SCU President Kevin O’Brien, S.J. Celebrates Gentleness and Gratitude of St. Ignatius
Two key tenets of Jesuit founder offer “a call to conscience” for today’s world.
For his first major homily as the 29th President of Santa Clara University, Kevin O’Brien, S.J., on Wednesday couldn’t have asked for a more inspired occasion: the celebration of the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, O’Brien’s clerical order that also guides SCU.
July 31 memorializes the 1556 death of Ignatius, but it was the Jesuit saint’s life and lessons from his “spiritual exercises” — faith-deepening habits and practices— that O’Brien focused on during the midday Mass at the Mission Church.
Before an audience of several hundred faculty, staff, students and community members, the university’s new president outlined two particular Ignatian virtues–gentleness and gratitude–which he believes everyone can practice more often.
“Imagine if were more gentle with one another… if we were more open to learn from another,” he asked the congregation. “Imagine if we put communication with one another in the context of love: a mutual giving and receiving… realizing that no one has a monopoly on truth.”
O’Brien also challenged congregants to live “more gratefully, realizing that we are steeped in God’s presence.”
Calling on our Better Angels
It’s not always easy, he acknowledged. Being gentle is hard, for instance, when we meet people with whom we disagree, or when “we are surrounded with politics that is so often coarse and divisive,” said O’Brien.
Being grateful is also hard, especially in the midst of our busy lives filled with all of its distractions.
“Yet, this feast day calls us to imagine,” O’Brien told the attendees, since imagination is not only a central way of praying in the exercises of St. Ignatius, it “ought to be a central way that we do things here at Santa Clara. Because imagination is the font of hope, the source of what is possible.”
O’Brien’s words of inspiration are drawn from the teachings of St. Ignatius, who over years of intense prayer and service during the time of his conversion “observed that God was working with him as a teacher deals with a student.” It’s a fitting analogy, O’Brien said, “for such a pivotal figure in the history of education.”
To Ignatius, that relationship between teacher and student “was above all to be one of encouragement,” O’Brien explained, and was intended “to model God’s relationship with each person: direct, personal, helpful, gentle.”
The homily hit home for many.
Feeling the Spirit
“You could tell that Fr. O’Brien has so much heart, with his descriptions of gratitude and gratefulness,” said Helen Otero, office manager and senior administrative assistant in the Department of Communication in the College of Arts and Sciences. “You could feel the spirit in there.”
Dale Larson, a professor of counseling psychology, described the address as “a real teaching for our troubled times... The themes were empathy and love, seeing the spirit and greatness in each other, and living true to our missions in life. And I found that very inspiring.”
For Mostafa Jalal, an adjunct lecturer in the English department, the homily was “beautiful, eloquent and very timely.”
In particular, the way St. Ignatius described his relationship with God as being akin to a teacher and student “was very relatable because as teachers and faculty, that’s what we aim to do here,’’ said Jalal. “And even as teachers, we are always going to be students of God.”
How We Treat Each Other
Others said they heard a more personal message for SCU’s campus.
“I thought his focus on gentleness and gratitude was partly based on the contentiousness and discord we've seen on campus of late,” said Ron Hansen, the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor of English.
But he also appreciated that Fr. O’Brien “related all this to what an educator should be, and how we should treat students, and also how we should treat each other,” said Hansen. “I think people would not speak to their students in the same way that they speak to other faculty and staff. So it renews a call to action that is also a call to conscience.”
O’Brien’s appeal to also pray for those affected by the recent shooting in Gilroy that left four dead, including the suspect, was noted by many, including SCU marketing major Frances Lin ’21.
“I liked that he touched on that,’’ said the 20-year-old junior, who for the first time had attended a Mass in the Mission Church facing the altar; prior to Wednesday, as a member of the choir, she had always looked toward the congregation.
Lin said O'Brien's theme stood out for her, even though she describes herself as not particularly religious. His words, she said, “made me think about my life right now, and my surroundings. And to be grateful every day.”