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Fr. Art's Reflections

Fr. Arthur Liebscher, S.J.
Jesuit Alumni Liaison

July 2020

Mission church in the evening

I vividly recall my graduation from Santa Clara, even after these many years, and I have enjoyed being a faculty participant at dozens of commencements in the intervening decades. When we bring together each year’s class, togged out in academic colors and sitting with their friends, we reaffirm Santa Clara’s life. Every year, our graduates celebrate their accomplishments, and the traditional pomp reaffirms the momentous sense of the occasion. This year, the graduates enter a world that needs them and their education more than ever before.

The spirit of Santa Clara lives, one way or another, in everyone who graduates. In some fashion, we all carry SCU in our hearts and minds as we negotiate the paths of life. We learn some things in class—knowledge, skills, an ethical horizon, critical ability, and, yes, an awareness of the transcendent. Beyond the classroom, on the campus, we build key relationships founded on mutual respect and belonging. Our graduates remain part of a university community whose influence, often quietly, shapes their future choices.

Commencement 2020 was no different—except, of course, it was very different.

On June 13 graduates and their families watched an online ceremony from around the country and the world. They had a surprise speaker, California governor and fellow alum Gavin Newsom ’89. They heard commendations from an array of Santa Clarans distinguished in government, sports, education, public service, and business. Pandemic-appropriate celebrations marked the moment, both here and elsewhere. I spoke with graduates later, and they expressed enthusiasm, gratitude, and pride.

At Santa Clara these graduates learned confidence in their own abilities, and they came to understand humanity as a world community to which they can and will contribute. Their education has helped them understand other peoples and ways of life, and they have realized that learning is, in fact, a global endeavor joining peoples from our part of North America to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. With their growing acquaintance with world cultures, they have come to comprehend the broken state of human existence. Racism, vast inequality, systemic violence, and denied opportunity all testify to the reality that original sin has power in our world.

Inevitably, the Mission Church itself, very much the symbol of our campus, reminds us our fractured but still hopeful nature of our existence. Self-sacrifice and zeal for the native peoples marked the lives of the original missionaries. Still, as is often said, “cross and sword” traveled together. The missions established European civilization in Alta California, and Spanish troops imposed control, often through force and intimidation.

When Santa Clara College was founded in 1851, California had recently passed to the United States in the wake of the Mexican-American War. In his 1979 book The University of Santa Clara: A History, 1851–1977, the late Fr. Gerald McKevitt described the multiethnic student body of the young college—Mexican and californio residents and usually Catholic settlers from North America and Europe [pp. 39–43]. The tide of expansionism spurred by the Gold Rush and California’s statehood soon overwhelmed their mid-century world. The new, American California offered great opportunity, but the new arrivals suppressed the native peoples, pushed aside the Spanish-speakers, and exploited arriving Chinese workers. Standing as a witness to these waves of change, the Mission Church reminds us that oppression and violence have many faces.

The Mission, of course, is a place of worship that celebrates the Crucified Jesus, through whom many of us have placed our faith in God. We’re sometimes tempted to think that the history of sin and oppression means that God is, at best, irrelevant. That’s an error. Human failure shows our need for salvation and rescue. Christ himself experienced the effects humanity’s sinfulness, and his teaching reminds us that the lives of people on the margins matter to God. The lives of the first people matter. Undocumented lives matter. And, especially at this time in our nation's history, Black Lives Matter.

If those who are vulnerable don’t matter, none of us matter. We’re all part of one society, one nation, one campus. Santa Clara’s influence in California and the nation depends on our striving for breadth and reconciliation both on our campus and beyond. In late June Association President Melina Johnson ’01 and Alumni Relations director Kathy Kale ’86 called us to "look critically at the work we do. We must ask difficult questions. And we must create firm, actionable responses….”

For me, a well-intentioned but aging white man—albeit a long-time student of the Latin American world—it’s easy to embrace a vague commitment to social betterment. However genuine our intentions, we struggle to find a way toward conversation, imagination, and great-heartedness. Even though the path remains uncertain, our Santa Clara heritage demands that we pledge ourselves to building a just and unified community. Our students and our new alumni deserve as much.

[I’m grateful to History Prof. Emeritus Robert Senkewicz for his helpful comments as I prepared these thoughts. AFLsj]

Fr. Arthur Liebscher, S.J.
Jesuit Alumni Liaison

 

Stack of wooden blocks spelling LOVE

With Memorial Day just behind us and with a good measure of quarantine-inspired introspection, I find myself still contemplating the generation that survived depression and World War II. I have a photo of my dad taken on Bougainville, now Papua New Guinea, in 1944. Two years earlier, following Pearl Harbor, he had resigned an exempt engineering job and became a Navy Sea Bee officer. In the photo, dressed in field khakis, he holds the handset of a crank telephone precariously mounted on a wooden tent support. My mom served as a nurse on Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. Like everyone, they were part of the war effort.

In March, this section of Bronco Connect offered comments on finding faith in the world and then, in April, faith in the midst of crisis. Last month, it started with the Greatest Generation as an inspiration for hope in times of struggle. Now, in June, tradition pushes to the third essential virtue, which is charity or simply “love.” The generation of depression and world war might not have called itself “charitable,” much less “loving,” but its sacrifice and dedication helped build national community and became the bedrock shaping the second half of the twentieth century.

Our Santa Clara campus is living through another historic moment. Normally, we would be winding down the year, cementing friendships, locking in future employment, and getting ready for graduation. Student organizations would celebrate achievements and enjoy the final weeks together. Sunbathers would decorate the lawns, and yard-games would dot the student neighborhood. Not this year.

The pandemic has diminished the rituals and celebrations that shape memories and stir collective affection. Still, in the midst of disruption and uncertainty, the Mission Campus remains part of our lives. It tugs at hearts, sometimes strongly, sometimes tenuously, but always present in our life stories.

The things that bind us together, college and beyond, point us toward this virtue called charity. We often think of “charity” as something we do, such as giving to the needy or helping with a non-profit. These things are essential, but they result from charity, which, in Christianity, is rooted in the love coming from God. It is the life of God flowing through us and binding us to others. However we understand such things spiritually or philosophically, we all know some sense of unity with other humans. Our good desires to sustain and build-up come out of awareness of a shared existence among all people.

At Santa Clara, we often speak of educating young people to serve others. Charity, love, and purpose emerge from who we are more than what we do. We fail our mission if we try to lay service and ethical behavior onto young shoulders already burdened by expectations and demands. Instead, our sense of service has roots in human unity. In charity and God’s love, we are all one. Santa Clara strives to open students to this reality.

On June 13 our graduates will appear in a virtual forum for a commencement event. In another year, I’d be getting a haircut and airing out my academic regalia. Neither is happening, although we hope to celebrate this class again in the year ahead. This month, I’ll ponder how much these young people have become part of my life and hope they stay in each other’s lives. They are Santa Clara alumni; they live in our hearts, and, I hope, we live in theirs. Borrowing from St. Paul (I Cor 13:13), together we find “faith, hope, and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

Fr. Arthur Liebscher, S.J.
Jesuit Alumni Liaison

 

Scrabble tiles spelling the word HOPE.

Born in the baby boom after World War II, I was raised by parents from the "Greatest Generation," people born in the first quarter of the last century. They survived both the Great Depression and then they went to war, and the turmoil and danger of both may have made them more open to faith lived within in family and community—often imperfectly, but always with an accompanying hope that their dedication would bring about a better world.

As we enter another month of pandemic and quarantine, we who have succeeded the Greatest Generation—all the way through Millennials and Gen Z—wonder about the future. What lies ahead for ourselves, our families, and our communities? For many, the epidemic's personal and financial damage will require years to unravel. In this time, as I noted last month, we might find the faith needed to commit ourselves to the task ahead. Faith is a "theological virtue," a gift from God, and living it out requires the second great virtue, then one shown by the Greatest Generation: enduring hope.

In our world of politics, power, and tech, if or when we believe, we often hold onto a private faith, with a hope focused on our own improvement, satisfaction, and, maybe, personal salvation. Nonetheless, as believers, we always belong to a community, and our faith needs communal vision. A community grasp of faith does not mean entering the culture wars about private morality, lifestyles, and private freedoms. Those are distinct questions tied more to individuality than community. Instead, community-focused faith looks for a vision that inspires, sustains, and shapes our decisions as individuals and as a people.

The virtue of hope, exactly like faith, comes to us as a gift, and we live it as individuals within a local, church, and worldwide community. Hope does not mean a perpetual cheeriness worthy of Pollyanna. For us, hope lies in realizing that we have the wherewithal to build a future for ourselves, our communities, and our world. Acknowledging good times and bad, joy and suffering, hope directs our yearning to that which we genuinely need.

Our Santa Clara education gave us each some unique expertise useful in this moment. We also learned to understand ourselves as people whose activity affects communities and our planet. Public health, education, and sustainable livelihoods all demand our attention. Our future is at stake, and we know that we can contribute to its creation. Our lives, individually and together, have meaning for the world.

As we face and then overcome this crisis, Santa Clara needs its alumni. That comment is not intended as an oblique way of asking for donations, although, certainly, our students need special help in these days. In a broader sense, we can support SCU education by encouraging young people to choose a Santa Clara education in the coming years. We may be able to offer mentoring to students and young graduates as they face a very changed reality. We can recognize that some fellow alumni will benefit from a community that helps them rebuild. Santa Clara will remain vital if we make it vital.

God will give us hope, but practical hoping will spring up from each of us embracing our talents, our generosity, and our willingness to embrace the vast task that lies ahead.

Fr. Arthur Liebscher, S.J.
Jesuit Alumni Liaison

 

A few weeks ago, I offered Bronco Connect some hopeful thoughts about “finding God in all things,” which is an idea central to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In the intervening weeks, the tragedy of the coronavirus cannot help but leave us wondering, “Where are you, Lord?”

As I write this, the Santa Clara campus sits beautiful but lonely. For spring quarter, Santa Clara students are studying remotely as they adjust their living arrangements, struggle with bandwidth, and wonder what the future holds. Surrounding shops and churches remain silent. Inevitably, the homeless lurk just beyond our sight.

Where could God possibly be? Who could this God be? If we “find God,” it will be the God is who truly is, not the one we fear or desire. We might think God is punishing humanity, likely for the sins of people we dislike. On the other hand, we might think of God as merely a benign figure, one expected to answer our requests, who becomes irrelevant in times of crisis.

The real God neither punishes us nor dotes over us. The real God gives us life and walks with us in all of our experiences. “Finding God” means we are open to move, always forward, on a journey—challenged but learning, taking responsibility as partners in the divine project of creation and salvation. The real God treats us as grown-ups.

On March 27, Pope Francis directed comments and a blessing urbi et orbi, “to the city and the globe.” The pope recalled, from Mark’s Gospel, the story of the disciples who looked for Jesus’ protection in a storm [Mark 4:35–41]. Using the image of the passage, the pope did not shy from the terror of the moment: “Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives...We find ourselves afraid and lost...We were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm.”

The pope continued, “We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other...We have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.” We are in the same boat, struggling.

Where, then, do we discover God? Francis prayed, “You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgment but of our judgment—a time to choose what matters and what passes away...” We find God in the judgments and choices we make.

Our communities suffer not only from the illness, terrible as it is, but also from economic disaster. For the future of the world, we have to sacrifice—staying inside, canceling events, and missing opportunities and future memories. We have to care for ourselves and those we love, and as time goes on, we must consider how we care for and consider the values of a society that isn’t prepared to help the lonely, the powerless, the outcasts, and all those most in need.

We discover God in the real world, not the world of our dreams. Our usual community support—entertainment, school, socializing, and maybe church—have vanished, probably for months to come. Still, we can pray, together with our families and friends. Prayer is never solitary; it joins us to God and to everyone who prays.

In the midst of this crisis, we have the opportunity to find reasons to value and be grateful for life. Anyone who has lived has something to regret but so much more to celebrate. If we are openhearted, this event will let us grow in gratitude for our lives and those of all the people who share our journey.

Inevitably, we will lose some part of the life we knew, and loss will bring on mourning. Grief is inevitable, but it can also yield a new engagement with the reality of our lives, our humanity, and our God. Pope Francis tells us that this is a time to choose “what is necessary from what is not.” In this moment of trial, we can examine our times and commit ourselves to the future as it unfolds. With God’s help, this time of our human judgment will move the human family forward. In that choice and recommitment, we shall glimpse God.

Fr. Arthur Liebscher, S.J.
Jesuit Alumni Liaison

 

How can we start defining “Jesuit education”? We often talk about “Jesuit values” or “Jesuit philosophy,” and, often enough, we boil that down to phrases like “persons for others,” “women and men of service,” and “social justice.” These worthy ideals entirely fit the spirit of the founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, and they provide help in navigating the multifaceted world of higher education Still, Ignatius never exactly said any of those things, which reflect life in the 20th. and 21st. centuries more than the saint’s 16th-century world.

One of our workaday phrases stands close to what we do at Santa Clara and also to the writings of Ignatius: “Finding God in all things.” The thought finds its roots in one of the foundational meditations of the Spiritual Exercises, the Contemplación para alcanzar amor, that is, the “Contemplation for arriving at love.” In it, he writes: 

 . . . God dwells in creatures: in the elements giving them existence, in the plants giving them life, in the animals conferring upon them sensation, in humanity, giving us understanding. So God dwells in me and gives me being, life, sensation, intelligence; and He makes a temple of me. . . . (Louis Puhl, S.J., trans., The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, 1951, § 235)

 . . . God works . . . for me in all creation . . . [and] conducts Himself as [an artisan,] one who labors. Thus, in [all things, God] gives being, conserves them, confers life and [gives them] sensation. (§236)

The Spiritual Exercises are just that: exercises for the spiritual life. They present a series of meditations that build a context for both prayer and activity. Like physical exercise, spiritual exercise brings refreshment and strength while opening new possibilities of experience. The Exercises echo the spiritual life and theology of the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. Ignatius’s genius lay in gathering and shaping the ideas and meditations in a way that fuse contemplative awareness of God with a life in the world. Here we encounter another Ignatian byword: “contemplation in action.”

The idea that God sustains all existence suffuses the Spiritual Exercises as it does, of course, all Christian belief. The Exercises are further rooted in the Catholic assertion that Christ’s salvation pours holiness not only into individual believers but also into the community of the faithful and, through us, into the material universe. Creation is essentially holy, not essentially corrupt, and from this, we derive a sense of sacrament—that in Jesus, God is present in our lives and in our world. Such “theological optimism,” the awareness of omnipresent grace, lies at root of Ignatius’s worldview. Admittedly, fear, cynicism, and division all thrive, and the thing we call sin debases and degrades the sanctity of existence. Still, within all creation glows the light of holiness.

For this reason, we at Santa Clara pursue learning as an essential part of spirituality. Everything we do on campus—teaching, research, student activities, support services of many kinds—all this is not only worthwhile; it is also sacred. We engage the world because it is holy, and we hope that our students, both undergraduate and graduate, acquire an attitude of reverence as they contemplate the sanctity of being.

In those same paragraphs Ignatius continues:

 . . . my limited power comes from the supreme and infinite power above, and so, too, justice, goodness, and mercy descend from above as the rays of light descend from the sun and as the waters flow from their fountains. Thus, I will reflect upon myself. . . . (§237)

Wherever our origins, whatever our situation, our very existence merits respect. The idea may be more attractive than it is attainable. The contemporary situation challenges us to find ways to responsibly and respectfully address human relationship, governmental policy, the distribution of wealth, and the protection of our common resources.

At Santa Clara we hope that we can guide our students to find meaning, significance, and purpose all around them. We each bring unique background, life experience, and understanding of our place in the universe. We stand with Ignatius in affirming that God’s goodness touches all of us. Let us, in our lives, reflect on ourselves, on the blessings we know, and on our work for young people and the world they enter.

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