Opening Mass Homily

Author: Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

St. Francis Xavier Cathedral
Vincennes, Indiana

We begin today our pilgrimage, following the steps of Fr. Sorin and his companions from Vincennes—in 1842 the largest city in the state—to a plot of land some 250 miles north, near the south bend of the St. Joseph River. I thank you and admire you brave souls who are making this trek. You are worthy successors to an intrepid French priest who was determined to found a school dedicated to Our Lady.

A pilgrimage is a physical journey that is at the same time a spiritual journey. The Bible is full of such journeys. 

Most celebrated, of course, is the journey of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, wandering through the desert for 40 years before coming to the Promised Land. They traveled not simply from Egypt to Israel, but from slavery to freedom as God’s people. 

While Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she and Joseph traveled by foot to Bethlehem for the census, but it was a trip to the birthplace of King David for the birth of a new King.

Jesus walked with the disciples to Jerusalem, but it was a trip to the Royal City to reveal what true kingship is in his suffering, death and resurrection.

The beautiful first reading today about Elijah offers us the story of another physical journey of spiritual significance. Elijah had been in a dispute with the prophets of Ba’al, and had slain them. Now the queen of Israel, Jezebel, who favored these prophets, was pursuing Elijah to slay him. He fled and, after just a day’s journey, sat down under a tree and prayed to God to take his life. After some of our over-20 mile hikes, there may be some of us praying the same prayer to God!

We should take a lesson from Elijah. He sleeps and, when he awakes, an angel of God brings him food. Elijah eats and drinks and finds the strength to walk 40 days and nights to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. Elijah climbs the mountain, and there was a tremendously powerful wind that shattered rocks and split mountains, but God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, shaking the earth, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, consuming all, but God was not in the fire. Then there was the sound of “sheer silence." It was from that silence that God spoke to Elijah. Elijah traveled through exhaustion and despair, through the wind, earthquake and fire, to encounter God in the silence.

We live at a time when that sheer silence is often hard to come by. The activities, email messages, and pressures of our lives steal it away.  This walk, this pilgrimage, can give us some of that silence we need. Away from the routines of life and our offices, we can find those quiet moments for prayer and reflection when God can speak to our hearts a message of encouragement, of comfort, of challenge, of hope, or anything else we need. All we have to do is to open our hearts to listen. As we go on with Mass, let us pray that each of us receives the grace to hear what God has to say.

In our moments of prayerful reflection on the journey before us, let us remember the journey some 175 years ago that Fr. Sorin took with Brothers Vincent, Joachim, Lawrence, Francis Zavier, Anselm and Gatian. After a frustrating year in Vincennes, he learned he had land and permission to start a university, and Sorin did not hesitate. He gathered his group, packed all their belongings in an ox-drawn cart, and began the long trip—at a quick pace—north.

Like the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land, of Elijah to Mount Horeb and Jesus to Jerusalem, this physical journey was part of a larger spiritual journey. It was a long journey to found a university dedicated to Our Lady that would be a great force for good in this new land. As with Elijah, there would be times of discouragement bordering on despair. As with Jesus, there would be times when Sorin and those who came after him would have to carry the cross and taste the desolation of Good Friday. Yet they would persevere. Despite the trials, they would find the strength to continue walking, and even stride, to realize the dream. 

We begin today retracing the steps of the physical journey of Fr. Sorin and his companions. Yet the true journey is the spiritual one of continuing the work of Notre Dame, to build a truly Catholic, truly great university for our time. Let those of us who walk, and the many members of the Notre Dame family who are with us in spirit, use this time to renew and deepen our commitment to this spiritual journey, and to listen to God.

Let us take courage in a presence that was always with Fr. Sorin as an inspiration and a guide, both on the journey to South Bend and in building the University:  Mary, Our Lady, Notre Dame. She was the strong, faithful woman who walked to Bethlehem, fled to Egypt and returned, walked with Jesus as he carried his cross, and walked with the disciples as they received the spirit and laid the foundations of the Church. She walked with Sorin. She walks with us today. Her image is atop the Golden Dome on campus because, as Sorin would have insisted, it is her university.

So let us pray, as we continue with Mass: Mary, our Life, our Sweetness and our Hope, walk with us, pray with us, give us strength in moments of discouragement, hope in times of darkness, and guide our steps on this journey and every day.