Among the Saints
By President Michael J. Graham, S.J.
(NOTE: This is a copy of Fr. Graham’s homily delivered during the annual Spirit Celebration Mass that begins the start of the new academic year.)
In Europe, in June, I don’t know which I saw more of: churches or museums—though it’s sometimes hard to tell the two apart. That it was a close call at all, though, was no doubt due to Suzanne Chouteau, the Chair of Xavier’s Department of Art, who walked the legs off philosophy professor Paul Colella and me in the Uffizi, in Florence, opening up for us one Renaissance masterwork after another until Paul and I both held up our hands in abject surrender and pleaded, “Suzanne! Please! No more! Stop!” But whether there in Florence or at Jesuit sites in Spain, or in church upon church in Rome itself, I saw a great deal of religious art, which means I saw a lot of saints. And at some point, I began to ponder all the halos.
I was surprised at how many shapes and sizes they came in, from the spoked and colorful discs in old mosaics that crowned the blessed, and especially the Lord himself, to the gentle, barely there, hovering gold bands Caravaggio favored. I found a mosaic Paschal Lamb at San Clemente, for example, whose head was swathed in a glowing gold disc that sprouted mosaic flowers. I picked up postcards of the Evangelists Matthew and John whose halos were a deep and surprising blue—just like the halos of some angels I found in another church and have on another postcard. But it was Mary, appropriately enough, who truly dazzled. The morning sun itself seemed to rise behind her head in a painting at the apartment of St. Ignatius Loyola, while a thin band of alternating red and white stones dot-dot-dotted its way around her in a mosaic at St. Praessede in Rome. A corona of celestial fireworks of flowers and stars exploded around her in Montserrat in Spain, and in his Madonna de Pellegrini at the Basilica di San Agostino in Campo Marzio in Rome, Caravaggio bestowed upon her one of those graceful, eloquent golden rings of his.
The more of these images I beheld, the more they drew me in. Once upon a time, they seemed to declare together, these saints and blessed were not all that different from you. Just look at their faces if you don’t believe it. But the halos testified to who they had become, and reminded all who gazed upon them of just what we might become ourselves, if we bent our backs and bent our souls to the task. Funny to have found these images teaching me across the centuries. Funnier still that the biggest lesson they had to teach didn’t dawn on me until several weeks later.
A whispered innuendo leads to today’s twin Gospel parables. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the righteous utter to each other beneath their breath, clucking their tongues over the low-lifes Jesus chose to associate with, clucking their tongues too over Jesus. And in response, Jesus conjures two arresting images—the Good Shepherd and the Diligent Housewife—to explain why He does what He does, which is to say, what God is up to in Him: seeking the lost without counting the cost. And these two images together got me wondering. Do you suppose the same thing could be true for us? Here, today? At Xavier University? As we celebrate the start of this still-new school year by asking the Spirit’s outpoured blessings upon it and upon us? Hard not to say yes to that. And so, inspired by these Gospel parables, let me propose this way of looking at this school year that stretches before us with so much possibility: that through absolutely everything that will happen to each and every one of us, all this new year long, in one way or another, someone will be looking for us. Someone will be looking for us.
Like the Good Shepherd, he’ll search for us high and low, scanning for our tracks, sniffing out our scents, pursuing us no matter where we go. In classrooms or in labs? He’ll find us there. In dorm rooms, meeting rooms, outdoor basketball or volleyball courts? There is no place we can run to get away. During seminars, conversations and group study session; at classes, parties and service sites; when we lay ourselves down to sleep at night or put our feet back on the floor in the morning. There he’ll be, looking for us.
And in those moments where we understand just that much more than we have understood before, or where we find ourselves feeling a little larger or clearer or cleaner or more focused; as if we’ve looked behind ourselves and realized that we’ve come along more than we realized from the last time we looked over our shoulders and checked; when ideas or people or even we ourselves make sense to us in a way that they have never quite made sense to us before, there’s patterns present we’ve never quite noticed before; and so who knows exactly how or exactly why, but suddenly it’s easier to try, easier to believe, easier to commit ourselves or to speak up, or to go out of our way or to go the extra distance; when any kind light goes on for us at all that wasn’t on before: you’d best believe he’s not just looking for us. You’d best believe he’s found us.
But more than that. For like the Diligent Housewife, she’ll come looking for us, too. She’ll take the box of what we think we know about the world, know about ourselves, know about others and she’ll toss the lid aside, flip the box upside down and give it a good shake to see what sticks to the bottom. She’ll shake the rug of our certainties, too, to find us in our confusions, and she’ll toss our unquestioned assumptions aside like sofa pillows to find us in the middle of our doubts, when our worlds crumble around us (as from time to time they always do). She’ll sweep our cob-webbed clarities away to discover us in the corners where we cower when we’re sad or alone or frightened. She’ll go rifling through the closets where we hang all the ways we like the world to see us—all nicely cleaned and pressed and starched—and she’ll push the hangers quickly by her one after another after another, and stop at the tattered and mended one way in the back, hidden out of sight (we think), and take it down with an, “Ah! At last! Here it is!” She’ll stand on a stool to reach to the very top cupboard, into the very back of the very top cupboard, into the darkest corner in the very back of the very top cupboard where we think we’ve hidden the hardest of our secrets ever, hidden them even from ourselves. She’ll run her hand down between the cushions of the couch looking, not for coins or car keys, but for a truth that somehow slipped out of our pockets, one that we don’t care much to claim. But when she finds it and calls it a treasure, we’re glad she’s found it after all, and glad, too, that she thinks that it’s a treasure. Because if she thinks it’s a treasure, maybe we can think so too.