The Beauty and Power of Humble Beginnings

The Beauty and Power of Humble Beginnings

In honor of our 10th anniversary, and in light of today’s 35th anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul II, I am inaugurating a presidential blog with the hope that I can contribute to the creative process that is discovering who Ave Maria University is and what our role in the New Evangelization must be.

Ten days ago Ave Maria University proudly announced the establishment of the Mother Teresa Project, a first-of-its-kind initiative that will promote a deeper understanding of her spirituality which emanates from the words uttered by Jesus from the cross, “I Thirst,” as well as service which emulates her legendary compassion for the poor, whether in neighboring Immokalee or distant Calcutta.

Pope John Paul II had a deep appreciation of the role of a Catholic University in “proclaiming the meaning of truth, that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished.”  These words from the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae inspired our founding and directed our infancy “born from the heart of the Church.”

Ave Maria University is uniquely devoted to Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. Their names adorn two residence halls on campus and their memories live on in our hearts. I am certain that Ave Maria’s specific charism within the Catholic Church in the 21st century is tied to a deeper understanding of their inspiring lives and spirituality. 

So with them in mind, I want to write about the beauty and power of humble beginnings and littleness.

The world promotes the exact opposite. Bigger is better, weakness is woeful. The message from our super-sized, self-centered culture is very clear: being rich, powerful, famous and envied by all is what really matters. That is why today’s role models are media stars, professional athletes, rap singers, fashion models, and Wall Street tycoons, and not moms and dads, nurses and soldiers, teachers, priests and religious – and all of the legions of little people who make the world go round. 

Bethlehem, Lisieux, Skopje, Wadowice and countless other little-known places attest to the eternal truth that the Lord delights in choosing the little and humble to advance the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s consider Ave Maria University’s two special friends.

Mother Teresa left her homeland in Skopje (now part of Macedonia) at age 18 and traveled as a missionary to India to join the work of the Sisters of Loreto in educating youth. She labored in obscurity there for 18 years, and after being called by Jesus to satiate His Thirst for souls, left the comfortable confines of the cloister to begin working with the destitute of Calcutta. 

By day she and four of her former pupils (including Sister Dorothy, who was on our campus last week and left a lasting impression on so many of us) would teach street urchins, tracing lessons on the dirt of the bare ghettos, and by night they would have their meals and rest in a third floor apartment they retrofitted as a makeshift convent as part of a small home of a Muslim family at 14 Creek Lane. 

In the early days there often was barely enough food for the five nuns to eat. I remember seeing at an exhibit of Mother Teresa’s life at the Vatican a handwritten note from Mother to their landlord which simply said, “Mr. Gomes, we have no more rice.” Indeed the level of trust that was required of these women was matched only by their zeal, as Mother said, “to love until it hurts.”  These women held nothing back and trusted in God even when the tasks at hand seemed overwhelming. The early work was met with more failure than success. Fifteen months after she started working in the slums, Mother Teresa had only six women with her. 

Who could look at these humble beginnings of her missionary life at that point in March 1950 and see that decades later Mother Teresa would be known and loved by hundreds of millions throughout the world, showered with honors and awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and, ten years ago last Saturday, beatified before a massive throng of adoring faithful in St. Peter’s Square?  

Pope John Paul II’s story may be even more compelling. Those who knew young John Paul said he was a regular kid in high school. He was the goalie on his soccer team. He participated in school plays, and he wrote poetry. He also was fun to be around and his biographer said that he used to imitate his teachers so well that his classmates roared. He lived in Wadowice, Poland in a middle-class upbringing that was generally happy, but his childhood was not without heartbreak. 

When he was in 3rd grade, his mother died. And tragically, before he entered high school, his beloved and only brother, whom he adored and imitated, died suddenly from scarlet fever. Nonetheless, he still had his father and his childhood dream to one day go to Krakow and study. But shortly after enrolling John Paul witnessed the cruelty of man at its worst, when Germany invaded Poland, rounded up 184 of his professors and shipped them off to a concentration camp, closed the University, and forced all able-bodied men like him to work or be deported.

John Paul was assigned to a quarry where he did back-breaking labor. He was so poor he had only wooden shoes with which to walk the 30-minute journey to the mine every night. In the winter the temperature was so cold – as much as 20 degrees below zero – that he used to rub petroleum jelly on his face to keep his skin from freezing. 

And just when you thought things could not get any worse for John Paul, at age 20, six months after starting his work at the quarry, his father died. Now he was all alone; he had no family, and his college dreams and all of his bright promise seemed utterly dashed.

And then it got even worse. One night while walking home after a double shift of forced labor at the factory, John Paul was struck by a truck and knocked unconscious. 

So let us ponder this question:  how is it possible that this bloodied and battered man, known by only a handful of friends, with no money or power, left for dead, would become the Sovereign Pontiff and one of the greatest figures in human history?

The beauty and power of humble beginnings!  

At Ave Maria University we hear the words of the angel Gabriel, “Nothing is impossible with God,” and those of our holy Patroness: “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” and later, “He has looked upon His servant in her lowliness…God who is mighty has done great things for me, holy is his name,” and we delight in them. They help us discover who we are as a mission of the Church.

This past weekend I visited my son who is a junior at the University of Notre Dame (he couldn’t get into Ave Maria!). I often joke that Ave Maria University has a lot in common with Notre Dame: We are both named after the Blessed Mother, our school colors are blue and gold, and neither of our football teams will win the national championship this year!

But in all seriousness, I have a lot of respect for Notre Dame and its proud tradition forged since 1842. Its president, Fr. John Jenkins, is my friend, and so are many scholars and administrators who have made their home there. The University has an impressive campus, with over 1,000 full-time distinguished faculty members, 100,000 living alumni, and an endowment in excess of $8 billion (that’s not a typo – that’s “b” as in “billion”). 

Here’s an interesting contrast.  Last weekend was the big USC-Notre Dame game, and at kickoff Saturday night, this rivalry had attracted so many influential alumni that there were 160 private jets parked at Atlantic Aviation! I recall Ave Maria’s football team’s memorable inaugural game on our field two Saturdays ago that was as exciting as any game you’ll see (where we overcame a 10 point deficit in the last two minutes and won with less than a second left), and I remember seeing about that many aging minivans of Ave families parked along the boulevard!

For interests of full disclosure I have to admit that I don’t agree with some of the decisions and directions Notre Dame has struck since the time of the Land O’Lakes agreement of 1967, which diverted many Catholic institutions from the path of fidelity to what the Gospel reveals to us today through the Church. Notre Dame and all 200-plus Catholic universities – including Ave Maria – face challenges and responsibilities unique to their institutions and I pray that we all respond with fidelity and generosity. 

Yes, by the standards used in academia to measure greatness, Notre Dame can legitimately make its claim, and I wish them well. 

But John Paul II and Mother Teresa teach us much about what greatness is, and their lives are a testimony to the beauty and power of humble beginnings. 

Ave Maria University is not Notre Dame, and it is not meant to be Notre Dame. We will grow by remaining humble and faithful, not by comparing ourselves to other institutions or detracting from them. Our challenge is to discover – and be – who we are meant to be: Ave Maria University. That is a process of discerning Gospel revelation. And I think the secret to our understanding of this can be found in a closer embrace of John Paul II and Mother Teresa. In their uniquely different ways they grounded themselves in and added to the rich Catholic intellectual tradition of their time, and we are called to do the same.

My friends, humble beginnings, even failure along the way, are the means by which the Holy Spirit infuses grace. Tom Monaghan knew that building a university was not going to be easy, and it hasn’t been. Each cohort of employees and students who have joined this effort has known adversity, and I am certain, judging from the experiences of John Paul II and Mother Teresa, that the building up of Ave Maria University will always demand all we have. “This is my body which will be given up for you.”  

So I close this first blog post with the simple call that we embrace our humble beginnings, that we cherish our littleness, that we celebrate that we are relatively unknown, that we recognize the excellence in academics and warmth of relationship that we presently enjoy, and that we imitate John Paul II and Mother Teresa and trust Jesus Christ without reservation. Our Lady will show us the way to do this if we let her. 

In ten days we will have a celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints Day. Many campus-wide activities will take place that will culminate in the 5pm Mass, followed by a feast and music to be shared by all. This holy day provides us the opportunity to formally kick-off our 10 year anniversary, thank God for our humble beginnings, embrace our littleness as a gift and not a burden, and cling evermore tightly to the hand of Our Lady.

It is nothing less than wonderful to be at Ave Maria University at this time. See you next week!   

And stay tuned for my next blog – I will write them periodically and would welcome your feedback.