The following homily was delivered by Bishop Chad Zielinski on September 10, 2019 at a Gold Mass at St. Mark Catholic Church, located at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska.
As a high school student in the 1970s, I would watch a weekly TV series called “Paper Chase.” The storyline took place at a law school, and was about the interaction of students and professors. John Houseman, a British-American actor, played Professor Kingsfield. On the first day of Contract Law, Professor Kingsfield would begin class with his straightforward British wisdom, “You have come here with a skull full of mush and you will leave thinking like a lawyer.” As a young man, I was interested in law, and thought there was hope that I, too, might one day be transformed into a thinking lawyer.
That thirst for learning came from my father, who served 30 years as public school teacher, mostly teaching high school science. My father believed the most effective way to lift up an individual, community, or society is through education. This is why he would stay after school for hours to help struggling students. He lived out this same belief and work ethic as a parent.
My siblings and I grew up on a 120-acre small farm where the outdoors became a classroom. By eight, we could identify the genus and species of all the wild plants in the fields behind our house. Our dining room was another classroom, demonstrating the tension of human relationships and the power of God’s grace moving through our lives. Materially, we did not have much, but my parents had great faith and worked hard. I still remember being around 10 and seeing my father’s concerned eyes as he explained teachers were being “pink slipped” due to the failure of a recent school millage vote. The worry that he would lose his job went on for weeks.
I also recall my parents piling us into the 1975 Chevy station wagon and hauling the five Zielinski kids to Mass every Sunday. My father would kneel and pray with focused intensity. Whatever the burden or challenge, God seem to hear his prayers, and was bigger than the weight on his shoulders. More than 40 years later, after eight years of seminary, 23 years as a priest, and now as a bishop, my understanding of and love for the Catholic Mass has grown tremendously.
Historically, the Mass is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. Christ instituted the Mass at the Last Supper and it was celebrated in the context of the Jewish Passover. In the Last Supper, Christ references his sacrifice on Calvary and Resurrection, which are drawn together and re-presented in the Mass we celebrate today.
The first words of the Mass remind us of our relationship with the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who moves us to acknowledge our sins. In a sense, we present ourselves (myself with a “skull full of mush”!) and ask Christ in his mercy to draw us closer to be formed by him. We call the Mass a Sacred Mystery! We do not completely understand all the spiritual aspects of the liturgy, but we accept on faith that Christ has risen from the dead and has the power to redeem us, form us, and lead us to eternal life.
During the second part of Mass, you hear the priest begin the Eucharistic prayer by saying, “Pray friends that my sacrifice and yours be acceptable to God the almighty Father.” This reflects our belief in the Holy Spirit’s power to transform what is being offered.
There is a phrase that applies to all of us as we live our busy lives: “Overworked and underprayed.” Today’s reading from the Letter of St. Paul to Romans reminds us of our tendency to believe we control everything and God is an afterthought: “The spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” (Romans 8:26).
So what is the university’s trauma really about? Are we just praying for a few jobs to be spared from public funds that might arguably better go elsewhere? Why is a university important to the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church is the largest operator and sponsor of non-governmental universities in the world. There are around 250 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States alone. The Church played the central role in the invention of the university as a formal institution. For hundreds of years, European higher education took place in cathedral schools or monastic schools (scholae monasticae) and scholar monks were some of the only highly educated people of their time. These immediate predecessors of the university date back to the 6th century. Pope Gregory VII’s decree of 1079 regulated the establishment of cathedral schools, which in many cases became the first universities.
The first universities in Europe with a form of corporate/guild structure were the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c.1150), and the University of Oxford (1167). The first building at Oxford was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The first classes were held in the church and until the mid-1800s, all important university assemblies were held there.
It’s no surprise that the Church fostered the development of the university system. As historian Lowrie Daly stated, the Catholic Church was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.”
Some 81 universities had been established by the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Of these, 33 possessed a papal charter and 20 had both a royal and papal charter. Degrees awarded only by the approval of national monarchs were considered valid only in the kingdom in which they were issued, but degrees approved by a universal figure (most often the pope) meant the degree was respected throughout all of Christendom, directly fostering the idea of an international scholarly community.
Local citizens were often ambivalent or even hostile toward university students. A university certainly increased economic activity, but as we know, students can be immature and disruptive at times, too. Students and professors often complained the prejudice against them and the treatment they received. In response, the Church provided special protection to university students by extending to them what was known as the benefit of clergy. Clergymen in medieval Europe enjoyed a special legal status and it was a serious crime to lay a hand on them. If accused or vicimized, clergy had the right to have their cases heard in an ecclesiastical rather than a secular court. In this specific way, the Catholic Church made the decisive contribution to the universally accepted and essential concept of academic freedom.
Pope St John Paul II, a former university professor, wrote an Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) on higher education. The opening paragraph states: “A Catholic University's privileged task is ‘to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.’”
The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages and the Church today do not see a conflict between worship (contact with the revealed truth that is God) and higher education (the pursuit of truth in the secular realm). Truth cannot contradict truth. The Catholic considers the pursuit of truth as common to the mission of both the Church and the university, each with its own distinctive methods and mission.
The Gospel tells us we must have childlike trust in God. I come to Christ with nothing but trust because in the words of Professor Kingsfield, “You have come to this class with a skull full of mush and you will leave thinking like a lawyer.”
I thank all of you educators who are present, as well as your colleagues who may be missing, whose efforts have transformed young men and women into great professionals through education. Thank for your sacrifice! Be assured of my continued prayers during these challenging times.