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Communications 2020

Kevin O'Brien, S.J., giving a homily at founders day

Kevin O'Brien, S.J., giving a homily at founders day

‘A Hope That Will Not Disappoint’

On SCU’s 169th Anniversary, President Kevin O’Brien, S.J., asks if we can find a message from God in our isolation.

On this day, the Feast of St. Joseph, in 1851, Mission Santa Clara was formally transferred from the care of the Franciscans to the Jesuits. A few months later, my predecessor, Fr. John Nobili, S.J., opened the college, the first in the new state of California. For 169 years, the Jesuits have celebrated the Feast of St. Joseph on these grounds. Over these years, the students, faculty and staff of Santa Clara lived through times marked by a Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, Vietnam, tech booms and busts, and 9-11. Through it all, the college (and later university) has endured, and the Mission stands.

We are at another distinctive moment in our history, one we could not have easily imagined when we began our academic year. The coronavirus pandemic has upended how we relate and how we learn. “Social distancing” and “shelter at home” are the norms of this day. Like other universities and high schools, we have transitioned to remote and virtual learning. We do this to stem the tide of the virus and contribute to the public health of the community in which we live.

But these days have been hard and sometimes lonely, with a daily flood of information, and with so much disruption in our personal and professional lives. In this weird, almost surreal time, we are anxious, scared, confused, frustrated, even angry. Our graduating students grieve a particular loss. Yet, as in all those years before, this Feast of St. Joseph speaks to us, for in the father of Jesus and spouse of Mary, we have a model for living to guide us at this moment.

Pope Francis helps me articulate what I mean. Seven years ago today, on this Feast, Francis celebrated his inaugural Mass as Bishop of Rome. In his homily, he described St. Joseph as protector of his family and his community and insisted that every person—regardless of religion—shares in the vocation of protector. In Francis’ words:

“It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families.… It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness.”

In this time of uncertainty and anxiety, we hear those words as a noble commission. Amid all the disruption, we see signs of so much goodness, so much patience, so much generosity, wrapping friendships in a blanket of protective assurance that says:“All will be well.” In distancing ourselves from one another, however hard that is, we aim to protect each other, especially the most vulnerable. Admittedly, distancing is an unusual sign of Christian response, which usually means closeness and connection. But such is our moment now. Such is our call.

This call brings us to another quality of one who protects. Again, the words of Pope Francis: “Joseph is a ‘protector’ because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason, he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions.”

Each day, you and I are asked to make so many decisions based on the latest information from public health officials, or our government, or our workplaces and schools. We discern choices in the midst of this utterly new and evolving situation by finding God’s voice in what is real, by being more attentive to people around us and what they need. We protect well when we are clear-headed, calm, courageous, and generous in spirit.

I find a final consolation in Joseph’s example. With the angel’s visit, his life was completely upended. But he heard the angel say: do not be afraid. That encouragement allowed him to trust, to step into the unknown with confidence that God was with him and that God would reveal something then unimaginable.

As we make our leap of faith, we too can ask: what might God be trying to reveal to us now?

  • In our absence from one another, are we becoming more grateful for people whom we may take for granted?
  • In our distancing, are we realizing a deep longing for community which we did not fully notice as we strived excessively for independence?
  • With a virus that jumps so easily from person to person, are we more aware of how interconnected we are as people, no matter who we are or where we live?
  • In our sheltering, are we each entering into a sabbath, a time of setting apart, even solitude, when God can speak a new, marvelously unexpected word to us?
  • On our walks outside the house, are we seeing glorious gifts in nature that have been begging for our attention? Are we learning to respect nature more as a gift we cannot always control?
  • In this in-between time between B.C. and A.C., as someone wrote recently, “before coronavirus” and “after coronavirus,” how might God be inviting Santa Clara University into something new?

I don’t know the answers: I’m living the questions just as you are. But I do know that we will get through this. And I know that we don’t have to be afraid because we have each other and because we have been in this great enterprise of learning and service for 169 years. In this we find our strength, and as for Joseph, in God we place our hope, a hope that will not disappoint.