“The Path to the Father’s House Traced for Us by the Saints and Sages Through the Ages”
Homily – Franciscan University of Steubenville Baccalaureate Mass
May 13, 2022
It was in the 1940’s that George Orwell wrote his dystopian and then-futuristic novel “1984.” It used to be standard reading in the high school curriculum. I remember reading it myself in high school. Of course, that was way back in the BC era – you know, “before computers.” It was so long ago that the actual year 1984 was still in the future.
The Pre-Saging Sages of the Twentieth Century
I’m sure you are familiar with the story: the world is taken over by a totalitarian regime that keeps its clamp on power by manipulation of language and rewriting of history. The world is ruled by “the Party,” at the head of which is the dictatorial leader called Big Brother, who “enjoys an intense cult of personality, manufactured by the party’s excessive brainwashing techniques.” The party employs the Thought Police to enforce its rule and persecute individuality and independent thinking. “The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a diligent and skillful rank-and-file worker at the Ministry of Truth and … Party member who secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion.” That sense of rebellion was stirred when he fell in love with his colleague Julia and entered into a forbidden relationship with her, which triggered his memory as to “what life was like before the Party came to power.” In the end, both Winston and Julia are arrested, tortured, and end up betraying each other.
We are now at the point in history where as many years have passed since the year of the title of that novel as had preceded it at the time of its writing. And it is haunting how prescient Orwell was. Indeed, many colloquialisms we have today in standard everyday speech came from that novel, which you will have noticed: “big brother,” “thought police,” and even the adjective “Orwellian” itself.
If we advance just three years later, to 1987, an equally prescient book was published that year, precisely on the topic of what we are about today: the state of education at American universities. I am referring to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind.” In it, Bloom critiques the contemporary American university and how it is failing in its purpose of true education and opening the mind. He blames this in large part on moral relativism, which, he maintains, constructs a barrier to the notions of truth, critical thinking, and genuine knowledge. He observes that university life has closed the minds of students by prioritizing “the immediate, blind relegation of prejudice” which then closes the mind to asking the right questions, thus cutting off the possibility of eradicating prejudice because it replaces logic and critical thinking with empty, baseless instinct.”
These trends that Bloom detected way back then were already noticed in the first half of the twentieth century by the renowned English priest and theologian Ronald Knox. In his writings, Knox notes that, while popular writers in the 20th century were always saying that the western world had moved from the age of faith to the age of science, in reality the discussion of public issues had in fact entered into the age of assertion. To paraphrase his thought:
Points of view are proclaimed forcefully, even stridently, but there is little real discussion. People simply assume that their position is self-evidently right and seek like-minded company. When contending parties meet, it is uncommon for the conversation to turn on matters of principle or substantive argumentation – rather, each side seeks to shout the other side down, resorting to ad hominem attacks and acrimonious remarks.
Which brings us to the Mass we celebrate today: the Memorial of Our Lady of Fatima. I am sure we are all familiar with the warnings that she gave us there. It seems that these great sages of the last century, and many others as well, with their great insight and foresight were able to track what she warned us about through those three shepherd children in that poor Portuguese village. I believe, though, that it is easy for us to get distracted by the sensational elements of this apparition: predictions of wars and disasters, a dancing sun, a vision of hell. We are easily intrigued with that part of the story, perhaps so much so that we miss the whole point of it, which, of course, is the message itself.
Just think about the consequences, beginning with the ravages of the last century: two great wars that enveloped the entire world in violence and bloodshed; the death camps and the genocides; the most brutal regimes in world history; the persecution of the Church in every decade of that century and all over the world and up to our own time, resulting in more martyrs in one century than the entire previous history of the Church combined. We are too naïve about our human nature: we had thought a war of aggression by one European nation against another to be a thing of the past, and now we witness the atrocities happening in Ukraine. The brutality of our human nature is never too far away. And perhaps we are most blinded when it strikes close to home: mass shootings have become routine news, barely capturing our attention when they happen; and of course, the attack on innocent life in the womb, staining our land with the blood of innocent children in what has become a deadly epidemic tantamount to a genocide on life in the womb; and now we are increasingly witnessing the abandonment of our suffering brothers and sisters at the other end of life’s journey. There is likewise the relentless march to deny even the most basic, biological reality of God’s creation of the human race as male and female.
The warnings of our Lady at Fatima have unraveled throughout the last century up to our own time, because we have ignored the message. Better yet, perhaps it is not so much the message we have ignored as the requests she made of us. But we cannot afford to do so any longer. We have to pay attention. We have to do what she asked of us at Fatima, as she does everywhere she appears: pray the rosary daily, commit ourselves to fasting and other acts of penance, adore her Son in the Blessed Sacrament.
St. Francis of Assisi
The ravages of the last century, leading to the atrocities we are witnessing in our own time, all point, in the end, to the absence of love. Indeed, the philosophical principles underlying such atrocities make love impossible. As Orwell so well illustrated, that’s what happens in a totalitarian regime, when the all-powerful few impose total control on the plebian masses; such is a dystopian society. The spiritual life, the life of prayer, penance and adoration, will bring us back to love.
Enter the patron saint of your university, and of the city in which I live: St. Francis of Assisi. As a teenager, not much younger than you who are graduating, this son of a prosperous Italian silk merchant and noble French mother fell in love with the troubadors’ love songs and all things French; he became a soldier, and then for a year a prisoner of war where mystical visions and suffering changed his life. He then became the saint of taking God’s words literally, understanding his calling in life to rebuild God’s Church spiritually, serving as one of the greatest protagonists of one of the greatest periods of spiritual renewal the Church has ever known. Clad in the rough clothing of an Umbrian peasant and begging for food, his love of lady poverty attracted followers, brothers and sisters both, of whom you are the beneficiaries, having as you do his spiritual sons as the founders and leaders of your university.
As in every age – but perhaps especially so in ours – Francis gives us the response we need to the challenges we face in our time. Indeed, his response to his personal vocation was as timeless as it was simple: he began rebuilding the Church through a life of holiness, building upon the foundation. His physical rebuilding of the church of San Damiano was a metaphor of his whole life: he did not tear it down and start over, but repaired that little dilapidated structure by building upon what was there, upon the same foundation that was originally laid. And that foundation was, and is, Jesus Christ.
How else do we explain his persistence amid such hardship and even fierce opposition to fulfilling the vocation to which God called him? As Pope Francis reminds us, St. Francis was the great apostle of love. He tells us that Francis’ life was “was a radical way of imitating Christ”: the clothing of the peasant’s garb was for him the sign of his baptismal call to clothe himself with Christ, “who, though he was rich, became poor in order to make us rich by his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).” He says, “In all of Francis’ life, love for the poor and the imitation of Christ in his poverty were inseparably united, like the two sides of a coin.”
That was the vocation of St. Francis, a truly extraordinary vocation, unparalleled in the history of the Church. The lowly poverello of Assisi now has a high place in heaven. But we can take heart, for our Lord assures us that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places. That is, God has a plan of salvation for each one of us, our own personal salvation history. He gives us a roadmap to His house: our vocation. The many dwelling places, or mansions, represent the vocations of each one of us. It is by living our vocation well and faithfully that we arrive at the Father’s house, stewarding wisely and generously the gifts that God has given to each one of us for sharing His love with others and for His glory.
You, my dear brothers and sisters graduating from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, are blessed with the abundant gifts afforded you by this university, a university which is true to the vocation of what an institution of higher education is supposed to be about: opening the minds of young people to the wonders of the universe and learning the wisdom of the ages that has been handed down to us. I thank the Franciscans of the Third Order Regular for making it possible for you to be blessed with these gifts, along with your extraordinary faculty, staff, benefactors, and, especially, your parents and families. They have modeled for you living one’s vocation faithfully and well; now it is up to you to live yours in kind.
Each dwelling place, each mansion, in the Father’s house is a vocation. But the way into the house is the same, although realized uniquely in each vocation: it is the way of love, the self-sacrificing love modeled by St. Francis and all the saints, a love rooted in that of Jesus Christ, imitating his self-emptying for us in the Incarnation and ultimately his death on the Cross, the love which wills the good of the other for the sake of the other.
The way of love, traveled down the path of one’s vocation, brings one to the doorstep of the Father’s house, and into the mansion that is the earthly pilgrim’s dwelling place for all eternity. St. Augustine assures of such, where he says that “the desire of love is the preparation for the mansion.” Let us, then, listen to our Blessed Mother guiding us to her Son, so that we may follow him down the rough path of our earthly pilgrimage according to the course he has charted out for us, for it is the course that leads us to the eternal dwelling place he has prepared for us in his Father’s house.
 Milton Walsh, Second Friends: C. S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008) pp 326.
 Homily of Pope Francis at the Basilica of Francis on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi: https://www.catholic.org/news/international/europe/story.php?id=52625.
 The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide, The Holy Gospel According to Saint John Thomas W. Mossman (trans.) (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2008) p. 555.