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Symposia Recap: Summer at the MICL

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South Bend is not widely known for its beautiful weather. But summer in South Bend blesses the hardy natives, who patiently bear the brunt of the harsh winters, with a welcome respite, and impresses visitors with stunning skies straight out of a Thomas Cole painting. Pioneers who arrived in the summer, I imagine, were willing to slog through the permaclouded winter simply with the hope of seeing these oil-painted vistas come spring. Notre Dame’s campus hums awake with the sun each morning, as the gym fills up with professors on a swim, the lake-side trails are lousy with high school athletes on morning runs. Above the morning activity, the morning sky shines radiant blue, not a cloud—permanent or transitory—in sight, the sun radiating a cheery sparkle through the clean morning air.

On Notre Dame’s campus, the beautiful summer weather provides a backdrop to one of the busiest times of the year. Over 20,000 guests—high school students, ministers, academics, and teachers—and undergraduate students reside in Notre Dame’s dorms throughout the summer sessions. Keeping pace with the rest of campus, the McGrath Institute for Church Life also hums with activity throughout the summer. Oftentimes the third floor of Geddes Hall can be found quiet and calm, but its vacancy provides a silent testament to the frantic activity of the offices’ occupants, who zip over campus in golf carts, ferrying around high school children, conference participants and illuminated Bibles; give lectures; and lead those who flock to campus through full and rich symposia weeks of learning and renewal.

The McGrath Institute for Church Life seeks “to renew the theological, ministerial, pastoral, catechetical, and liturgical traditions of the Church,” a mission which occurs fifty-two weeks a year, but is evident in a particular way during the six weeks of Notre Dame’s summer session. Beginning with the annual Liturgy Symposium in mid-June and continuing up until this current, final week of summer symposia, the MICL offers itself as an intentional space where teachers and students, priests and laity, young and old can gather, to foster reflection and renewal.

As I walked with the participants of various symposia through their weeks of conferences, workshops, and prayer, I observed that participants did not simply reap the benefits of the academic content presented to them, but also were offered the unique opportunity to walk together in a rich experience of Church. Each day, the small community of conference attendees gathered together for morning prayer, and each evening, prayed evening prayer together. Allowing the liturgy to set the rhythm of the conference week, this simple practice makes a profound statement, particularly as it occurs in the heart of the academy. These conferences are not simply about imparting knowledge from the academy to practitioners in the field, but rather, they seek to unite the joint wisdom of the academy and the field—the parish, the classroom, the atrium. The wisdom is shared in lectures, in workshops, but also, particularly in the liturgy. To inaugurate each day of busy sessions with morning prayer proclaims that prayer and worship together is the true font and ultimate source of the wisdom shared. The wisdom of the Church springs from this unifying act of worship: the Divine Office, the mass, the liturgy of the communion of saints, where wisdom and the Word are incarnate in Scripture and Eucharist, enabling the faithful to “strengthen their power to preach Christ.”[1]

This year, the theme that guided both the Notre Dame Vision program and the Liturgy Symposium was Christ the Word, present in the language of the Gospels and the liturgy. The image of Christ the Word proffers a poignant challenge to Catholic theological writers and Catholic publications, Church Life Journal, among them. As academic and literary efforts to encounter Christ in Word, how do we continually make new our own writing about the Church and Christ? How do we prevent our imaginations and intellects from stagnating into images of our own pet theories or trendy theological discoveries? How do we allow the Word to break open our own ways of synthesizing and expressing theology and to establish itself as the foundation of all our utterances?

In her reflections on art and faith, Madeleine L’Engle writes: “In time of war, language always dwindles, vocabulary is lost.” She writes of the literal linguistic vocabulary lost in the second World War: in Japan, written characters were depleted, in Russia vocabulary was lost in the shifting sands of revolutions. Thus, it is the task of the writer to re-make the language, to revitalize the spoken word. Our spoken language reflects our ability to express the fullness of the ideas present in our hearts. Words are, in a sense, sacramental, able to make present intangible experiences, even grace. As limited human beings, we need words to express all the full valences of these truths.“We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually.”[2]

Furthermore, when our words become warring, we start to lose the full celebratory valence of our language. Our words are made for more than just volleying at each other, as we have seen happen too often in our public discourse, and we are sadly no stranger to its abuse in our private discourse. Liturgy restores our language to a full sacramental capacity, a full ability to express more valences of human communication than simply polemical lobbing of words, or a vicious tearing down of the other. Our words in the liturgy become very tangible building blocks of communion and community. They make present the Body of Christ in both Eucharistic species and the humble humans who gather together in worship.

Truly, liturgy provides an avenue for renewal; for writers, for ministers, for students, and pastors. All the rich programming that the Institute offers would be found lacking if it did not continually return participants to encounter this central font of wisdom and life. Liturgy, “daily builds up those who are within into a holy temple of the Lord, into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit [3], to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ […] and thus shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations.”[3] As those who gather at the McGrath Institute for Church Life seek to renew their own experience of the Church they are transformed into a sign “lifted up” to renew the parishes, homes, schools, and universities to which they return. The Church formed here this summer remaining, like the gilded clouds of South Bend summer, a shining testament to the work of God, offering renewal and refreshment throughout the permacloud of school year routine.

[1] Sacrosanctum Concilium, §2

[2] L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Macmillan. 1995. P. 38.

[3] Sacrosanctum Concilium, §2

 

 

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.