The Pursuit of Truth

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The following is Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades’ homily at the opening Mass of the 2021-22 academic year at the University of Saint Francis Aug. 25.

It is wonderful to be with you today to celebrate this Mass of the Holy Spirit as you begin a new academic year here at the University of Saint Francis. A special welcome to all the new students, faculty and staff who join the USF community!

Why do Catholic universities begin an academic year with the Mass of the Holy Spirit? We do so because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and a Catholic university’s fundamental mission is to pursue the truth. Jesus said to the disciples in the Gospel today: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you to all truth.” It makes sense for a university that is dedicated to the pursuit of Truth to call upon the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity. That is what we do at this Mass. We are praying to the Holy Spirit to guide you, lift you up and inspire you as you begin this academic year. We are praying for His gifts, the gifts enumerated in our first reading today from the book of the prophet Isaiah: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord. When we are open to and receive these gifts, our lives are enriched. The Holy Spirit opens our minds to understanding better the meaning behind the things we learn and to grasp the greatness and love behind everything we learn about the universe and about human life.

Students, you will be studying many things in your different classes, accumulating knowledge and expertise in your various majors, learning skills for your future careers. The same would happen if you were attending Purdue Fort Wayne or Indiana Tech or Ivy Tech. But here at the University of Saint Francis, you encounter something more because this is a Catholic university. What is this “something more”? If you look at the mission statement of the University of Saint Francis and Franciscan values that are listed, you get a little idea of what “this something more” is. The mission statement says that USF is rooted in the Catholic traditions of faith and reason. It lists values like reverencing the unique dignity of each person and respecting creation. Looking at the mission statement and the values, one can ask: “Well, what is behind them? What is their basis?” Their basis, their foundation, is the pursuit of truth! This is why the Catholic Church started the first universities in the world over 800 years ago.

Nowadays, colleges and universities express their mission and purpose in various ways. Often, they refer to improving the world or educating leaders to serve society. They often articulate utilitarian purposes — like educating people for jobs and professions. Of course, these are fine and important goals. But our lives are more than what we do or will do, more than careers and jobs. Catholic higher education gets at this something more. As I said, this “something more” is the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of truth for its own sake. The pursuit of truth transcends pragmatics and utility. It should involve our hearts as well as our minds. A full pursuit of truth involves the whole person — body, mind, and spirit. Education then becomes a truly joyful endeavor. St. Augustine spoke of the joy of truth, “gaudium de veritate,” the joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge.

Education becomes boring when it limits itself to studying data or imparting facts. Education becomes exciting and life-giving when there is an integration of knowledge, when education looks to quench the thirst for truth that is profoundly inscribed in the heart of the human person. This is what Catholic education aims to do. Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “it is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth… Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic university is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, the human being, and God.”

What is truth? It is the mind being in accord with reality. Through our human reason, we can come to know reality and have the ability to make judgments about reality. In the university, we have the study of the natural sciences. Scientists research and study the physical universe. There are many nursing students here at USF. You study biology and chemistry. These are fields of knowledge. Judgments about reality are made — the reality of the functionings of the human body. There are objective truths of science. In a Catholic university, we also have the study of theology. Theologians research and study the world beyond the physical – God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Both scientists and theologians are engaged in the pursuit of truth. A distinctive feature of a Catholic university like USF is that it promotes dialogue between faith and reason. We are not religious fundamentalists who ignore what science tells us. We value science. In fact, some of the first great scientists were Catholic priests.

Faith doesn’t replace reason. It transforms reason, imbuing it with the power to contemplate the highest truths. Science has its limits. Truth encompasses more than what can be empirically verified. Science cannot tell us who man is, where he comes from or where he is going. Authentic Catholic universities reject the materialism that reduces the horizon of truth. Faith widens the horizons of rationality. We see faith and reason as bearing “harmonious witness to the unity of all truth.” Reason and faith never truly conflict with each other since they both have their origin in the Supreme Truth who is God.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” In a Catholic understanding, the world can be explored through faith and reason. Faith imbues reason with the power to contemplate the highest truths. Faith enriches both the intellectual and moral pursuits of a Catholic university. That is why your education here at USF should also include the cultivation of virtue. You should graduate from USF not only smarter, but better, more virtuous. A truly Catholic education is also an education in goodness.

It is my hope and prayer that you take full advantage of the opportunities to pursue truth and to grow in virtue during this new academic year. I pray that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, will guide you and strengthen you. At the center of this campus is the beautiful Chapel of Saint Francis. I invite all of you, whether you are Catholic, members of other communities of faith, or seekers without a religious affiliation, to stop in that chapel during the day to speak with the Lord, to listen to His voice within your hearts, or to just rest and relax in the presence of the Lord. I pray that there you will experience His grace and His love. I hope that this university will help you to cultivate your friendship with God. Each of us has a soul which is our “capacity for relatedness with truth, with love eternal,” our capacity for relatedness with God. Knowing and loving Him is what brings meaning and joy to our lives and to our intellectual pursuits. This is what brought meaning and joy to your holy patron, St. Francis of Assisi. In this new academic year, may the Holy Spirit guide you by His holy inspiration, and may St. Francis intercede for you!