Remarks of President Garvey
Mass of the Holy Spirit
Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Aug. 31, 2017
Thank you, Cardinal Wuerl, for celebrating Mass with us today. Thanks to our faculty and staff for their attendance. To our returning students, welcome back. And to our new students, welcome to campus. We are delighted you’re here.
We begin each academic year with the Mass of the Holy Spirit to entrust our work to God’s care. It is an occasion to reflect on the values that hold us together. That’s worth doing, because there is a lot of centrifugal force at work in the world. The last election campaign, the racist demonstration in Charlottesville, the intolerance of the left on college campuses, show a contemporary culture that has forgotten the meaning of civil discourse.
I want to say a word about a petty trait that we would do well to cultivate in these circumstances. I’m talking about a sense of humor. Aristotle actually classifies it as a virtue, a balance between being a clown and a bore. It’s not that esteemed in the Christian tradition, but it is a first cousin to humility and hope, and that’s why I think we would benefit from more of it.
I don’t mean the humility that comes from poking fun at ourselves, as Jim Gaffigan does in that high voice, when he critiques his performance in the third person. Or as Ronald Reagan used to do about his age:
Thomas Jefferson said that we should never judge a president by his age, only by his work. And ever since he told me that, I’ve stopped worrying . . . . Just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all 13 states.
I’m talking about the fuller sense in which, as Chesterton says, humor always “involves some confession of human weakness.” If I have a serious point to make in an explosive situation, it might get a better reception if I deliver it with the unspoken implication: ‘Look, I’m not the smartest guy in the room, but here’s a thought.’ Humor is different in this way from wit or sarcasm. Wit is a weapon. Humor is disarming.
I said that humor was a first cousin to hope as well as humility. The First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays grouped them into comedies, histories, and tragedies. The comedies have happy endings. All’s Well That Ends Well concludes with the consummation of Helena’s and Bertram’s marriage. Measure for Measure ends with the marriage of the Duke and Isabella and the release of Claudio.
This is a profoundly Christian idea. The story of creation and redemption is a comedy in the same way. It embodies the radical idea that everything will turn out well in the end. And the acceptance of this truth is the virtue of hope.
Hope is not just a wish that things will end well – like my wish that the Red Sox will win the World Series. Hope is accompanied by a reason to believe in our desired outcome – that is, by faith. That’s why Christian martyrs can engage in gallows humor. Think of Thomas More going up a rickety scaffold and saying, “"I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” Or St. Lawrence being burned alive on a gridiron, asking the Prefect of Rome to turn him over, because he was done on the first side.
Because humor is grounded in hope, it lets us to keep perspective on the controversies of the moment. I may lose this debate, this vote, this election . . . but you know what? Eventually “[e]very valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” So let’s try to keep in mind, in our disagreements this year, that we may not be the smartest guy in the room; and that whatever differences we might have now, in the end “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together[.]”1