By the Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila
Archbishop of Denver
August 25, 2014
President McLean, honored faculty and students, it is truly a great joy to be with you here today. I have looked forward to seeing this campus for a number of years.
Forty-six years ago, when I went to college, it was in great contrast to what I am experiencing here today with you. I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder. There were over 2,000 students in my freshman class, and I remember being told, “Wait here,” and being handed the registration form for my classes and not having a clue what to do with it, or even what classes to take. And then the person asked me, “Where did you go to high school?” I said, “I went to Crespi Carmelite in Encino, and there were 104 students in my class.” She then looked at me and said, “We have a special place for students like you to go.” That began my learning experience.
Never in my wildest imagination at that point in time did I think that I would be a priest, let alone an archbishop. Those four years of college were, very honestly, four years that I would never, ever want to go through again because of society at that time. At times when I tell new seminarians about it, they just look at me like, “Are you serious? There was that much turmoil?” Yes, the whole sexual revolution was taking place. The cultural revolution was taking place. There were student strikes taking place. There was the canceling of classes taking place, and education was not taken all that seriously. It was only when I did my graduate studies as an already ordained priest — because even my seminary formation was not that good — that I really began to discover the goodness and the truth and the beauty of education, and especially of Catholic education.
It is good we gather here today to commit ourselves to the most worthy of endeavors — the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty, which is ultimately the pursuit of God. It was beauty that drew me to the University of Colorado. As I shared with President McLean yesterday, when I drove over the hill from the road that goes from Denver to Boulder and I saw the beauty of the campus and the Flatirons and the mountains that sit behind the campus, I said to myself, “This is where I am going to school.” Little knowing that that beauty would change my heart and soften my heart, and open my heart to the truth of God and to the goodness of God.
I can remember being on top of a mountain, getting ready to ski down, and looking out and thinking to myself, “Who am I to have this, this sheer majesty and beauty that surrounds me?” It was precisely in that question and in that encounter that I discovered God’s love, that God had given me that moment to see and to recognize that beauty is His gift and as a revelation of Who He is.
This morning, we reflected on the difference between the two ways to obtain wisdom: First there is man’s prideful grasping at wisdom, and then there is God’s path to true wisdom, which requires, most of all, the virtue of humility. It is that virtue of humility that we must embrace. It was humility that I was taught in that encounter with beauty, that I was nothing compared to the beauty that surrounded me. And then I discovered the uniqueness of my own beauty in the eyes of God, that God had created me in His image and likeness, had placed me at this point in history, had placed me on this mountain to encounter Him. It is all gift. What humility recognizes most is the gift of God’s love, the gift of God’s goodness, and His particular call to each one of us.
This morning at Mass we heard the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, which at the heart is about the battle between how to obtain wisdom — whether to follow our own course, and the course of secular society, or to follow the course of God, and encounter God. In the Babylonian language the word “babel” means “gate of God.” Genesis tells us that “the people desired to make a name for themselves by building a city and a tower with its top in the heavens.” With this etymological background and the insights of Scripture we are able to see the decision to build the Tower of Babel was rooted in pride. It represented an attempt by the people of Babel to force their way into heaven, to access the Divine through their own power and wisdom. Some scholars have noted that it might have even been an attempt to escape another epic flood and protect them from God’s judgment — yet another exercise in pride and self-reliance.
The story of the Tower of Babel is really an echo of the lie that Satan whispered in the ear of Eve as he tempted her to eat of the fruit of the tree that God had warned them not to eat. The devil spoke to her heart: “You certainly will not die. God knows well that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, who know good and evil” — the great temptation to be God.
For the people of Babel this lie took the form of believing that they could obtain heavenly wisdom on their own without God. Throughout history the same story has repeated itself with slightly different twists to the plot but always the same essential elements. Our current culture’s twist on this narrative has its roots in the French Enlightenment, which declared that science and reason are the only measures of truth, and that faith and religion must be dismissed as superstition. We have heard Pope Emeritus Benedict speak to the Dictatorship of Relativism that totally rejects the truth. Young people, it is important for you to understand that truth exists, that it is real.
I one time was talking with a philosophy professor. When the students came into his class in their freshman year, he asked them if they believed in the truth, and if truth was real. And of course, being formed by the secular world, they said, “Well, no. Everybody has his or her own different truth.” The waves of relativism flowed out of the young people’s mouths. He then looked at them and said, “Well, if you truly believe that, then my truth tells me that women are smarter than men, and all the women in my class are going to get A’s, and all the men are going to flunk.” He said, “That is my truth.” And of course there was all sorts of hemming and hawing going on. Then he looked at them and said, “Then you do believe in objective truth. You do believe that there are ways to tell.” It is important — and certainly that is a frivolous example in some ways — but it is out there in our world today.
Pope St. John Paul the Great, in his two wonderful encyclicals Veritatis Splendor, the splendor of the truth, and Fides et Ratio, faith and reason — hopefully you will study those two encyclicals — has pointed out so clearly the need for faith and reason to be our two wings, and the need for every Christian to embrace the beauty of truth itself. Because we know truth is a person. It is Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, Who identifies Himself as truth. We also know that the only true road to freedom is if we live in the truth. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
It is important to embrace that. You, my dearest freshmen, are blessed to be attending Thomas Aquinas College. You are blessed because it is an academic institution that acknowledges that true wisdom comes from God, not from the latest technological or scientific advances, divorced from faith and a true understanding of the human person. In these halls of learning, you will have the chance to seek God and His truth, to experience the beauty that surrounds you in these hills, the beauty of this campus and the Chapel. You will have the experience of the beauty of community and worship, and to know the life-changing goodness of an intimate friendship and communion with the Father, with Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit — and with one another.
I encourage you to set forth on your educational journey with confidence and trust that God alone understands the human heart and knows what will lead to your true happiness. As the Psalmist says, “Lord, you have probed me, You know me, You know when I sit and stand. You understand my thoughts from afar.” Let that truth remain with you as you seek wisdom and understanding.
I also urge you to make the most of this time in your life when you are able to dive into the great books and engage in the pursuit of virtues, above all. I pray that during these four years you will truly fall more deeply in love with the Trinity, with the Father, with Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit. I pray you will truly develop a personal relationship with each person of the Holy Trinity. For they, the three persons in the one God, are the source of all that is true, good, and beautiful. And their deepest desire for each one of you — whether you believe it or not — is that you share in that, to be truly happy.
As St. Thomas Aquinas, your patron saint, prayed: “Grant me, O Lord, my God, a mind to know You, a heart to seek You, wisdom to find You, conduct pleasing to You, faithful perseverance in waiting for You, and a hope of finally embracing You.” I pray that his prayer may become your prayer, that God will bless you abundantly in these four years. But also know that you must cooperate. You must be willing to receive the truth and say “yes” to it. That is essential, because God leaves you free either to recognize His truth, His goodness, and His beauty, or to say no to it.
I pray that you will give it a resounding “yes,” and that you will discover the Father’s plan for your life. My plan was to be a doctor. The Father’s plan was that I be His priest and bishop. He has a particular plan for each and every one of you. May you receive that plan and discover the joy that only He can bestow.
God bless you all.
“It was at the College when I began to take my faith seriously. The community life, all the people, the faculty, the staff — and the Mass — all that really helped.”
– Br. Robert Nesbit, O.S.B. (’07)