The Pope’s Message for the Centenary of the Catholic University

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, Attended the Opening of the Academic Year

Catholic University
(C) Vatican Media

Held on Sunday was the opening of the academic year of Milan’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. Attending the event, among others, was Monsignor Mario Delpini, Archbishop of Milan and President of the Toniolo Institute, and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. It was a “special” inauguration because the Catholic University is celebrating 100 years of existence: a glorious past but looking at the future, as both von der Leyen and Rector Franco Anelli underscored in their interventions.  On this occasion, Pope Francis also wished to send to those present a video message focused on three words: fire, hope, and service. Here is his message.

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You are living a special day because it celebrates an important anniversary: one hundred years ago, Father Agostino Gemelli and his collaborators gave life to that great cultural institution, which is your Athenaeum. Congratulations! II would like to focus my reflection on three words: fire, hope, and service. Three words that, I believe, can represent somewhat your mysticism [spirituality].

Memory of the Past

 The first is an image: fire, namely the torch that was transmitted in your University from generation to generation. Anniversaries are appropriate moments to remember the past. And, looking at the one hundred years of the life of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, one recognizes an important educational tradition made alive thanks to the dedication of hundreds of men and women and attested by thousands of graduates. Education is one of the most effective ways to humanize the world and history, and I believe that in its mandate your University guards this teaching. This is possible thanks to the enhancement — renewed through the generations — of the cultural and spiritual patrimony that constitutes its identity.

A clear and unchanged identity that, however, does not reject but rather respects and accepts the different sensibilities, in the awareness that it is from a frank and respectful confrontation with the other, which brings the human condition to fruition. As the ancients already understood well, to educate isn’t to fill vessels but to light fires.

The Catholic University guards this fire and, therefore, can transmit it because the only way to do it is: by contact,” namely, through personal and communitarian witness. Even before transmitting what is known, the fire is lighted by sharing what one is. This contact happens thanks to encounter, to the fact of putting ourselves next to one another and doing something together.

History Illuminated by Faith

 This is the original meaning of what we call “University,” the uni-versitas: when these realities began to arise in the Middle Ages, they were born to make the different schools converge “towards” one place. Many that converge “towards one,” a place, a time, a spirit. In your case, it’s a history illuminated by the Faith, which gives back unity to the universe of knowledge and weaves the unity of the people that contribute to its growth: the professors, the dependents, and the students. This is the most profound meaning of the word “tradition.” As Mahler said: “It’s not the guardian of the ashes of the past, but the safeguarding of the future.”

The second word is hope. Today, this idea of education is challenged by an individualistic culture, which exalts the ‘I’ in opposition to the ‘we’, promotes indifference — the culture of indifference is awful! — diminishes the value of solidarity and sets in motion the throwaway culture. One who educates, in fact, looks to the future with confidence and carries out an action — the educational — which involves different actors of the society, in such a way as to offer the students an integral formation, fruit of the experiences and sensibilities of many.

The Mission of Docents

This is, in particular, the mission of docents, who are the creative custodians of the tradition, which is a treasure. Because according to Gustav Mahler’s image — as I said – it’s not to guard the ashes but to guard the fire. That is, to take forward the image of the tree: the roots give life to the tree and, as the poet said, all that the tree has flowering comes from what is underground, the harmony between roots and growth.

Education is first of all relationship: the relationship between docent and student, and then also of students among themselves. A community of people open to the reality, to the transcendent Other and to others, open to know, to discover, to pose questions and seek answers together, today’s answers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to seek answers.  Be a community open to the world without fear. Fear is awful!

Bet on the Future

 This is hope: to bet on the future overcoming the natural thrust that is born from many fears that risk immobilizing us, to be fixed and closed in an eternal and illusory present. Openness and acceptance of the other are, therefore, particularly important, because it fosters a solidary bond between generations and combat the individualistic drifts present in our culture. And above all builds, precisely from the university classrooms, an inclusive citizenry, opposed to the throwaway culture.

In this perspective, I have promoted a Global Educational Pact, to sensitize all to listen to the great question if meaning of our time, beginning with those of the new generations in face of the social injustices, the violation of rights, and forced migrations. The University can’t remain deaf in face of these denunciations. I’m happy that you accepted this invitation to a renewed stage of educational commitment.

Your projects of international cooperation addressed to different populations of the planet, the many economic aids that every year you distribute to needy students, your attention to the last and to the sick are testimony of a concrete commitment. I encourage you to go forward on this path!

New Models

 The world, especially today, is totally interdependent, such a condition requires an unprecedented effort because this epochal change has rendered obsolete the interpretative frames of the past, which are no longer useful to understand the present. It’s about projecting new models of thought, to define solutions to the emergencies we are called to face: from the environmental to the economic, from the social to the demographic.

We cannot go forward with the category of the Enlightenment. New, creative thought is necessary. The Catholic University of the Sacred Heart can be a privileged place for the advanced development of such cultural elaboration. And here we return to the docent-student relationship — which is important!, which is a dynamic relationship, in tension between present and future: at the same time you are called to think, program and act having as horizon tomorrow’s common home, starting from the concrete reality of today.

Do Not Let Hope Be Robbed from You

 And I now address you, students, in a particular way. In these confused times, made even more complex by the pandemic, I repeat to you: do not let hope be robbed from you! I do not let yourselves be infected by the virus of individualism. This is awful and does harm. The University is the appropriate place to develop the antibodies against this virus: the University opens the mind to reality and to diversity; you can put in play there your talents and make them available to all.

As students of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, you belong to a community of studies with solid roots, from which you can draw for your formation and to renew, every day, the enthusiasm of going forward and assuming your responsibility in the society. Don’t become traditionalists of the roots, no, take from the roots to grow, to go forward, to stake your life. This is the horizon I propose to you on this centenary.

At the Service of the Church and of Society

 And so we come to the third and last word: service. In reality, this word could be the first, because a new institution always begins from the Founders, who put their lives at the service of others. And, in the course of its one hundred years, the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart has demonstrated on many occasions to be faithfully at the service of the Church and of society. It is attested by the commitment of its docents in the daily activity of research and, for not a few of them, also in roles of responsibility within Italian and international institutions. It is attested by the work of the staff, which offers dedication and intelligence in order to make possible the functioning of the Catholic University.

A grateful thought goes, indeed, to each one of you, who are part of this great team; here too the logic is that of the uni-versitas: all together, all “towards,” all together, each one in his specific role, but all together, converging toward a shared horizon. With the daily work of each one of you, this common project would be poorer, it would lack something if, as in an orchestra the timbre and tonality of some instruments was lacking, seemingly less important.

The Distinctive Feature of the Catholic University

 Dear brothers and sisters — and I again turn to all — you are, permit me the example, a great orchestra, where the whole is essential, which is done if each one gives his best in harmony with the others. May the spirit of service remain always the distinctive feature of your whole University community, which only thus is faithful to the Gospel that inspires it. The Lord Jesus Christ, though being the Logos, the Divine Wisdom, chose the foolishness of serving to the total spoliation of Himself: the wisdom of the Cross. Thus He gave witness to the variety of the love of God and He, the King, has taught us that to serve is to reign.

May whoever studies and works in your University, breathe this spirit, learn this style, to live it in the complex reality of the contemporary world. Go forward, look at the horizon, with courage in your educational mission. Two words that will help you so much: courage and patience. Endure the contradictions, things that are wrong, patience, and the momentum of courage go together, they go together. Interpret this courage and this patience as a passionate service to the whole of society, also to the Church, but to the whole of society. May the Lord bless you and Our Lady protect you. And, please, don’t forget to pray for me. Thank you.

Translation by Virginia M. Forrester