The Mass of the Holy Spirit is a tradition as old as the first schools begun by Jesuits almost five centuries ago. Every year, Jesuit educational institutions around the world like Georgetown usher in a new academic year with this celebratory religious service. Typically, university students, staff, faculty, multi-faith chaplains, and Jesuits at Georgetown mark the occasion by joyously gathering on the lawn in front of Healey or in Gaston Hall. This year, due to the ongoing global pandemic, the celebration was broadcast virtually from Dahlgren Chapel (you can watch a recording of the entire mass on Georgetown’s Facebook page here).
There are many important reasons why Jesuit schools begin the academic year in this way. In past years, I have received much consolation from this annual ritual because it provided a needed pause for reflection and gratitude as I prepared to enter more fully into a busy year at Georgetown. Taking some time for reflection, in the company of the entire university community, helped remind me of my “why” for being at Georgetown.
The symbolic significance of this opening year mass cannot be overstated. At Georgetown, we share in a conviction that our work of education transcends the knowledge and skills that we learn in books and in classroom. The vision at the heart of Georgetown’s mission is that an education in the Jesuit tradition calls all of us, regardless of our profession of a faith tradition or none at all, to the deeper, more transformative purpose of schooling. We are each called to find meaning, purpose, and belonging in our work and study and to share this transformative learning generously with and for others. We are each invited to #SeekSomethingGreater (as we like to say at SCS).
Calling upon the help of the Holy Spirit to aid us on our individual and collective journeys felt different this year, but even more important. Fr. Peter Folan, a Jesuit at Georgetown and member of the Theology faculty, noted the extraordinary challenges facing our world and our university. The temptation for despair is ever-present, remarked Fr. Folan in his homily: “Hope is in short supply these days. That is why it bears repeating. The Spirit’s fire burns brightest when it looks like the flame of hope is about to be extinguished.” Fr. Folan issued a challenging invitation to the community to listen attentively to how the Spirit may be moving in us this year: “What is the fire burning in this collective community’s heart that must be spoken aloud?” He concluded with a reminder, especially in challenging times like these with the realities of global pandemic and persisting racial injustices, that we are all summoned to service: “Will the fire of the Spirit bring hope back into our world by reminding each of us that our lives are to be lived for others. Our educations are to be given away, so to speak, in service of others.”
As custom, President DeGioia concluded the mass with reflections about the year to come. He called attention this year to two critical ideas. First, President DeGioia affirmed the Jesuit character of Georgetown and celebrated the uniquely manifested gift of Jesuit hospitality that shows up in various ways at the university. He remarked:
“All of the members of the Jesuit community embody a characteristic virtue in practice. Hospitality. It’s another Jesuit, James Keenan, who describes Jesuit hospitality this way: ‘Our hospitality is a mobile one. Mobile because those who we serve are found throughout the whole earth.’
Tonight our Georgetown community is certainly found throughout the whole earth. You have, you will experience this welcoming, this hospitality when you are next here in this place. The distinctive aspect of Jesuit hospitality is that you can experience it wherever you are. I know you have experienced this in our special celebration tonight, in the celebration of this mass and in Fr. Folan’s beautiful homily. We are all witnesses to Jesuit hospitality.”
President DeGioia went on to offer that we as a university community can come together this year despite the physical distances that seem to separate us. He noted that the Spirit is always present, always available to meet us in our weakness and need for strength. According to President DeGioia, calling upon the Spirit for guidance is essential if we are to meet the major challenges facing the world: “What we believe, what our presence here together is witness to, is our conviction that the Spirit helps us in our weakness, that very Spirit intercedes for us. We can trust in the presence of the Spirit to guide us, in responding to these challenges.” He then named some of these pressing issues: a global pandemic, a financial crisis, an eroding civic culture, and an enduring legacy of slavery and segregation in our country.
President DeGioia concluded by making an explicit connection between the support provided by the Holy Spirit and the shared task of realizing racial justice at Georgetown:
“We have seen again this past week how urgent it is that we accept our responsibilities to address the original sin of this nation. So let me close by sharing these words by Austin Channing Brown from her book I’m Still Here. And I quote: ‘Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort. It is not a comfortable conversation for any of us. It is risky and messy. It is haunting work to recall the sins of the past. But is this not the work we have been called to anyway? Is this not the work of the Holy Spirit? To illuminate truth and inspire transformation. When we talk about race today and all the pain packed into that conversation the Holy Spirit remains in the room.’
The Spirit is here with us. The Spirit that will illuminate truth and inspire transformation. The Spirit that remains in the room. As we continue our journeys. As we engage in the challenging work ahead. This is what we celebrate tonight.”
Our journeys at SCS have already begun this fall. I invite all of us in this community to reflect on these themes of hospitality and hope. How are you finding hope these days? How are you growing more hospitable, more generous in your service of others? What and who do you call upon in times of need?
May the Holy Spirit, however you understand it in your own life, experience, and vision of a transcendent reality, bless you this year.