs in the places they will call home, those places where they will make their own difference. Seeing all their goodness, all at once, ablaze. That’s what startled me.
But then my friend picked me up for dinner, and it was time to leave the visionary moment behind. Still, as I go to my office day by day, it is good for me to know why I go there. Good as well to know that I don’t go there alone, but that there are all sorts of good people—people like you—who go there with me: into work and into the future, toward those future students of ours and what they will help this world become.