On Tuesday, May 7, Rev. Michael J. Sheeran, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU), became an honorary Rambler when he received an honorary degree from Loyola University Chicago. The degree was conferred during the commencement ceremony for graduates of Loyola’s Graduate School and Institute of Pastoral Studies, for which Fr. Sheeran served as commencement speaker.
The recent fire in Paris’ Cathedral of Notre-Dame served as a metaphor for Fr. Sheeran’s call to graduates to use the skills that they acquired at Loyola in order to rebuild the Catholic Church in the United States. He said, “What especially troubles me about those photos of the roofless Cathedral of Notre-Dame is that, as my Jesuit friend, the columnist Rev. Tom Reese, S.J. would say: Notre-Dame also seems an apt portrait of the Catholic Church these days. It’s a Church eaten away by sex abuse by the clergy, and by the terrible failure at oversight of so many bishops. Maybe I’m overstating the situation, but, between the abusers themselves and the failure of bishops to punish those abusers, lots of people have left the Church and others are on the edge of doing so.”
Fr. Sheeran then compared the situation to a passage in John’s Gospel (6:52-69) in which Jesus asks His disciples to follow Him by eating His body and drinking His blood. But after some of the disciples leave Him, Jesus asks the Apostles, “Will you also go away?” Peter then responds, “Lord, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In spite of the disillusionment that many people feel within the Catholic Church today, Fr. Sheeran noted that it is still the place to turn to on the path toward eternal life. He cited Alsy Acevedo, a member of the Board of Directors for National Catholic Reporter, who recently explained why she remains Catholic:
“It is not easy being a Catholic in this day and age. It is a conscious, defiant decision to stay and practice this faith. A decision I explain over and over to family and friends alarmed by the scandals in the Church. I am alarmed, yes, heartbroken that Catholic institutions have been a place of abuse, of complicity, of criminality. But nothing will change if I leave. If I stay, as a Catholic laywoman, I can practice what I believe and be an agent of change…
So, I have decided to stay and reclaim the Catholic Church. I attend Mass, I am journeying with young families in my parish through volunteer work and prayer, and I keep myself well-informed on what is going on in the Church.”
Fr. Sheeran referred to the teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, in his call to graduates to rebuild the Church, but also to make the whole world a better place. He said, “With the advanced degree you’re receiving today, you are more prepared now to make a difference with your life than you were before. But you know that your new credential is also a new obligation.
“Consider the Jesuit tradition that I hope you absorbed during your time here at Loyola: In St. Ignatius’ view, God made a good world and then counted on his creatures to make it better. He opened schools to enable their graduates to do a better job of making that world better. Making the world what God longs for it to be is how we’ll be judged. St. Ignatius advises that, when I am faced by any major decision, I should ask myself, ‘How will this look from my deathbed?’ As a talented and well-prepared graduate of Loyola, you have now an even greater invitation to take a part in rebuilding the Cathedral that is the Church.”
In noting the seriousness of such a challenge, Fr. Sheeran said, “You’ve probably never thought of yourself protecting the Church from the temptations to which her clergy are vulnerable. But think about it. Seize the opportunities that will present themselves in the next year. When the Church rises from the ruin, only with the help of educated laity will the reconstruction be an improvement.”
Fr. Sheeran’s address concluded with a commentary on the distinctively Jesuit concept of cura personalis, or, care for the whole person. He said to the graduates: “God made you into a person full of talents. You developed many of those talents while getting this degree. Consider how He looks at you and what He hopes you will be. How much He hopes that you will use all those talents to make your family, your civic world, your Church the place He dreams of them becoming. He wants you to be His Co-Creator, making His good world into something even better!”
To view Fr. Sheeran’s full address online, please click here (degree conferral begins at 47:00, followed by commencement speech at 50:58).