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In Friendship and Charity

Keynoting the 33rd annual faculty development conference, Paul Wadell (Theology & RS, Emeritus) led his colleagues into a critical conversation about the college’s institutional and personal missions, calling the college community to make St. Norbert College a place where all can flourish. A transcript of his presentation, “Creating a Culture of Friendship and Charity: Making SNC a Place Where All Can Flourish,” follows.

When I was teaching over the years, people would sometimes ask me, “Well, do you have a teaching philosophy?” My teaching philosophy was really simple. I said, “For me, teaching is like bowling: You just throw the ball down and you hope it hits something.”

That’s my hope this morning. I hope that something that I share this morning will be helpful in some way for all of you. My goal this morning is really straightforward. I want to reflect a little bit on what has to happen for St. Norbert College to be a place where everyone can flourish. 

Seems to me that that’s what we want, you know? What has to happen for St. Norbert College to become the kind of institution where everybody can thrive? Where everybody is brought more fully to life? If we take communio seriously, we mean what we say when we talk about it – and that has to happen. The language of communio attracts us. It draws us in because, at its heart, communio describes an environment where everyone – not just a lucky few – but where everybody can flourish.

So what I am going to share this morning is guided by four convictions. The first one … is a passage from Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World,” a book that I read a few years ago. I was so taken by what she says here that I look for ways to share it whenever I can. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Call me a romantic, but I think most people want to be good for something. I think they want to do something that matters, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to give themselves to something that can be meaningful instead of meaningless.”

There may be many things that brought you to St. Norbert College, but I suspect one of them was not only the desire to be good at something but also for something. Yes, you want to be good in your fields, you want to be good in your academic specializations, you want to be good in your various roles at the college. But you want to excel at those things in order to get yourselves to something that matters. You came here because you want to use your talents to achieve something good, especially for the students, but also for one another, for your faculty and staff colleagues, for the larger scholarly community, for the larger world. You want to be a part of something greater than yourselves because we know that’s the only way to live with any sense of meaning, of purpose, of hope. I really want to stress that this morning. I think communio is about finding a way to live. Communio is about shaping our lives together so that we live with a deep sense of meaning, of purpose, of hope. If we can’t find that, what difference does it make? We have to find that. That’s the lifeline.

Second, I am convinced that you can do everything that Barbara Brown Taylor envisions here at St. Norbert College. It’s the only Norbertine college in the world. We have a story that does not belong to anyone else. We have the unique and compelling story that is worth remembering and being told well. St. Norbert College is the place where real good can be done. This means from time to time we have to wrestle with the question, “What is it that St. Norbert College is especially called to do, and how do we do it best? What is its institutional vocation?” We talk a lot about personal vocation and personal callings, but St. Norbert College, the only Norbertine college in the world, also has an institutional vocation. No matter what else we may be clear about, we have to be clear about that.

Third, I am convinced that we are happiest, both personally and professionally, when we work together in pursuit of things that matter.

The fourth, making that a reality, requires a particular kind of institutional culture that I would describe as a culture of friendship and charity. Without a commitment to build an institutional culture of friendship and charity, it is not possible to move beyond the rhetoric of communio to the reality of communio. That’s the challenge. It’s easy to be eloquent in the rhetoric of communio, but much harder to bring genuine communio to life. 

Without a commitment to build an institutional culture of friendship and charity, it is not possible to move beyond the rhetoric of communio to the reality of communio.

So with those things in mind, I want to do two things. First, I want to think about why trying to create an institutional culture of charity and friendship is not something silly, naïve, utopian or utterly unrealistic, but something that is absolutely essential and inherently hopeful. In other words, why is aspiring to that kind of culture worth all the effort it may take to achieve it?

If anything is clear from what I share this morning, building this kind of culture is not easy. It will be easier to opt out. It will be easier to find less-challenging ways to live. But if we’re not up to the challenge then I think we lose hope. That’s the twist: If we’re not up to the challenge, then we lose hope. We lose that sense of meaning and purpose.

Second, I want to think about some attitudes, virtues and practices that make that kind of culture possible. In other words, what can you do to create a culture of charity and friendship, and thus move from the rhetoric of communio to the reality of communio?

So in thinking about why a culture of friendship and charity matters, I want to begin with Augustine, one of the most important theologians in the early church. Now Augustine got some things wrong, but I think he got this right: Augustine believed that human beings are not creatures who could go it alone. Augustine believed that human beings are radically social beings who are social to the roots of our soul. And because of that, if we are to have a good life, we need to learn to work and work well together in all the various settings of our lives. Augustine believed that the deep meaning of society is that people should live as friends together. And he took this to be true not only for our personal lives but also in our institutional settings.

So Augustine believed that friendship is relevant everywhere. Typically, we think of friendship simply in terms of personal relationships, people that we’re closest to. What Augustine wanted to do was expand the boundaries of friendship so that we see the pertinence of friendship in our every area of our lives. Augustine was part of a tradition that held that friendships were not only comforting but also absolutely necessary, because without certain relationships in our lives, without a rich communal existence, Augustine believed we could not possibly have a good life.

For him, communio was not a nifty idea but was God’s plan for humanity. So this was not optional. Communio was not something for Augustine that we could kind of take or leave. It was God’s plan for humanity, so we better get it right; because if we don’t get it right, we haven’t lived in any true and rich sense of the word. Augustine believed that we were created for communio, and therefore needed to experience it across our lives.

Communio comes into being when people support and encourage one another. Communio comes to life when people lift one another up and help each other along. Communio happens only when we flourish together.

So Augustine believed that in every area of our lives we need people who want what is best for us. We need people who agree with us on what matters most in life, and who want to pursue that together. But that’s exactly what friendship is. Friendships are relationships in which people want the best for one another. They’re relationships in which people share a vision of life together, together pursue what matters most to them, and find joy in doing so. I think we would love to see that happen at St. Norbert College: together pursue things that matter and to find joy in doing so.

So for Augustine, he believed that friendship was the most promising way to structure our lives together – not only personally but also communally and institutionally. He wanted to broaden how we think about friendship. We see an example of this in the “Confessions,” Augustine’s famous account of the first 33 years of his life [which] includes the story of Augustine’s conversion. Book Nine focuses on his life immediately after this conversion.

Augustine begins the Christian life in a small community made up of his mother, Monica; his close friend, Olympius; his brother, Nevichus; his son, Adaledodis; two of his cousins; and two of his students. Like any real community, it’s an assortment of some very unique individuals that hardly agree on anything. They were able to live together well because they were joined as one in what they took to be the fundamental calling of their lives. It’s interesting that Augustine does not downplay their differences; these were very unique people. But he suggests that their differences enriched their lives together because they agreed on what mattered most to them.

The same is true for St. Norbert College. Communio is not about erasing differences, denying differences or flattening differences. Communio is about welcoming them, affirming them, embracing them and being enriched by them. When that happens, everybody flourishes.

Communio is not about erasing differences, denying differences or flattening differences. Communio is about welcoming them, affirming them, embracing them and being enriched by them. When that happens, everybody flourishes. 

Now I think an institution guided by Augustine’s understanding of friendship and charity is like a choir singing in harmony. Each voice brings its own distinctive gift to the choir. Each voice is different, but also absolutely essential. And all of those voices together create something beautiful.

At its best, St. Norbert College is a choir of different voices trying to create something beautiful. We may not always hit every note right on key, but that’s our aspiration. Each voice is necessary. Each voice makes an irreplaceable contribution, and each voice depends on every other voice. In this choir, no voice can dominate. In this choir, no voice can drown any other voice out. In this choir, every voice has to be heard – every voice has to be heard if something good and beautiful is to result. I think an important question for us is: How do we create that kind of choir? How can St. Norbert College be the story of communio where no voice is drowned out, where every voice is heard?

This image of St. Norbert College as a choir of different voices creating something beautiful is communio, and it’s what a culture of charity and friendship makes possible. But it’s important to recognize the egalitarian nature of a culture of friendship and charity. A communio of charity cannot be hierarchical. I’ll say that again: A communio of charity cannot be hierarchical. If it is, you can be sure that some voices will be dominating and drowning out other voices. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have different roles and responsibilities, but it does mean that you must recognize everyone is equal and treat them as equals, no matter what their title may be or whether they’ve been at the college a few days or many years. In a culture of charity, no one stands above or below any other person. We stand alongside each other and face to face.

I think it’s really hard to be hierarchical if you truly see the face of another person. I don’t mean a quick glance and turning away. But it’s really hard to be hierarchical if you look face to face, if you truly see the face of another person. So how do we build a more egalitarian culture here at St. Norbert College? How would this affect the way we approach mentoring? How would it affect the way we structure the college? How would it affect how we understand authority and how we exercise authority? The choir metaphor reminds us that in a culture of friendship and charity, every person comes with a gift. All those gifts need to be welcomed, appreciated and celebrated. You have to listen for the distinctive note every person brings to the choir and let them know that the choir is better because of them.

Academic institutions can be very hierarchical. But we need to resist that, because when hierarchy prevails, communio dies. When hierarchy prevails, communio dies, and it dies because what’s missing is the justice and respect, the acceptance and affirmation that makes everyone feel welcome. I think if we’re honest, we know there have been times where maybe some people here have not felt welcomed and have not experienced acceptance and affirmation. When that happens, we have to take it seriously. If we’re going to move from the rhetoric of communio to the reality of communio, we have to take those moments seriously.

It might strike us as a bit naïve to talk about creating a culture of charity within an institution when we can have such a hard time doing so in our personal relationships, in our families and in the larger society. I’m smiling because my wife, Carmella, drove me over here this morning and we barely got out of the driveway before she said, “We need to communicate better.” She always gets right to the point. But the issue was, my garage-door opener wasn’t working so we take her garage-door [opener]. She opens her door and I close mine – it’s a long story. I told her I was going to take the garage-door opener with me, and she said, “You didn’t tell me that,” and I said, “I told you that,” and she said, “You need to speak louder.” … You know charity is hard when you can’t even travel three miles without a breakdown of communio.

But I think if charity fails, and it fails to animate our institutional life, perhaps especially in academic settings, what happens? When charity goes missing, it is quickly replaced by mistrust and suspicion. It’s quickly replaced by envy and jealousy, by hurt feelings, by slights and petty resentments. It is quickly replaced by insinuating gossip and back-fighting; by indifference, arrogance and animosity; and sometimes even maliciousness. When friendship and charity disappear, those things begin to creep in. There is never a vacuum. If we replace charity and friendship, if that slowly begins to die, those things creep in.

So this is why what Augustine can teach us matters. In 397, 10 years after he became a Christian, Augustine wrote a rule of life. He was captivated by the passage and the Acts of the Apostles. … In Chapter 4, verse 32 of Acts, he says, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind.”

“The community of believers was of one heart and mind.”

That drew Augustine in; that spoke to him. He was strongly drawn to this account of the first Christian communities precisely because they were not a collection of disconnected, fragmented, self-seeking individuals. But they were a true community in which each member welcomed, cared for, looked after and supported every other member. … For Augustine, communio comes to life in relationships of justice and charity. Communio comes to life where there is compassion, kindness and abiding respect. That’s how we move from the rhetoric of communio to the reality of communio.

The same passage says that there was no needy person among them. What would it mean if we apply this to St. Norbert College? What would it mean if there truly was no needy person among us? I think it would mean that there would never be any member of the community that felt neglected or taken for granted. If there was no needy person among us, it would mean there would never be anyone that felt unappreciated or invisible. There would never be anyone who would feel that nothing would be lost if they were not part of the community. There would be no needy person among us if everyone felt appreciated, visible, and every day the message that was communicated to them was, “Yes, something really significant would be lost if you were not part of this community.”

Now Augustine’s rule was the foundation for the rule of the Norbertines. But Augustine did not intend his rule only for religious communities. As he saw it, communio of charity presents a vision for life that is relevant everywhere, not just within the walls of an abbey, because Augustine knew that life is better for all of us when, in the spirit of friendship and charity, we make it a practice to want one another’s good, we make it a practice to seek the best for one another, we make it a practice to be generous with each other, and when we’re united in common goals and purposes. For Augustine, that’s happiness. For Augustine, that’s a good way of life. Because of this, he believed that what the Acts of the Apostles described about the early life of the church should animate, inspire and inform corporate institutional settings. Because when it does, things go better for all of us and we can do what we ought to do well. We want to do what we are called to do well, and Augustine’s insight is we’ll do that when we develop this culture of friendship and charity. I think if St. Norbert College can witness a culture of charity and friendship, not only will staff and faculty flourish, but in our mutual flourishing, we will offer something hopeful to our students and to the surrounding community.

Right now, we do not live in a society that any of us would likely describe as particularly friendly or charitable. We live in a society that is so fragmented that it can be very hard to get people to be of one mind and heart about anything. Nor do we live in a society where people necessarily support one another, seek the best for each other, welcome one another and help one another along. In this respect, there is something countercultural about what Augustine envisioned. But, there is also something highly attractive about it, because Augustine’s understanding of friendship and charity shows that genuine community is possible, and that we come to life both individually and collectively when we allow ourselves to be caught out of ourselves on behalf of those around us, and on behalf of our projects and purposes that are larger than ourselves and worthy of ourselves. Augustine’s understanding of a good life is that it’s a call to transcend ourselves. We do that personally and we can also do that institutionally. Are we called here, out of ourselves, on behalf of others, in pursuit of things that truly matter?

Now I’m not saying anything that all of you don’t already know. And it all comes down to the question of whether we are willing to risk love in every area of life, including here at the college. If we are, then all of us will flourish. If we are, then we will be fully alive, bold and hopeful, even when things are hard. If we are, St. Norbert College will not just be a good place to be, but a holy place. It will be a holy place because no one will be overlooked, forgotten or taken for granted. It will be a holy place because no one will ever feel they are not welcome and will never feel that they don’t truly belong. It will be a holy place because everyone will feel listened to and respected and affirmed. It will be a holy place because everyone, every day, will be treated justly. It will be a holy place because love lives here. 

It all comes down to the question of whether we are willing to risk love in every area of life, including here at the college. If we are, then all of us will flourish. ... If we are, St. Norbert College will not just be a good place to be, but a holy place. 

That’s communio. Communio is creating the kind of cultural institutional setting where we can honestly and confidently say, “Love lives here. Justice lives here.” Why? Because it’s palpable. Why? Because we give and receive it every day in all the ordinary interactions of our lives.

So I want to think about how we make St. Norbert College a holy place. How can you build a culture of charity and friendship?

First, a culture of charity and friendship requires persons who have goodwill toward one another – people magnanimous enough to want what is best for everyone. Now this may sound like a small thing, but what would it be like to be in a place where you knew each person had goodwill – not for a select and special few, but for everyone? What would change in staff meetings and discipline meetings and divisional meetings and faculty meetings if we knew everyone there had goodwill for everyone else? At the very least, I think we’d have much more open, exciting, energizing conversations. What would change in our day-to-day attitudes, and in our actions and in our feelings if we knew the people we work with have goodwill for us, so much so that we never doubted it or questioned it? That would be liberating.

Now that I’m retired, I think back nostalgically to what it is like to go to work. It’s quickly becoming a faint memory, but I do remember there’s some days when I would cross that bridge – I did it for 21 years – turn left, turn left another time, and went into the college. And there were days where I just didn’t want to get out. I just wanted to head west into the sunset. But, we keep taking those turns. Why? Because if love lives here, it’s a place you want to be. If love lives here, we know it, it’s a place that you want to be.

In addition to having goodwill for others, a culture of charity demands doing what we can to bring it about. We want our colleagues to succeed. In a culture of charity, we want them to do well. And beyond that, if there is any way we can help them do so, we do it. That’s communio: an environment where we know each person is actively and joyful committed to the well-being of every other person, doing what we can to make that a reality. Without those qualities, what happens? We inevitably begin to take one another for granted. Inevitably, we become much less connected and unmindful of each other. Inevitably, we slowly drift apart and withdraw. If that occurs, we become little more than cordial strangers to one another in a place where each person is left to worry about themselves. We don’t want that. That can happen so easily, almost at times naturally, it seems, where little by little we drift apart, we become disconnected, we’re cordial strangers to one another. But we’re left with a place where each person has to worry about themselves. If that occurs, joy is not possible. If that occurs, mutual flourishing is not possible.

Second, a culture of charity and friendship requires kindness. I think we can minimize the importance of kindness, seeing it as nice but optional. But what happens at an institution when kindness is missing? When it becomes increasingly rare, kindness characterizes people who regularly look for ways to do good for others. A person of kindness regularly takes a befriending stance toward others and does what he or she can to help them. A person of kindness has genuine goodwill toward everyone and expresses that goodwill through visible acts of kindness. And I’m not talking about anything big here. I think one of the most empowering things we can do is simply offer a person a word of encouragement. Sometimes people ask how are we doing – of all of us, “how are we doing?” And we tend to give the automatic answer: “I’m doing great.” The truth is, on some days, we’re not. So a word of encouragement can be very powerful. Asking another person, “How are you doing?” and taking a few minutes to hear their answer; passing on a compliment that we heard about a person from someone else, not keeping that a secret but sharing that: These are all acts of kindness.

In his analysis of kindness as an act of charity, Thomas Aquinas said, “Even though a (person) is not actually doing good for someone, charity requires (them) to be prepared to do so if the occasion arises, and whoever the person in need may be.” Aquinas envisions a community permeated with kindness, envisions a community in which each person is poised and ready, actively on the lookout to show kindness. And when he says “if the occasion arises,” Aquinas is presuming the occasion will always arise. There is no shortage of opportunities to be kind. There is no shortage of opportunities or occasions to reach out to another person in kindness. And as he says, we shouldn’t be stingy with kindness but extravagant, each day looking for ways to show kindness to whoever crosses our path – in Aquinas’ words, “whoever the person in need may be.”

A talk of kindness may seem out of place but the fact is, kindness is humanizing. We tend to want to stay in places where people are kind to one another. Sometimes we hear of people who leave a job or leave an institution, and over the years I have asked them, “Well, why did you leave?” And never once has anyone said, “Well, I left because they were altogether too kind.” They leave for a lot of reasons, but that has never come across my ears.

Kindness is humanizing. If we experience kindness in the settings of our life, that’s a place where we want to be. Kindness keeps us connected to one another, alert to one another and sensitive to one another. Kindness keeps us from slipping into patterns of casual indifference and insensitivity. Kindness keeps St. Norbert College from being so characterized by a corporate mentality, by professionalism and bureaucracy, by technical jargon, or facile submissiveness to ecclesiastic threats that we forget that the people at this college – the people who make this college a reality – are real human beings. They’re real human beings with their own unique stories, real human beings with their hopes and dreams; but also, real human beings with wounds and hurts; real human beings with worries and struggles, fears and vulnerabilities; real human beings who should never be sacrificed on the altar of any ideology, whether corporate, academic or ecclesiastic. And I mean that with the utmost seriousness. Communio is only possible when people become more important than anything else. No one should ever feel sacrificed on the altar of any ideology here, no matter where it comes from: the academic world, the church, the corporate world or wherever it may be.

Now there’s a discipline to kindness: We have to work at it. In lacking kindness, we close our doors, we shut ourselves off, and we begin to interact with each other in a guarded and calculated fashion. Lacking kindness, we become oblivious to one another and at odds with one another. When kindness goes missing in an academic setting, people get hurt much too easily and much too regularly, and are often seen as expendable. That is why kindness is an antidote to injustice. Kindness is not weakness; it’s not a throwaway gesture, and that’s why I said in the beginning there is something powerful about kindness. It’s powerful because kindness pushes back against injustice, the kind of injustice that comes when we take people for granted.

Third, creating and sustaining a culture of charity and friendship requires cultivating the virtue of attentiveness. I think one of our most basic callings as human beings – and also one of the hardest things to do – is to pay attention. With the virtue of attentiveness, we open our eyes to see what life might be asking of us each day.

When we learn to pay attention, we are attuned to the world in which we find ourselves. Not some imaginary world, but we’re attuned to the world of the here and now – the world in which we find ourselves, and to all the people who are part of that world. The virtue of attention forms us into persons who are fully present to life and fully present to one another. And because of that, they can do good each day. Without the virtue of attentiveness, I cannot possibly seek another person’s good, much less show them kindness, because how can I truly seek someone’s good if I don’t take time to see them? How can I truly seek someone’s good if I’m too distracted to be with them?

I think this is really hard, because one of the things we all know is part of life today, is that we’re so busy. All my years here I have never talked to anybody, student or faculty, who has said, “I just have too much time on my hands.” We might have a lot of challenges, but having too much time on our hands is not one of them. I often compare the academic year ... I’ve said, "For 15 weeks, it’s like being on a merry-go-round that’s spinning really fast, each week faster and faster, and you can’t get off.” There’s so much emphasis I think on being busy, on being productive. That’s important, but in order to be attentive to one another, we need to slow down. I’m not saying we sit around doing nothing. But if I’m so busy and distracted that I’m always just exhausted, how can I really be attentive to anybody?

So a culture of communio means we have to dare sometimes to go slower. We have to dare sometimes to do more by doing less. Otherwise, I think it does a kind of violence to us physically, mentally and emotionally. We don’t want to say, “We love what we’re doing, but it just sucks too much light out of us.” So we need to be able to slow down.

A temptation for a lot of us – I think at least vocationally – is to turn in on ourselves, to shrink the horizons of our world, especially when we’re tired and overly busy or discouraged. But with the virtue of attentiveness, instead of bending the world to my own comfort and security, my own interest and needs, I let it draw me out of myself for the sake of others.

Paying attention is a kind of self-transcendence. Without this virtue, we miss so much that is happening each day, right in front of us, and thus let so many opportunities to draw other people more fully to life pass us by. Or, we let so many opportunities to be drawn more fully to life ourselves by others pass us by. When we pay attention, we relate to one another in a way where little by little, we bring each other more fully to life. It’s a powerful thing to do, if someone says, “In knowing you, I became more fully alive.”

Paying attention is a kind of self-transcendence. Without this virtue, we miss so much that is happening each day, right in front of us, and thus let so many opportunities to draw other people more fully to life pass us by.

Fourth, creating a culture of charity and friendship requires cultivating the spirit of graciousness. The theologian William May calls this philosophical charity. By philosophical charity, he means giving others the benefit of the doubt. It means assuming the best of others, and interpreting what they say in the best possible light. Even more, philosophical charity demands that instead of jumping to conclusions about people, instead of judging them in a negative light or deriding them behind closed doors, we envision them graciously and we do our best to think well of them.

What would it mean to operate the principle of graciousness in our meetings, in our committee work and all our interactions at the college? The spirit of graciousness is the opposite of a spirit of an ingrained criticism and the opposite of a spirit of dismissiveness. In institutions characterized by philosophical charity, I may disagree with you, perhaps strongly, but I still admire you and appreciate you. With philosophical charity, I may be convinced that you are wrong, but I still see you as a person who has good in them and recognize that I can learn from you.

When a spirit of graciousness goes missing, communio is replaced by factions, by competing interest groups, by mistrust and conflict. Or, more simply, without philosophical charity we become comfortable with ignoring, neglecting and avoiding certain people or shutting them out. When that happens, the choir falls apart. Just know that: Without the spirit of graciousness, the choir falls apart.

The fifth important virtue for creating a culture of charity and friendship is humility. Sometimes I hesitate even mentioning this word because people will say, “Well, I’m with you to this point.” Talk about humility can be a little itchy, can make us a little edgy – maybe for good reason. Sometimes we’re skittish about humility because we confuse genuine humility with its counterfeit versions. Humility is not insufficient self-regard, humility is not an unhealthy lack of confidence, and humility certainly has nothing to do with denying one’s dignity and worth as a human being. Humility is clarity of vision about ourselves and how we stand in relation to others. A person of humility sees clearly and truly: clarity of vision about myself but also, “How do I stand in relation to others?”

Theologian Richard Gula captured the essence of true humility when he wrote, “Humility is not low self-esteem but low self-preoccupation.” Those are very different. It’s not low self-esteem, it’s low self-preoccupation. Gula notes that C.S. Lewis claimed humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less – two different things. I’m not putting myself down, but rather humility characterizes people who know that the world does not revolve around them. If we’re going to have communio at St. Norbert College, if it’s going to be a place where everybody can flourish, then that’s the kind of people we need: people who know that the world does not revolve around them. We’re called to something more important; we’re called to something more interesting.

The word humility is derived from the Latin word humus, which means ground, soil or “of the earth.” In fact, humility and human share the same root, which tells us that humility is generally humanizing. Humble persons are well grounded or rooted. They are generally down-to-earth because they have a healthy sense of themselves – both their gifts and their limitations. They don’t have to make themselves the center of attention, and because they don’t pretend that they are more than they are or other than they are, they can appreciate, depend on and celebrate the talents and accomplishments of others. In other words, if we risk humility, we won’t be eaten up by envy and jealousy. Those are toxic for communio. If I can’t appreciate your gifts, envy and jealousy will suddenly begin eating away, and that gets us nowhere. If I spend all my time envying what you have and I don’t, I never realize what I have, and I never realize what I can bring to the choir.

So humble people are people who can appreciate, depend on and celebrate the accomplishment of others. As Gula notes, with humility we are more concerned that good be done than that others recognize us for what we did. “Humility,” Gula says, “is the virtue that knows there is no limit to what can be done when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” So what’s important here is not so much putting the spotlight on myself, but how can I contribute to something good?

Humility nurtures communio because a humble person recognizes that none of us knows everything. We may have great expertise in a particular area and be truly exceptional at what we do, but still our knowledge is limited. And this means we have to be willing to consult others, to listen to them, and we have to be open to their insights and suggestions. We have to be willing to learn from them, but also be willing to admit that sometimes their ideas may be better than our own. Humility contributes to an institutional culture characterized by mutual respect, open communication, genuine collegiality and ongoing collaboration. With humility, the choir will sing in harmony, because no voice will ever drown out any other voice. With humility, no voice will ever go unheard.

With humility, the choir will sing in harmony, because no voice will ever drown out any other voice. With humility, no voice will ever go unheard. 

In writing about the virtue of humility, Aquinas says that humility “curbs pushiness.” It’s one of my favorite lines in the “Summa [Theologica]” – probably tells you about my life that I actually have favorite lines in the “Summa.” It’s a big book, but Aquinas has a lot of insights, and this is one of my favorites. When he’s talking about humility, he just cuts to the chase: Humility “curbs pushiness.” Now, Aquinas, I think, was simply being realistic. He realized how easy it is for any of us to be pushy. We want to get our way. We think our ideas are best. Sometimes we would rather prevail than cooperate. We’re pushy.

Academic institutions are no strangers to pushiness. … But not only do I think are academic institutions no strangers to pushiness, but I think sometimes the academic world encourages pushiness, even celebrates it. And when that happens, academic institutions become pretty lonely places. Because when I’m pushy, I don’t allow myself to be blessed by the gifts and goodness of others. There’s a cost there. It’s easy to be pushy, but when I’m pushy I shut myself off to the possibility of being blessed by another person.

Two things emerge from these reflections on humility. First, humility reminds us that we cannot create communio without genuine dialogue and an ongoing willingness to listen. Authentic community requires authentic conversation, and authentic conversation is one in which I am open to being challenged and changed. Instead of thinking of what I need to say in order to show that I’m right, I listen to what the other person is saying, knowing that they may well see something that I may have overlooked, and knowing that together we come to a better understanding of what is true and real. This conversation must be egalitarian. We come to the conversation as equals, each with something to offer, each with something to learn.

In a culture of charity and friendship, we learn that truth is not oppositional but relational. In other words, we move to the truth only as we move toward ever-widening circles of friendship. Friendship and truth go together. Charity and truth cannot be separated. The broader and more expansive those circles of friendship are, the more likely we are to come to a better understanding of what is true and good and worthwhile. So what this means is we have to resist that kind of shrinking of the circle of friendship. The dynamic always has to be to pushing that circle, to expanding that circle, because we come to a better understanding of the truth the broader and richer that circle of friendship gets.

Secondly, thinking about humility reminds us that a culture of charity and friendship requires transparency and truthfulness. We do not build communio on minimizing, denying or concealing difficult truths – truths we would rather ignore. Communio requires honesty and truthfulness and the willingness to hold one another accountable. This is why charity does not mean letting things slide. Charity does not mean acting as if something really didn’t happen when it clearly did. Sometimes charity requires confrontation and correction. It’s always easier to let things slide rather than deal with them. It’s always easier to talk about people rather than to them. It’s always easier to let festering problems remain unaddressed. It’s always easier to try to move ahead without dealing with what we want to leave behind. But that fosters disillusionment and invites cynicism.

Aquinas was absolutely right when he said community dies when trust is broken. That always happens: Community dies when trust is broken. As soon as bonds of trust begin to erode, that communio will no longer exist. We know that in our personal relationships; we know it in our families. If we don’t believe someone is being truthful to us, what do we do? We start to withdraw. We begin to guard ourselves, to protect ourselves. So building a communio of charity and friendship requires a collective commitment to truthfulness and transparency.

In case you’re wondering how many more of these there are, there’s only two more! 

The sixth one is an important quality for developing an institutional culture of charity and friendship: concord. Concord is the harmony and peace that results when we share goods and purposes. The opposite of concord is discord. Discord surfaces when we cannot agree on anything that matters. Discord surfaces when we are increasingly conflicted and at odds, or when we actively work to create divisions and discontent, when we do our best to sabotage communio. We know sometimes that happens. It’s always easier to sabotage communio than contribute to it. It’s always easier to tear things apart than to build them. So this requires a commitment.

Aquinas saw concord as one of the chief effects of charity. He understood concord as being of one mind about things that matter and said that concord is found only in good people concerning good things. I think that is a very compelling way to think about St. Norbert College. St. Norbert College ought to be a place where good people come together to pursue generally good things.

Perhaps Aquinas captured the special importance of concord when he wrote, “We must say that great projects come out of concord and disintegrate through discord. The reason,” Aquinas goes on, “is that the more united a force, the stronger it is; the more separated, the weaker.” Now those words ring true for spouses and partners, friends and communities, but also for institutions. St. Norbert College is a great project. But St. Norbert College can succeed at that great project only when there is consensus about who we are and what we ought to be doing well. Concord does not mean that people have to agree on everything, and it does not mean that they have to all think the same. That would make St. Norbert College a very dull and lifeless place. But it does mean that they share substantive beliefs and convictions in common – what Aquinas called vital issues – and are committed to working together to achieve them.

St. Norbert College is a great project. But St. Norbert College can succeed at that great project only when there is consensus about who we are and what we ought to be doing well.

Finally, St. Norbert College will be a place where all of us can flourish when it is a community that is not afraid to celebrate. In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles that I referred to earlier … it says that the early Christians ate their meals with exaltation and sincerity of heart. So when they sat down to table, they weren’t looking down. They weren’t sitting there silently; they were looking face to face. To eat a meal with exaltation means you’re having fun, you’re enjoying yourself, you’re happy to be there. They knew how to celebrate. They knew how to come together to enjoy one another.

Earlier this year, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities, died. L’Arche communities brought people with intellectual disabilities together with people without intellectual disabilities to share life together. Many years after he began L’Arche, Vanier reflected on what living in those communities taught him. This is what he wrote: “Maybe the most important thing is to learn how to build communities of celebration. Maybe the world will be transformed when we learn how to have fun together.” I don’t mean to suggest Vanier wrote that we don’t talk about serious things. But maybe what our world needs more than anything is communities where we celebrate life together and become a sign of hope for our world.

I think Vanier is right. Nobody wants to be part of a glum and gloomy community: It’s really no community at all. We want to be a part of communities of celebration; communities where people enjoy one another, laugh and have fun together; communities where we celebrate each person’s success because the success of any one person contributes to the success of all of us. Communio is real when we can celebrate together, each person delighting in every other person. Communio is real when everyone feels welcomed and everyone can say: “I’m glad that I am here.” As Vanier put it: “A true community of celebration exists when each person knows there is no place else that any of them would rather be.” Why? Because all of them are flourishing.

This brings us back to the image of communio as a choir composed of many voices. Each voice is different, but each voice is absolutely essential, because each voice brings something vital to the choir. When the members of the choir are singing together in harmony, each voice blending with every other voice, something beautiful is created. And I’m trying to suggest this morning that St. Norbert College will be a community in which each person flourishes, when it is a choir of many voices – a choir in which each member welcomes, encourages, celebrates and supports every other member as together you pursue something truly worthwhile.

My hope is that everyone here will always find that to be so.