A. It is a joyous occasion that brings together the entire community that is St. Mary’s Seminary and University. We have gathered for the installation of Fr. Phillip Brown, P.S.S. as the newest rector of the nation’s oldest seminary and as the president of a preeminent Catholic institute of higher learning. Fr. Brown, we thank you for agreeing to lead this unique community which combines a rich heritage of history and tradition with a robust capacity to respond to the needs of the Church’s mission in our day, a capacity that is shaped and enlivened by the spirituality of Fr. Jean Jacques Olier, the brilliant and deeply prayerful founder of the Society of St. Sulpice and a luminary in the French School of Spirituality.
B. This is a moment for us to reflect on the wonders of God’s Providence. In 1789, the French Revolution with all its destructive force was raging and the members of the Society of St. Sulpice were in mortal danger. The Superior General, Fr. Emery, wrote to Bishop John Carroll, the newly appointed Bishop of Baltimore, offering to send Sulpicians to his fledgling diocese. Bishop Carroll as yet had no seminarians but upon reflection accepted Fr. Emery’s offer and soon Fr. François-Charles Nagot was on his way to America to establish what would become the nation’s first seminary. Think of the courage & foresight of these leaders, who had no roadmap to guide them yet trusted in the Lord who prospered their work beyond their capacity to imagine. We are here this afternoon, standing on their shoulders. With the installation of Fr. Brown we write a new chapter in a history that, in one sense, goes back to the year 1790, the year Fr. Nagot came to Baltimore, and, in another, goes back to the founding of the Society of St. Sulpice in 1641 by Fr. Olier and his companions.
C. Yes, we are here to write a new chapter in this glorious history. With gratitude to all who have gone before us in faith, we take this solemn moment to welcome officially Fr. Phillip J. Brown as our Rector and President. Fr. Brown, it is not my intention to embarrass you by reciting your accomplishments, but it is my intention to give thanks to the Lord for the many gifts of nature and grace that you bring to this seminary and university as we begin afresh. Thank you for saying “yes” to the Lord and “yes” to the Board of Trustees, and “yes” to the leadership of the Society of St. Sulpice. We look forward to all that the Lord will enable us to accomplish together under your wise and experienced leadership. May the Lord bless you and bless St. Mary’s in the years that lie ahead!
II. Guidance from Scripture: Christo-centrism
A. All Scripture, St. Paul writes, is useful for teaching and many other things as well, so we should not be surprised that the Scripture readings assigned for today shed much light on what we undertake this afternoon in the grace of the Holy Spirit, beginning, may I say, with St. Paul’s harsh words to the Galatians: “O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?”
B. In case you hadn’t noticed, Paul was upset with Galatians! He had come among them proclaiming the name of Christ but now they were falling back into their former way of life, imagining that they could find salvation by observing the law rather than by committing themselves in faith to Christ in the Holy Spirit. It is unlikely that the gentile Fr. Brown will upbraid us as Paul upbraided the poor Galatians but he will be no less unyielding than Paul in insisting on the centrality of Christ in your lives as priests and future priests, in your lives of scholarship, in ecumenical studies, dialogue, and outreach, and in your preparation for diverse forms of service to God’s people. Fr. Brown will also insist on the centrality of Christ in this institution, and do so, in the spirit of Fr. Olier, whose charism and spirituality we are privileged to share.
C. Like Fr. Olier he will teach you, urge you, inspire you to find Christ in his mysteries: to seek and find Christ daily on every page of Scripture and, above all, in the celebration of the Eucharist in which the priest is identified, sacramentally, with Christ, priest and victim. So too, in the spirit of Fr. Olier, Fr. Brown will urge you to grow in intimacy with Christ as you spend time daily in the Presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament. As Fr. Olier put it, “I always have the disposition of Jesus Christ the victim, and a consistent love in my heart for the Blessed Sacrament… [who] pours out in me this intention to pray for the whole world….”
D. But being conformed to Christ, Fr. Olier teaches, requires still more. It requires a spirit of adoration, communion, and cooperation with Christ’s mysteries which leads to a deep and abiding indwelling of Christ in the soul. He recommends that, during prayer, we adore some virtue or attribute of Christ and in so doing we grow closer to Christ and become more like Christ. Such prayer is enriched by theology and theology is enriched by such prayer even as the one who prays in this way becomes equipped to cooperate with Christ in spreading the Gospel through a life of deep pastoral charity. Thus did St. Paul and Fr. Olier insist on the centrality of Christ; so too, your Rector!
III. Ask, Seek, Knock, and Find
A. On a day when we rejoice in God’s blessings and welcome our new Rector, we also think about the challenges we face as an institution and as individuals. Without my naming those challenges, it’s safe to say that all of us are tempted to draw up a lengthy list of needs and lay it before the altar of the Lord. After all, in this afternoon’s Gospel he tells us that if we ask, we will receive, if we seek we will find, and if we knock the door will be opened; and there is no doubt that God responds to our specific needs with Provident love, but he will never pander to our self-centered wishes. Instead, the Lord tells us that if we pray with perseverance and docility his heavenly Father will grant us, not merely the good things of this world, but the gift of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and giver of life”.
B. How profoundly Fr. Olier taught docility to the Holy Spirit. In the midst of his own needs and challenges, Fr. Olier learnt to find Christ by humble reliance on the grace of the Holy Spirit. To be conformed to Christ the soul must surrender to the Holy Spirit who teaches us to discern what we truly need so as to do the will of God. “O Holy Spirit, powerful spirit, crucify and mortify me!” Fr. Olier wrote. “O peaceful Spirit, happy Spirit, … I abandon myself to your holy power!” Relying on the Spirit of the Risen Lord, Fr. Olier and his companions, against all odds, began a new work in a new spirit in the life of the Church a work which we begin anew in our time and place with the spirit of humble trust in the Spirit given us by Father.
C. Visiting with Fr. Brown just as he was getting settled here at St. Mary’s, we spoke of its unique heritage but also its profound spiritual core. Fr. Brown spoke of his desire and that of his fellow Sulpicians to bring to the fore all the more ardently the rich legacy of Fr. Olier’s spirituality, convinced that it corresponds to the pastoral needs of the Church in our days. Many seminaries in the United States can boast of a proud history though no other can claim to be the oldest; many can claim to have excellent formational and academic programs; (some can even tout their skill in soccer)… but only one is the oldest and only one can claim to have introduced the spirit of Fr. Jean Jacques Olier to the Church in the United States: St. Mary’s! Let us all … the board of trustees, the faculty, alumni, benefactors, and students … let us all join together with Fr. Brown as ambassadors for this great institution, convinced that it has something truly beautiful, unique, and necessary to offer the Church of Baltimore, the Church in the United States and indeed the Church Universal.
D. May Jesus, living in Mary, come and live in us, now and always!