Inauguration at Siena College

Inauguration 1996

Inaugural Address
 Fr. Kevin E. Mackin, OFM
Siena College, Loudonville, NY
October 2, 1996

Thank you, Mr. McDougal, for conferring upon me the Presidential medallion and the charter of the College.  I enthusiastically and wholeheartedly accept the charge.

Distinguished guests, trustees, faculty, students and staff, friends all.

An inauguration is  a large and extended moment in which we come together to honor our past, celebrate its renewal in the present, and stretch our imaginations towards ways in which we can deepen and expand it in the uncertain yet always promising future.

My remarks today will map out what I believe are the chief features of Siena’s tradition, a tradition of academic excellence in the Catholic spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, and some of the peculiar challenges which this tradition faces at the threshold of a new millennium. 

In offering them, I am thankful for the supporting presence of three past presidents of the college, Frs. William McConville, Hugh Hines and Matthew Conlin, as well as the past chairs of the Board, Frank Roddy and Raymond Kennedy.  Hollis Harrington, Thomas O’Connor and Patrick Barrett, past chairs of the Board, send their best wishes to all.   Siena is grateful to these for strengthening and indeed exemplifying the mission of the college.  Patrick Barrett, for example, tells in his own words how he couldn’t afford a college education, but nonetheless set out for Siena at the age of 17 from the North Country 41 years ago and met a Franciscan friar who found him a place to live, a scholarship so he could stay, and an opportunity to have an education for life.

First a few words to introduce myself.  I was born in Brooklyn, New York, one of four children, all of whom are here today.  Our parents were a warmhearted couple, blessed with a good Irish sense of humor, a deep sense of God and each other, and a down to earth love for the innumerable relatives, friends and strangers who always seemed to be filling our home. 

My fascination with Francis of Assisi began at the age of 13, when I providentially met the mother of a Franciscan friar on the street.  Confiding to her my desire to do something meaningful with my life, I was told in no uncertain terms by this woman to “go to the Franciscans.” 

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that blunt admonition was one of those defining moments, such as many of you have no doubt experienced, which set forever the course of one’s life, a moment in which, as in Robert Frost’s oft-cited poem, two paths diverge before us and we choose between them with a choice that makes all the difference.[1]    For this woman’s words stuck in my mind as a kind of divine injunction, enabling me to reap the initial benefits of a classical education at Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit high school for boys, while keeping my feet from walking too far down that rather military path (or so it seemed in those days).  Soon after, I pursued classic education with the Franciscans  and my immersion in the life and spirit of St. Francis began in earnest.

Who is Francis of Assisi, this Italian merchant’s son whose religious life was crowded into twenty short years at the outset of the 13th century? 

He is, of course, everybody’s favorite saint.  But this universal appeal is ambiguous, since it tends to obscure the distinctive and intense focus of Francis’s life and to replace the substance of the man with the ultimately uninteresting flower child depicted in the Zeffirelli film Brother Sun, Sister Moon. 

My own vision of Francis centers around three singularly graced events in his life: the encounter with the leper, the vision of the crucifix at the chapel of San Damiano, and the crucifying gift of the stigmata on Mount La Verna.  The first two occurred early in his life and determined the course it would take; the third took place near the end and revealed its final spiritual meaning.

The meeting with the leper was perhaps the most decisive of these graces.  The story is well known.  As The Legend of the three Companions tells it,

“…one day, as Francis was riding near Assisi, he met a leper.  He had always felt   an overpowering horror of these sufferers; but making a great effort, he conquered     his aversion, dismounted, and in giving the leper a coin, kissed his hand.  The      leper then gave him the kiss of peace, after which Francis remounted his horse            and rode on his way.”[2]

The story does not end there, for a few days later Francis went to the leper hospital with a large gift of money, gathered all these people together, giving each the kiss of peace, and for a time even lived among them and served their needs.

What may seem at first nothing more than devout hagiography reveals its sharp edge when we see where Francis “was coming from.” 
Francis had always been a kind-hearted and generous young man, but only within the limits of his upper middle class background, and without detriment to the life of youthful fun and games it made possible.  But now, not unlike Archbishop Romero of San Salvador after the murder of his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, his mind and heart were abruptly turned around to focus on the world’s outcasts, towards a “preferential option for the poor” — except that it was not so much an “option” as a profoundly religious response to a divine revelation:  “The Lord led me among lepers.”[3] 

This compassionate identification with the poor, and with Christ dwelling within the poor, was the distinctive impetus behind Francis’s lifelong espousal of humility and minority.  And it remains today the most distinctive mark of his followers.  Only in its light do the visions at San Damiano and on La Verna reveal their true inner sense. 

At San Damiano, the Crucified appeared to Francis and commanded him to “Go, rebuild my Church, which, as you see, is falling into ruin,”[4]  to rebuild it not just by repairing local chapels, as Francis first thought, but by renewing the Gospel life within the Church.  It is precisely this living of the Gospel life in the footsteps of Christ, and specifically of the poor and crucified Christ, that became the “rule and life” of the Franciscan movement.[5]  

The depth and reality of that union was sealed, two years before his death, on Mount La Verna, where, through the gift of the stigmata, Francis was identified body and soul with Christ, and became a living icon of Christ’s healing and redemptive presence to the Church and indeed to the whole world.

This devotion to Christ touches directly on our mission here at Siena, for it brings sharply into focus the ambiguity that has always marked the Franciscan approach to education, from its magnificent origins in the 13th century at the Universities of Paris and Oxford under Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus, down to our own day and age, an ambiguity that is reflected in the 14th century Franciscan saint after whom this college is named: Bernardine of Siena, a man who was not a theologian, like Bonaventure, but, like Francis himself, a street preacher.   For the love and life of learning are not “second nature” to Franciscans as they are to Dominicans with their Thomas Aquinas.  The pure life of the mind always has something suspect about it, something which needs justifying.   That is why Bonaventure  exhorts his readers in the “Journey of the Mind into God” to ”groan in prayer …lest they come to think that mere discourse will suffice without affection, pure theory without personal commitment, research  without adoring wonder, insight without a leaping of the heart, effort without reverence, knowledge without love, understanding without humility, study without divine grace”[6]
This exhortation springs connaturally from the heart.  The sons and daughters of St. Francis know with St. Paul that all the knowledge in the world is a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal (l Cor. 13:1) unless it is animated by a genuine, humble and practical love!           Franciscan education is always education for life, a life of service as much as of achievement, a life that, however exalted its intellectual reach, never strays far from our common human lot. 

A Franciscan school makes its own, though in accordance with its specific purpose, what the  Second Vatican Council said of the entire Church: “The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hope, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”[7]

A sticking point is how to do this while preserving what is nowadays called our “Catholic identity.”   The term is, I think, a loaded one, and for this reason I propose that our community come together to discover what it means for us.   We might begin by asking ourselves some questions.  

What does it mean, for example, at the end of 20th century America, to be a Catholic college — unflinching in our commitment not just to Christ’s Spirit, but to Christ’s truth and to that Church which, for all its many and obvious sins, is his extended body and the pledge to humankind of God’s universal salvation?  

On this, we do well to remind ourselves that, just as St. Francis was not a forerunner of the flower children of the 1960s, so he was not a precursor of the reformers of the 1520s.   He was at once both wholly apostolic and wholly Catholic.  If his appeal and his spirit reach, as they justifiably do, far beyond the structural borders of Catholicism, it is not because his Catholic loyalty was in any way diluted, but because he had a unique ability, which we can only hope to share in, to incarnate in his being and actions the unfathomable riches and beauty of a compassionate God enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth and alive by the power of the Spirit in the community of the Church.  

Francis did this not in some offbeat or revolutionary way, but by the radical practice of the Gospel in the concrete Church of his time, whose sins he knew all too well but which he nonetheless loved, “warts and all.” 

One can no more sever Francis from the Church than one can sever Christ from the Church.   For Francis was one with Jesus Christ, not with the Christ of anyone’s fancy or of this or that theology, but with the living Christ of the Church’s living tradition.

Yet what does it mean to maintain this “Church” commitment while at the same time being fully alive to the wealth and promise of human achievement, fully committed to the freedom of human inquiry, reveling in the glory of human beauty, having a heart for the darkness of human misery and a hand for the innumerable needs, wants and hopes that constitute the daily bread of human life?   We might have a better chance of harmonizing these competing claims if we realized how closely the two are intertwined, how profoundly the humanist bent of Catholicism is neither coincidental to it, nor a pragmatic accommodation to the spirit of the age, but how profoundly this humanist bent springs from Catholicism’s  religious core.    For the one whom the Church confesses as Lord is the one God of all, who created human nature in his image and then made it his own in order more wonderfully to restore it, the God whom Francis praised in that hymn of creation he called the Canticle of Brother Sun. 

It is in fact precisely this universal humanism that constitutes the goal of the Church’s sometimes forbidding particularity and so preserves the promise of Catholicism and keeps it from degenerating into a mere sect.    Siena, as a Franciscan college, should be a place where we can all begin rediscovering this life-affirming humanism on a simple, everyday level, by learning what it means to link mind with heart (or learning with holiness, as the traditional Franciscan motto puts it), what it means to be a community of brothers and sisters who live and work together in courtesy and mutual deference, by learning how we might serve the needs of the “lepers and outcasts” of our day and how we ourselves might live lives not of anxiety and ambition, but of humility, wonder and praise.

Learning such things will not be easy.  It will require the slow and painful process of intellectual, moral and spiritual conversion described so acutely by the Jesuit philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan.  And it can only be the result of a shared process, a search together for what Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, an affiliate of our Franciscan Province, has called  “common ground.” Common ground, I would add,  lives up to its promise only if it signifies (1) a core set of truths and values that guide our work while providing a soil rich enough to nurture each of us into our full and authentic potential;  (2) a common rootedness that enables us to proclaim our Catholic and Franciscan identity without compromise but also without coercion;  (3) a reliance  on personal integrity,  on St. Augustine’s frank admission of the labor needed to discover truth and the difficulty of avoiding error. [8]  

Forging these principles into a concrete and viable way of life will, as I have said, not be easy, but I invite the community to join the process of debate and discovery without which vision remains an unfulfilled dream, and to do so with the best and most devoted energies of our minds and hearts.

I would like to suggest an image for this process.  It is a Pauline image that was a favorite of St. Francis and was used by the Second Vatican Council to describe the character of the Church’s existence at this juncture of world history: the image of a pilgrim, or, better yet, of a company of pilgrims, walking together as a people into a future that is always one step ahead of them and so making their way humbly and in open, honest and, yes, animated  conversation with each other.

The goal of this conversation is to rediscover a vital and workable sense of Siena’s mission as a Franciscan and Catholic institution of higher education as we approach the turn of both the century and the millennium.  In this connection, I offer two points for reflection.  The two –character and learning — are closely related, and I will treat them as such.

As distinct from technical training, a liberal arts education, such as we offer here at Siena, is holistic in nature.  Its goal is not simply to inform the mind, but to form and develop “a whole person” ready to take his or her place articulately and responsibly in the larger world.  A liberal arts education aims, then, at strengthening those intellectual virtues or abilities apart from which knowledge, no matter how technically advanced, becomes self-absorbed and self-defeating — the ability to explore widely, to listen thoughtfully, to test one’s ideas against those of others, to discern critically, and to adduce reasons for one’s assertions rather than merely brandish them.

These intellectual virtues are not autonomous, however; they are directed and governed by the heart.  How and to what end they are exercised depends on a person’s moral character. That is why the ideal of a liberal arts education includes, by definition, a  commitment to moral education, why our colleges and universities must continue to be, or must once again become, places where young people are educated in the practice of those moral virtues that make one a good and not merely an accomplished person: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, hard work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, civility, decency, respect, citizenship, faith in God. 

It is particularly vital that a Franciscan college like Siena be a place where, whatever our religious tradition, faith in a personal and provident God is not politely set aside as peripheral to the educational quest, but is taken seriously as an intelligent, morally responsible, and, yes, decisive option for contemporary people.

Even a cursory glance at the complex challenges facing our nation, churches, synagogues and world reveals how sorely we need these traditional, “old-fashioned” virtues. 
What I would call your attention to particularly today is not so much the challenges –the dizzying explosion of technological capability and information, the ominously widening gap between the rich and the poor both in our country and worldwide, the violence and discord that blight the promise of multiculturalism, the dark cloud hanging over the natural environment, the daily coarsening of  public entertainment, the sophistry that more and more triumphs over substance  in political discourse, to name a few–not so much those challenges as the imperative which these challenges lay on us as educators to instill in the young, and perhaps first of all to rejuvenate in ourselves, the intellectual and moral energies needed to expose and address them.

  St. Francis’s ideal of building and serving community is especially illuminating in this regard.  For perhaps the greatest threat posed by the ambiguity and stressfulness of the world taking shape before us is that these challenges will drive us into a private enclave of our own intellectual, emotional, economic, cultural, professional, or even religious dreaming, forgetting our ties to the larger communities in which, whether we like it or not, we live, move and have our human being.  Fostering an ideal of college life as a community disciplined in a vigorous search for the truth that sets us all free can effectively counter such a destructive privatization of the self.

This ideal, in turn, can only take root and thrive in a community whose fundamental tenor is one of moral goodness — and we need to remind ourselves that morality is essentially defined not by the observance of rules but by the attainment of goodness– a community marked by a justice that respects all equally and, perhaps more tellingly, by an all-pervading civility, a community where people respect and care about each other, and, not to forget joy, a community that can celebrate together those special intellectual and cultural events which make any college or university worthy of the name “an exciting place to be”.

Finally, I want to say something about the ideal of learning we should be promoting.  Our primary goal, of course, is to produce educated persons, not simply people with college degrees.  In this regard, job one must be to maintain and continually improve the quality of our undergraduate courses in the arts, sciences and business.  These are the backbone of a college education, and we can never take them for granted as we seek to meet more far-reaching needs.  Our core or general curriculum should give students an in-depth immersion in their intellectual, cultural and religious roots.   It should enable — and require them — to develop adult levels of oral and written competency, and should open them up to the full panoply of human learning as well as the chiaroscuro of human history.  And it should do this in a “sapiential” way which connects one discipline with another and links the heritage of the past to contemporary issues.

If this be the bones of our curriculum, there is also the need for flesh to connect it to the emerging needs of our students as well as those of society and thereby enable us to offer not just any sort of education, but truly an education for life, and in particular for life in the 21st century.  

To make education truly fulfill these goals, we must pursue new projects in curriculum development, programs and facilities.   I have established three immediate priorities which I believe are what the College needs most at this juncture in time.  

First, we want to enhance our pre-professional programs in such fields as medicine, accounting, teaching, social work, law, health management and the environment through systematic linkages with graduate and professional schools.   

Second, we want to add to and modernize our science facility to provide our students the hands-on, lab-rich, project-oriented education they need in order to compete in the technified world of tomorrow that is already moving unapologetically into the world of today. 

Third, we want to push full steam ahead with the dream of a new library.   Here would be just some of its exciting features:

*750 reading spaces, including lounge seating, study carrels, group study rooms   and  faculty research rooms;

*an audiovisual center with tapes, films, CDs, records, video disks and what media             tomorrow’s technology will generate, a screening room, teleconferencing and TV             production facilities, and satellite down linking equipment;

*space for 400,000–that’s 400,000 (compared with 250,000 now) –printed           volumes;

*a student microcomputer laboratory with an adjacent faculty authoring room.

In short, truly a library for the 21st century.

There is, in short, much to do and to think and be excited about, more than enough to get everyone’s creative juices flowing.  For it all to move forward, however, we need not just the grace of God, on which we can always rely, but each other. 

For my part, I offer the community whatever talents, ideas, and energies I possess, but nothing will come of them unless each of you, trustees, faculty, students and  staff alike, contributes the talents, ideas, and energies that you possess.  And these will not come together to mutual benefit unless all concerned have the courage to discipline their individual wants, both personal and professional, in pursuit of a greater vision, in advance of a common good.

  Earlier I invoked the image of a pilgrim community.  Pilgrims are needy people, vulnerable people, people who rely on each other, as they pick a common way along a frequently murky and almost always dangerous path towards their goal. 

In doing this, they learn to survive, and even to flourish. 

And so it must be, I think, with us.

Our goal?  The goal of all learning and education — to return, after what seems endless journeying through the strange and interweaving corridors of ourselves, others and the world, yes, to return into the simple fullness of being at home with ourselves, others and the world.  

T.S. Eliot said it perhaps best:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”[9]

Thia is indeed an exciting place to be at the crossroads of two millennia.   I look forward to being an integral part, with all of you, of that excitement.   Excelsior.   On to higher things.

Thank you and God bless.


1.         Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” in  Collected Poems of Robert Frost                (Cutchogue, N.Y.: Buccaneer Books, 1986), p. 131.
2.         “The Legend of the Three Companions.” Chapter 4 in St. Francis of Assisi:                        Writings and Early BiographiesEnglish Omnibus of the Sources for the                 Life of St. Francis, ed by Marion Habig (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press,                   1972), p. 900.
3.         Ibid, p. 67.
4.         Ibid, p. 370.
5.         Ibid, p. 31-64.
6.         “Itinerarium Mentis in Deum” in Works of St. Bonaventure,edited by                     P.Boehner M. F. Laughlin (St. Bonaventure: The Franciscan Institute,                  1956), p. 33.
7.         “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” in The                                     Documents of Vatican II, ed. By Walter M. Abbott  (New York: Guild,                     1966), p. 199-200.
8.         Erich Pryzwara, An Augustine Synthesis (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith,                  1970), p.79.
9.         T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets: Little Gidding”in Collected Poems 1909-1962                (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), p. 208.

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