Msgr. Lajiness address to students, staff, and faculty for the 2020-21 academic year
August 26, 2020
John 11: 19-27
“Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother Lazarus, who had died. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies will live and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’”
The dialogue from this passage is incredibly compelling. There is a simplicity to it. There is a strength and clarity about it. In the midst of experiencing the deep sorrow at the death of a beloved brother, a family member, Martha manifests her belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. At a dark moment, she manifests her belief that her brother, Lazarus, will rise in the resurrection on the last day. It is her credo that shapes who she is, how she sees the world, how she engages those around her, how she gives witness. We know that later in the same passage Jesus in fact raises Lazarus from the dead. And in so doing he reveals his own Sonship and the mystery of the Triune God. It is a revelation that calls for the deepest act of faith, calls for us to say and to live, credo.
Last year, I focused my address on the virtue of hope, and how it is that hope allows us to navigate tumultuous waters with our eyes fixed on the one who has loved us from all eternity. And this year, following up on that, still in the midst of tumultuous and unpredictable waters (perhaps even more tumultuous and unpredictable than last year), I think it’s appropriate to reflect on the importance of credo, that simple yet powerful word that emerges from the very depths of who we are, shapes our identity, gives us strength, compassion, mercy, directs our actions, and which forms the foundation for our educational and formational work as a seminary community committed to the new evangelization.
It’s one word. It’s a simple word. It’s repeated often, every Sunday, every Solemnity, and every rosary we pray.
Credo is at the heart of who I am, who we are. We are who we are because we believe. We do what we do because we believe. Innovative programs, effective metrics and assessment, quality improvement initiatives, etc.. are all important and we certainly commit ourselves to them, but they don’t mean anything if we don’t believe. Why seek to live a life of virtue if I don’t believe? Why preach, give witness, and commit myself to the truth of the Gospel if I don’t believe? Why seek to receive the sacraments if I don’t believe? Why be ready to endure hardships or challenges from the secular world if I don’t believe?
There are multiple challenges facing us today: a pandemic that is still infecting people, causing death, and which continues to create hardships with family life, health, and jobs. Racial discrimination that persists and that we must address honestly and directly, over a long, sustained period of time. Financial and political volatility. These are just a few of the immediate challenges that face us.
And in the midst of these challenges, I see a new one emerging, one that is not necessarily new, but has deep roots in history. A spirit of secularism and relativism is accelerating around us rapidly. It manifests itself in the current trends of society as a rejection or disregard of truth because of disillusionment in the validity of authority. We see that being played out in a number of sectors of our society. The significant impact of such a trend is that it can extend well beyond the rejection of the validity of earthly authority to a rejection of the authority and validity of the Revealed Word of God, particularly what God has revealed about Himself and about the integrity of our human nature. And when the revealed Word of God is dismissed as myth, we are confronted with the need to renew again our deepest commitment to what we believe and how we form those entrusted to our care.
Credo, then, is critical because it connects us to what God reveals. “I believe” is rooted in what God reveals about Himself, not what I choose or what secular society chooses to create on its own. “I believe” in the Christian context seeks to explore first the perennial truths that God desires us to know, and to recognize the enduring beauty, goodness, and dignity of the human person.
These are challenging times, yet this is precisely where disciples are called to be, and God will not lead us to those places where his grace will not sustain us.
The reason I want to reflect on credo is that it forms a critical foundation for our work of seminary formation and education. We need a lively, persistent awareness of credo not just in the chapel, or in our times of private prayer, but an awareness and commitment that shapes every aspect of our life and work: how we see the world, how we live in the world, and how we give authentic witness. So, let’s look at credo from these three profiles.
SEE: Credo and the unity of faith and reason
On the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, September 14th, in 1998, Pope St. John Paul II presented his Encyclical Fides et Ratio. From my perspective it is one of the most significant and prophetic works of his pontificate (I acknowledge some bias as a philosopher!). Yet, when we look closely at the encyclical, we see that he speaks to trends that have been developing over centuries and challenges that continue to be pervasive in our own time.
In the opening paragraphs he wisely observes that: “A legitimate plurality of positions has yielded to a undifferentiated pluralism, based upon the assumption that all positions are equally valid.” (5). But not only is the presupposition of the validity of objective truth eroded, he goes on to say that today “we are faced with the patent inadequacy of perspectives in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt.” (6)
For that reason, Fides et Ratio returns repeatedly to the common theme of the essential harmony between faith and reason, between what we can know by the light of natural reason and what is revealed to us. Our credo emerges from a deep awareness that faith is the gift to see the world as God sees the world, not through the lens of power, influence, utility, or through a mechanistic sense. In our current cultural context, it is even more critical today to insist upon this harmony, upon maintaining the certainty of objective truth, the integrity of human nature, and not permitting a false dichotomy between God and the world, between the natural and the supernatural, to erode our confidence in who we are and how God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
To emphasize this point, the Pope St. John Paul II makes two insightful statements: “Faith intervenes not to abolish reason’s autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action, but solely to bring the human being to understand that in these events it is the God of Israel who acts.” (16) And furthermore: “Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence.” (16) A society that disregards the validity of faith and reason is likely to disregard the validity of objective truth as well. Credo is not contrary to reason, but rather walks in harmony with it.
The encyclical concludes by quoting St. Augustine: “‘To believe is nothing other than to think with assent, … Believers are also thinkers: in believing, they think and in thinking, they believe. ...If faith does not think, it is nothing.’ And again, ‘If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe.” (79) ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’
LIVE: Credo and the gift of the sacraments for new life and conversion
The second profile for reflection is on how we live in the world and how we form our students to live in the world. On this point I think it is important to begin with another brief passage from the Gospel of John, chapter 15. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.” In this passage Jesus offers a profound teaching on being intimately connected to God using the imagery of a vine. And he goes on to teach about how important it is for the disciple sent out into the world to stay intimately grafted to the very source of life. When Jesus teaches that ‘whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty,’ we can clearly see the significance of the sacraments in the life of all. Without being immersed in the sacramental life of the Church, we risk slowly deteriorating, in a certain sense becoming dehydrated, from the grace of God. In that context conversion is stifled, growth in holiness is stunted, and we no longer feel the ‘need’ for God. “For cut off from me you can do nothing” we are reminded.
This brings me to consider the gift of the sacraments, and how it is that the sacraments are the wellspring for sustaining us as pilgrims in the world, forming us as humble and bold disciples, bringing about continual conversion and transformation in our minds and hearts. In a sermon on the Ascension, St. Leo the Great writes: “With all due solemnity, we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when in spite of the withdrawal from men’s sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity never grows cold.”
“And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high.”
We live as pilgrims in this world, and as such, we need to be sustained for the journey. St. Gregory reminds us that Christ’s “visible presence has passed into the sacraments” and by the regular reception of the sacraments, we too encounter Christ in the most profound way.
Not surprising, data points that keep screaming out to us in the past several years are the fact that Catholics are not approaching the sacraments in the numbers they used to; that an alarming number of Catholics no longer believe in the real, true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Why, we might wonder? One answer is that sadly their own credo has been eroded. For this reason, we should reflect urgently on the importance of credo in the context of our efforts to form priests, deacons, and lay leaders who recognize the need to feed those entrusted to their care with the desire to become alive in the sacramental life of the Church, to become renewed again in through the grace given, and to encourage those we lead to hasten to Christ and inflame their desire to be transformed by the sacraments. To live in the world as pilgrims, as grafted to the vine, alive in Christ, as joyful disciples. ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’
WITNESS: Rooted in Credo
Finally, the third profile for reflection is on witness, and how authentic witness is rooted in credo.
It is without question that we need to form our students as disciples who give witness, who are courageous, humble, truthful, compassionate, and merciful. Authentic witness must emerge from credo, an unshakable confidence that moves us to live as active members in the world yet not of the world. Credo moves us to speak, and as St. Paul reminds us “faith comes from hearing” (Rom. 10: 17).
Yet our courage and boldness are rooted not in the false understanding of our own influence or the strength of our voice, but rather in the recognition of God’s grace at work through us, we who are his humble servants and instruments. So it is not a matter of ‘overwhelming’ others but rather a powerful witness comes by way of steadfast, humble, compassionate adherence to what has been Revealed and handed down to us. “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4: 5)
And so authentic witness is not about ‘volume’ or ‘influence.’ I am reminded of an experience I would often have while living in Rome. It was not uncommon to be in line and hear an American at the front trying to ask for something or explain something in English. When the Italian worker could not understand, the American would repeat a second time, only in a really loud voice, hoping that perhaps the volume would help comprehension. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way!! Volume doesn’t help comprehension. Holy witness does. Witness is about the steady, truthful, loving, and courageous living of the Gospel, dying to ourselves and our passions, our sinfulness, our pride, and living anew in Christ.
In a moving homily by Origen assigned for the feast of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, he says: “If passing from unbelief to faith means that we have passed from death to life, we should not be surprised to find that the world hates us. Anyone who has not passed from death to life is incapable of living those who have departed from death’s dark dwelling place to enter a dwelling made of living stones and filled with the light of life.”
“Now is the time for Christians to rejoice, since Scripture says that we should rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering trains us to endure with patience, patient endurance makes us pleasing to God, and being pleasing to God gives us ground for a hope that will not be disappointed. Only let the love of God be poured forth in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
The less I believe, the more I put my whole self into the world, into the temporal things of this life to the exclusion of growing in holiness and virtue. Living the credo may make us counter cultural, but we ought never fear. “Do not be anxious about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt. 10: 19)
In our witness, then, credo does not make us hostile. In fact, our strength does not come from ourselves, but rather as we empty ourselves in authentic humility, and allow the truth of the Revealed Word to take hold of our hearts, it is Christ’s power, his love, his truth that shines through. So it should not surprise us that as we seek to form our students for a life of joyful and effective ministry, the evil one will rage against that, seek to divide, seek to sow seeds of mistrust. Why should we be surprised? Rather, let us rejoice that the Lord has entrusted this mission to us, let’s seek to work together in his name, pray for one another earnestly, and entrust all our work to the Sacred Heart. From that position, fear gives way to love, anxiety gives way to hope, doubt gives way to faith. ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’
In the second part of my address, I want to turn our attention to a specific way in which credo forms an essential foundation for our work of theological education and formation for ministry. As I attend ordinations every year, there is a unique beauty and sacredness to each celebration. During the rite of ordination, we hear these words: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
The movements, postures, sacramentals, and words of an ordination rite are all deeply meaningful and intentionally placed. There are no meaningless movements or words, no gesture that is inserted as a type of ‘filler’.
At the ordination rite, the candidate approaches the bishop who presents the book of the Gospels to him. It is then that the bishop says these words. “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” What strikes me is that the word ‘believe’ starts the instruction and is used twice. How can someone read the Gospel and not believe? How can someone teach the Gospel and not believe? How can someone practice the Gospel and not believe?
In the midst of so many essential activities for us as a seminary community, we are reminded that unless we believe, our work is in vain. Unless we believe, the very mission entrusted to us falls flat. The words during the rite of ordination in a certain sense represent a capstone of our work and a foundation block as well. It is that which all our students seek, ...to believe what has been handed on to them. “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thes. 2: 13).
With this in mind, I consider for a moment all the students who will come through our doors this year, or who will join us remotely via the online courses. Not only do we have an opportunity, but with great joy and confidence, an obligation to pass on to them the richness of the tradition, the depths of the sacred mysteries we celebrate, that we live, and that we believe. I urge each one of us this year to recommit ourselves to teaching from this perspective: to have a palpable awareness in our readings, our assignments, our quizzes and exams, in everything that we do, that credo is the rock foundation from which all effective, loving, truthful, compassionate ministry flows. Forming our students in and through credo means accompanying them to encounter the living God, to encounter Christ in a profound way that transforms mind and heart. Even in the most natural exploration of created realities, we can see and marvel at the love of God through whose Word all was created.
And for us a seminary dedicated to the New Evangelization, how important it is to be refreshed or awakened anew to the importance of credo. The words of the ordination rite, “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach” resonate well for all of our work and how we approach formation.
In the final part of the address I want to focus on a few of the short term and long term priorities we have as a seminary, institutional updates, as well as offer a warm welcome to new members of the staff and seminary community. The short term priorities emerge mostly from the context of the global pandemic in which we find ourselves, and the longer term goals which emerge from our strategic plan.
First, among the priorities we have for this year: stay calm. I say that with some lightness, but also with seriousness as well. The impact of the pandemic has prompted so many changes and challenges for us (like so many other institutions) and we will need to keep a steady calmness in the midst of the storm. Here I recall my address last year and the disciples on the boat in the midst of the storm. Let’s first and foremost keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, acknowledge our own weaknesses and moments of impatience, and never tire of seeking first a charitable word and action with each other. The more we can be attentive to the needs of others, the challenges that others might be facing, the more we can radiate the love of Christ in all we do.
In the short term, then, our goals are to minimize as much risk as possible, keep our students, staff and faculty healthy, and also provide a positive, joyful atmosphere that is conducive to good formation. In that context, we shared publicly our Phase III operational guidelines and more recently internal guidelines for our daily work here. In addition, we also communicated the modifications to the activities of the semester as they relate to events, meetings, and semester breaks. As a reminder, we will need to be as flexible as possible and ready to modify our plans should conditions change or executive orders mandate changes.
In terms of our seminarian formation program, modifications for the fall semester have also been made. For example, our normal clinical internship has been cancelled by local hospitals, as well as other programs in which we normally participate. To that end, we are working hard to create in-house practica for the men to best simulate what they would normally have in a field education experience. These modifications will not be as effective as an actual practicum, but we will do our best given the circumstances. With regard to the liturgical life and formation, we will separate the theology and the college men for the fall semester, with the goal of minimizing the number of people at one time in the main chapel. To accomplish this, we will have two Masses each day, one for the college and one for the theology. The chapel will be closed to outside groups for the fall semester, and as noted in previous communications, the 12:05 Mass is suspended for the fall semester. With these short term changes to our operations, I am confident we will do our best to achieve our goals: to minimize as much risk as possible, keep our students, staff and faculty healthy, and also provide a positive, joyful atmosphere that is conducive to good formation.
Long Term Strategic Priorities
Even in the midst of a pandemic, we continue to press forward with planning that is rooted in as much envisioning, assessment and critical evaluation as possible. Short term priorities in the midst of a pandemic will obviously hold our attention, but should not paralyze us from looking forward, energized by the mission entrusted to us.
Among the new priorities we have identified, I would like to highlight three briefly.
Quality Initiative Project
As part of the ongoing accountability we have as an accredited institution, we will need to identify and complete a quality initiative project. This purpose of the project is for an institution to identify some initiative that will improve an aspect of his mission, and to conduct the project in such a way as to give evidence that it was relevant and meaningful for us. The Dean of Studies along with the whole institution will be engaged in this project as a lead up to the 2024 comprehensive visit of both the Higher Learning Commission and also the Association of Theological Schools.
Another important project for us that has been integrated into the strategic plan is a review of the rubrics and evaluation process for seminarian internships. The internships that seminarians have as part of the formation program are critical points of contact with parish staff, pastors, and parishioners. Our goal is to review and modify the rubrics and process in order to receive a robust picture and thus be able to form and accompany the seminarians more effectively.
Finally, an area that we seek to modify in the seminarian formation program is the leadership component. For a number of years we have been using the resources from the Catholic Leadership Institute. We have all learned a tremendous amount over the last several years and have been evaluating how to make it even more effective. As demographics change for every diocese, good formation in leadership will be even more essential for the seminarians entrusted to us.
Each year I provide a picture of enrollment as we enter the fall semester. This year will be the most challenging to estimate. With deep gratitude to God, our enrollment for seminarians to start this fall is 118, which is up from last year. Also, we are happy to welcome the Diocese of Gary back and express our gratitude to Bishop McClory for his confidence in our program. We are grateful and eager to accompany the seminarians as they discern and prepare for a life of holy and devoted priestly ministry.
On the commuter side, it is challenging. Commuter students face so many difficulties with regard to enrollment and continuance. While we still have time for vigorous outreach to students who may be on the fence about returning, this fall we are expecting over 250 commuter students. We were anticipating a decline in enrollment due to three consecutive years of record graduating classes and with all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. However, I’m very proud to report that this number surpasses our forecast outlined in this year’s budget. I want to offer a word of gratitude to our staff in admissions, financial aid, and the registrar’s office for the energetic work and team effort over the last several months. As we stay faithful to our mission, work together well as a team, the Lord will guide us according to His will, and for that we are grateful.
New members of the staff and seminary community
Before I offer a warm welcome to our new staff, I want to offer again, on behalf of the seminary community, the assurances of our prayers for the repose of the soul of Dr. Mark Latkovic and for consolation for his family. Mark was a dear friend to all of us, a devoted colleague, an energetic defender of the sanctity of life, and a blessing to the Church. We commend him with the greatest faith to the loving arms of our heavenly Father, and give God thanks for the many ways in which Dr. Latkovic contributed so significantly to the seminary, the local, and the universal church.
At this time, I am pleased to welcome more formally new members to our staff and community.
- Leslie Jones is the new Registrar. Most recently, Leslie was the registrar at the University of Holy Cross in New Orleans, LA. Prior to that, she served as the regional registrar from Argosy University in Phoenix and Assistant Director of Student Services/Registrar at Nova Southeastern University College of Medicine in Davie, FL. Leslie has a Master’s degree in psychology from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.
- Sara Bordato is the new administrative assistant to the Dean of Studies. Sara has worked at Meridian Health as a health care coordinator and medical record data abstractor and most recently as the office manager at St. Augustine/St. Monica Catholic Church in Detroit.
- Kathryn Bergeron has taken over as our Admissions and Retention Counselor. Kathryn is a current student in our MA program and has research interests surrounding women in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. Prior to her studies at SHMS Kathryn earned a BA and MIS from the University of Michigan and previously served as the Assistant Director of Libraries at Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham, MI.
- David Green. I am very pleased to share that we have contracted with a new landscaping company. It is locally owned and operated by David Green. The name of the company is TaylorMadeGreen. They have been working hard and getting to know our property, so please join me in welcoming David and his crew.
As I conclude my address this year, I offer words of gratitude to each one of you for the many ways you have contributed, sacrificed, and given yourself to the mission of the seminary. None of us will ever know the many ways individual members of the seminary community, faculty, staff, students, have quietly gone out of their way or sacrificed time and talent with no recognition. Doing so many things behind the scenes, or in these days, ...behind the screens, is a gift for which I need to express my gratitude. It makes me think of the passage from the Gospel of Mark about almsgiving: “And Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Mk. 6: 4).
I am also grateful for our board of trustees and the many, many donors we have who continue to support us even in the midst of a pandemic. Over the last several months I have had the opportunity to speak with many of them and express my gratitude for their generosity. Their contributions help us carry out the mission entrusted to us. And as I’ve listened to them over these months, one common theme that keeps recurring is their desire, and their confidence, that we continue to form courageous, holy, and joyful leaders for the Church. The people deeply desire that, and it’s a work that is entrusted to us, so with the deepest faith I ask that you join me in recommitting ourselves again this year to our mission.
I began my address with a simple word: credo. In a year that will likely present new and unexpected challenges from a wide variety of dimensions (culturally, politically, financially), diving into the richness of credo will provide an opportunity to awaken and renew our faith. It will prompt us to approach our work of formation and theological education with conviction and faith, knowing that what I believe, credo, is the foundation from which all our work proceeds.
In conclusion, I ask that you join me in a prayer that is very significant in my own family, but one that guides us well as we enter the new year. The prayer of St. Francis.
Prayer of St. Francis
Lord make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt; faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.