Remarks by Father Xavier Lavagetto at the Mass to Honor Saint Mary’s 150th Anniversary Year

September 15, 2012

Following the Gospel: Mark 8: 27-35

I am in awe of those who have memory for names, especially at events like today’s. I am so nervous about missing a name at introductions that I invariably don’t hear it, let alone remember it! … I hate people like the movie star James Cagney, who had a phenomenal memory. His wife told this story:

“One day … we were getting into a car in New York, and [James] saw a man across the street. ‘You see that fellow over there? He sat next to me in school. His name is Nathan Skidelsky.’ ‘Prove it,’ I told him. ‘Go and say hello.’ So he did. And you know what? It was Nathan Skidelsky. The only problem was, he didn't know who James Cagney was.”

When people we know fail to recognize us, we are disappointed. But when people we know well fail to understand us, we are hurt. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” …  And he got hurt.

On the surface, Peter had it right, “You are the Messiah,” so far so good. “[Jesus then] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly …, and be killed, and rise after three days.” A very caring Peter takes Jesus aside and as our text says, “he began to rebuke him.” You see Messiah’s aren’t supposed to suffer; they’re supposed to conquer. Too often Christians and eve the Church have forgotten Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not the warrior Messiah. Peter is tempting Jesus to be a political Messiah who grabs power, glory, and victory. Peter didn’t get Jesus; he didn’t understand the Jesus way. Peter knew the title but little else. And so Jesus barks, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” …   Now being dense, I take great comfort that Jesus didn’t send Peter packing; he tells him, Get behind me, Peter … He is saying:  Get back in line behind me Peter. He is as much as saying, Peter, go back to school!

On this 150th anniversary, this sesquicentennial, we look back to a Dominican and we look back to the Brothers. Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany was a little guy with the very tall dream of building the church. They were raw times, hard times, the Gold Rush gave birth to wealth but also to greed and chaos. He wanted a school and so in 1855, he gave permissions to the Jesuits. Yes they were here first! But the Archbishop too soon became disenchanted; he said the curriculum was too narrow and the tuition too high. They were doing enough for youth. So from a school in the basement of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Saint Mary’s College was born in 1863. … Like so many start-ups, it didn’t go well! The clergy weren’t teachers. At one point, funds were so scarce that the Archbishop took in delinquents remanded by the court. After a faculty strike and a student riot, he thought better of the idea of trying to run a school. He wanted the Christian Brothers; he wanted them bad. Alemany begged the Brother’s repeatedly but they kept turning him down for they were stretched too. So Alemany did want any newly minted American would do … get a bigger gun! He traveled to see the Pope. As Alemany later told the people of San Francisco, “I made a journey of 20,000 miles (well, not literally) to get the Brothers. I have at last succeeded. Let us give thanks to God.”

The story is fascinating. But it would need a Brother “Max” Raphael to lecture on it, a Brother Kyran to paint it, a Brother Carl to cinematize it, a Brother Albert Rahill to toast, both Springers to teach it, a Robert Haas to rhapsodize about it, a Madigan to publicize it, a Sister Clare to pray it, a Professor Ted Tsukahara to climb back in the phone booth for the picture, a Professor Frances Sweeney to organize the students, a Brother Donald Mansir to internationalize it, and a Brother Mel Anderson to be everywhere. This College has been literally littered with great people, great students and great books. Saint Mary’s is more than a list of names, it is a dynamic.

In the classes, on the field, in the dorms, at the Brickpile and the Barn, people’s lives were touched, minds expanded and hearts grew. You wouldn’t be here if Saint Mary’s hadn’t touched you and you had touched each other deeply.

College is such a privileged period. Life was rich with possibilities, with new ideas and new discoveries, spiced with exuberance, laughter and not a few parties. And did we talked and argued, and talked so more, in the classroom and out, with an earnestness and a serious, with playfulness and urgency. If you think about it, those conversations changed our lives; they named us and they helped us understand all that is around us. And through it all, with every sound of the bells, with every singing of the alma mater, with every passing the chapel doors, with so many classes, Jesus still asked, Who do you say that I am? .. but he also asked:  Who do you say you are? …  Let’s be real: it is how seriously we pursue those questions that empower us to face the simply inevitable suffering that Peter wanted to spare Jesus.  It is in wrestling with surprise and wonder, that we were most alive. 

Sadly, College went too fast. Too quickly the really important questions were replaced by those of the market; too soon friendships gave way to associates. Too readily the opened mind took the short cut of easily repeated sound-bites. Too quickly the conversations faded.

A sesquicentennial is a time to celebrate the vitality of the past and a challenge to reclaim it now. We honor the College best when we live its lessons best. Let the conversation begin again:

  • Wrestle with great books, with the scriptures and theology, with the philosophy and science, with the literature and the poetry, with those seminal works that inspired generations. Be an insight seeker!
  • Wrestle with the issues of the day. Question the sound bites and ask the hard questions, seek the evidence. Be truth seekers.
  • Wrestle with the spirit of this age that wants to win by making others losers. At. St. Mary’s I saw so many people bridged differences; they destroyed their enemies by making them friends. Be friendship makers.
  • Wrestle in your heart with the great example of so many students. I especially thank the Student Lasallian communities on campus, the many alumni who became Lasallian or Jesuit or Peace Corp Volunteers, the volunteers who helped after Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti, Americorp and more. Be brothers and sisters!
  • Wrestle with your God. God still touches hearts.… For Catholic and non-Catholic, for believers and for non…the ineffable is still here. Be people of wonderment. 

In 178 AD, Bishop Irenaeus in what is now Lyon, France, said, “The glory of God is man — men and women — fully alive.’  Be alive and I promise you, when we stand before him and are asked: Who do you say that I am? .., Who do you say you are? …  And I promise, you will give good answer.

More than even we need people who know how to engage others in challenging and life giving conversations. Don’t leave it to a time in the past. — Be Saint Mary’s again.

Be Saint Mary’s now.

Live Jesus in our hearts!