SAN DIEGO — The Mass of the Holy Spirit may be an annual occurrence at the University of San Diego, serving as a way for the school community to request divine assistance at the start of a new academic year.
But the scene in the vestibule of The Immaculata Church just before Mass was certainly something new: The celebrant of this year’s Mass was surrounded by members of the media, who asked him a series of questions and captured his answers with video cameras and digital recorders.
The reason for this spectacle? This was the first public Mass celebrated in the diocese by Cardinal Robert McElroy since his elevation to the College of Cardinals on Aug. 27.
The Sept. 8 liturgy was well-attended by students, faculty, staff and other members of the USD community, despite the lack of air-conditioning and the sweltering summer heat.
In brief remarks near the beginning of the Mass, Cardinal McElroy shared that the start of the new school year at USD was “much more a reality” for him this year than in the past, noting that he had recently moved to a new residence at St. Francis Center for Priestly Formation, which is located on campus.
“The whole environment changes (when the students come back),” he said. “It’s filled with life and filled with new adventures. That’s what this Mass of the Holy Spirit is about: to pray that, as you begin a new year … you might grow in wisdom and in knowledge of the world; that you also might grow in the depths of your hearts and souls; and that, for this community as a whole, God’s grace may be showered abundantly upon you.”
In his homily, Cardinal McElroy recalled the tragic story of Joseph Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman whose bodily deformities led to his being popularly known as “the Elephant Man.”
The cardinal recounted how Merrick had been rejected by his father and had ended up in a “freak show,” where he lived in a cage.
Through the kindness of a doctor, who paid the circus owner for the right to take Merrick to a hospital where his condition could be studied, Merrick began to speak for the first time in years.
“He wasn’t mute at all,” said the cardinal. “He had simply not been treated as a human being for so much of his life, (that) he had ceased to think of himself as human.”
Merrick became a celebrity, and the many who came to see “the beast” discovered a man whose appearance belied a beautiful soul, Cardinal McElroy said.
Kidnapped from his hospital, Merrick would once again be subjected to life in a cage as a freak show exhibit and, after his escape, would be mortally wounded by a group of people horrified by his physical deformities, the cardinal said.
Before his death, Merrick was reunited with the kindly doctor, who asked if Merrick could ever forgive him for not having kept a closer watch over him at the hospital. Cardinal McElroy said Merrick responded by saying that the doctor had shown him nothing but love, offered “without reservation and without price,” and that had “transformed” his life.
“This is the love that God has for us,” the cardinal said.
“God our Creator looks upon us in our humanity and sees our fragility and our wonders, our strengths and our sins, the beauties of our hearts and souls, and the corrosions that occur in the world in which we live,” he said, “and God entered into human existence in order to make God’s destiny united with ours in the Person of Jesus Christ. That’s the Gospel: The gift of God’s love, which is total and without reserve and without reservation.”
The cardinal explained that we are not only to accept God’s love but to use it as a template for our dealings with others.
He lamented that contemporary society is “so off-course and deprived of the basic love that people are called to show to another.” As recipients of God’s love, we are called to live as a “counter-witness to that coarseness and to that harshness.”
“I hope and pray this is a wonderful year for you, and I hope and pray that you learn much,” he said. “But I hope and pray most of all that this is a time in which the love that animates us, that gives us solidarity with one another, that tells us who we really are and why we are here in this world, that this love reigns in this university and helps transform this place and the world in which we live.”