Homily for Mass of Investiture
Monsignor C. Anthony Ziccardi
Vice President for Mission and Ministry
Having led them out of Egypt against powerful enemies to the threshold of the land to which they aspired, Moses summoned the people he had liberated and constituted, and he rehearsed for them every event. He assured them that it was God who had accomplished everything; indeed, it was God who had called him and them, and was calling them still, to live differently, distinctively, by the instruction and laws he provided through Moses.
It was in this precise context that Moses uttered the words of the first reading. What do they reveal? One of the greatest political and military leaders of all time, Moses saw himself as a teacher first of all. "Hear … speak … write … drill them into your children," he demanded. The adults must themselves learn and become their children's teachers in turn. The object of their learning was to be God's instruction and commandments through Moses; and the manner of their learning was to be constant repetition and even visual aids, such as headbands and armbands!
Instruction? Commandments? Yes! And were these to be learned? Yes! "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart" does not refer to feelings, for feelings cannot be commanded. But love as a habit of attention and attachment and devotion and commitment can, most certainly, be cultivated. And the heart refers not to the wellspring of emotions but of thoughts and ideas. You see, the ancients of the Middle East did not know the brain's function. Thus, for example, in mummification the Egyptians disposed of the brain, but kept the heart. For they observed that pleasant thoughts set one's heart raising, and unpleasant ideas caused one's heart to sink; so, they concluded that human beings thought with the heart.
When he commanded love of God with one's whole heart, Moses meant that his people should have an intellectual appreciation of God, of what God done, and of what God wanted done. "Take to heart these words!" that is, study this instruction. This established the practice of learning in Judaism and derivatively in Christianity.
But the study of what? Old texts? Come on! Could, then, there be any progress in understanding and knowledge? Yes, because the study of old texts could not but bring forth fresh insights.
So the Talmud (bMen 29b) recounts that when Moses ascended on high he found God putting the finishing touches on the letters of the scriptures. Surprised, Moses asked God if there could be anything lacking to this instruction that God himself had given through him. God explained that in the future there would come a rabbi by the name of Akiba who would expound on each detail and derive therefrom instruction upon instruction. "Permit me to see him," pleaded Moses. God granted him to sit for a day in Akiba's classroom, eight rows back. Moses was lost. Most of the time, he wasn't sure what Akiba was saying. Coming to a certain topic, Akiba was asked by a student how he came by this great insight. "Clearly," answered Akiba, "Moses received it on Sinai." At long last, though Moses had understood little if anything of Akiba's instruction, he was relieved — and content too to be so recognized.
This half-humorous story, by means of the bewildered Moses, points to the progress of learning. New insights, understandings unimagined, are not only possible, but are to be expected when men and women apply their God-given intelligence to serious study and inquiry. And, most often, the seedbed of new insights is older insights, the tradition of learning that precedes them. Only the fool would bypass or belittle prior understandings as if they could have no value.
Universities are home to new insights and better understandings precisely insofar as they are repositories of insights previously gained, questioned, and refined in new circumstances. In a world where only novelty sells, religiously-sponsored universities especially must stand and operate as testaments to our collective indebtedness to the long history of learning. And Catholic universities must remain rooted in what was taught and learned long ago: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone." Always, by means extra-curricular and curricular, Catholic universities must point to God, pursue the transcendent, and propose perspectives of ultimacy.
A story. Filled with enthusiasm, a young man of Rome came running to his pastor, St. Philip Neri, to tell him that he had just been accepted to a law school of great renown. "That's wonderful, my son. Many congratulations! But then what?" asked Fr. Neri. "Then I shall become a great lawyer and win much fame." "And then what?" asked the pastor. "Then I shall become very rich and acquire a beautiful home, a palace!" "And then what?" continued the priest. "Then I shall marry and have children and live in comfort with my family." "And then what?" persisted Fr. Neri. The young man knew not how to answer. After some thought, he said, "Then, I suppose I shall die." "And then what?" insisted the saint. Disturbed, the young man answered gravely, "Then I shall wait to learn God's judgment on my life." "Yes!" answered Fr. Neri. The young man went on to become a great lawyer. He married and had children. But he never amassed riches that he once thought he would. And his fame? It was for defending the poor and downtrodden, for he dedicated much of his practice to the unfortunate who could ill-afford legal counsel.
Today, Dr. Esteban is invested as the 20th president of this Catholic university. God has called him to lead it as a distinctive institution of higher education, one that stands out as salt and light in the world, a university that is truly Catholic because it moves all who come here to pursue understanding rooted in the rich seedbed of Catholic learning, which stretches back to Jesus and before him to Moses. While we may look to Dr. Esteban for leadership in the business of higher education, God himself looks to Dr. Esteban to be a teacher, first and foremost, as were Jesus and Moses, pointing us to matters of ultimacy and summoning us to undivided commitment to God above all. May our prayers, poor though they be, but abundantly enriched by Christ's Eucharistic sacrifice, help our new President to discharge well the role in which today he is confirmed.