As we gather to inaugurate a year of common study the purpose of which is the better to enable us to communicate God’s saving truth to the world, we have cause for joy and also for a certain solemnity.
We have a source of deep and abiding joy in the assurance that our labor is pleasing to God, who made us to know and to love him, and to make him better known and loved. To rejoice in the truth of God’s love is the good that all men seek, whether consciously or not, as our patron St. Augustine taught (Confessions X.xxiii.33). And in our own lives as students and teachers we have been able to verify the beautiful saying of St. Jerome that “true friendship cemented by Christ is where men are drawn together by the fear of God and the study of Divine Scripture.” Indeed, the chance to dedicate ourselves for a season to the study holy things is cause for rejoicing and for singular gratitude.
Our joy, however, ought perhaps to be somewhat solemn or sober. The very author of our joy, after all, warned his apostles: “They will persecute you just as they have persecuted me; they will pay the same attention to your words as to mine.” And when telling them of this, their fate, he seems to have been somewhat insistent in manner: “Do not forget what I have told you,” he said, implying that he had often said it, “no servant can be greater than his master” (John 15:20; Mgr. Knox’s translation). In an earlier stage of their instruction, in which he foretold his Passion and attempted to instill in his disciples a sense of the seriousness of their calling, the Master brought his admonition to a close with a particularly memorable metaphor. “Salt,” he said, “is a good thing, but if the salt becomes tasteless, what will you use to season it with? You must have salt in yourselves, and keep peace among you” (Mark 9:49). The wine of joy is a blessing that has a very important place in God’s kingdom, but the salt of truth and of truthfulness would seem to be the Christian’s more ordinary, daily fare.
It is perhaps not too great a leap of the imagination to see the course of theological instruction that you are now beginning as a response to the Master’s command “you must have salt in yourselves.” Truth, after all, is the great preservative of the soul. Whether we like it or not, we humans rule ourselves by the judgments we make about the various things that come before our senses. Should our judgments be faulty, we are ruled despotically by our disordered passions and, at length, are enslaved by sin, and, whether we know it or not, we do the bidding of the prince of this world. Should, however, our judgments be made in the light of truth, then the actions that flow from them will, by God’s grace, make us freer and better servants of Christ, the good Master and the King of Heaven.
To read attentively and faithfully the book of God’s Word, to learn from the example and teaching of Christ’s particular friends over the long course of years since Pentecost, to measure our own minds by the holy standard that is the life-giving doctrine of the Church, and to order all of these studies to the end of sharing the message of God’s love with the world: this is our common endeavor. Should we carry it out faithfully, we shall have the preservative of truth within us.
Even as he has bidden us to rejoice in the Gospel, our Holy Father Francis has also reminded us of the seriousness of our Christian commitment. Evangelization, he explains, “is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him.” These men and women, our very brothers and sisters, do not always wish to hear of God’s love, for they fear the consequences of accepting it. Nevertheless, the Holy Father tells us, they all “have a right to receive the Gospel,” from which it follows that we “have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone” (Evangelii Gaudium, #15).
What does this mean, a right to the Gospel? It means that no man can be denied the truth, as though it were the property of some special group or—though it be absurd even to say it—of one, very lonely, individual. For our minds reach out to the natures of things and to the origin and last end of all that is. Our intellect is a faculty that seeks light, that it may be cleansed, and that it may live in safe, healthy, holy communion with that light, however dimly we perceive it in this mortal world. Captivating fancy, advantageous technique, momentary enjoyment of sensible pleasure: these are private things, and they may differ from age to age and person to person without any great damage being done. But knowledge of the causes of things, of our nature and destiny as rational beings, and of the God who made us: this must belong to all, or it cannot heal, or save, or direct any of us as individuals, much less bring peace to ourselves and to our world.
The greatest truth, the one of which we and the whole world most stand in need, is the truth of God’s love, revealed to us in the sending of his Son (1 John 3:9). This truth is the salt that keeps us fresh and makes our lives savory and profitable. Of all truths, this is the one most to be rejoiced in and most widely and freely to be shared.
And so, we undertake this year of sacred study as a time to store up the salt of truth and of godliness and of peace. Let us rejoice in the opportunity we have been given, but let us rejoice soberly, as befits men and women called to serve Christ the Lord.
The proper temper of our joy was expressed in a stirring prayer written some five centuries ago by St. John Fisher. Like you, he dedicated himself to a season of study prior to answering God’s call to follow the apostles. Later, he was the only English bishop to stand with St. Thomas More against Henry VIII, and he sealed his fidelity by making a gift of his life to Christ. In 1508, long decades before the troubles began in England, Fisher made this his supplication:
Lord, according to your promise that the Gospel should be preached throughout the whole world, raise up men fit for such work. The Apostles were but soft and yielding clay till they were baked hard by the fire of the Holy Ghost. So, good Lord, do now in like manner with thy Church militant; change and make the soft and slippery earth into hard stones; set in thy Church strong and mighty pillars that may suffer and endure great labours, watching, poverty, thirst, hunger, cold and heat; which also shall not fear the threatenings of princes, persecution, neither death but always persuade and think with themselves to suffer with a good will, slanders, shame, and all kinds of torments, for the glory and laud of thy Holy Name. By this manner, good Lord, the truth of thy Gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world. Therefore, merciful Lord, exercise thy mercy, show it indeed upon thy Church.
This austere prayer was made by a young priest who had already tasted the joy of apostolic labor and desired to be made more fit for his vocation. As we commence our academic year, may we offer similar prayers to Christ, and may we all make use of this precious and joyous time of study that we may have salt in ourselves.