Welcome and Reflection on Charlottesville

August 18, 2017 

Dear Rockhurst University Community,

Today we welcome the Class of 2021 and transfer students, our newest companions, to our campus with the tragic and fresh memory of what took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week. Throughout the day, many of us will assist them, with their families, in moving into the residence halls. In the early evening, I will have the privilege of addressing them collectively for the first time. As I have done in years past, I will invite those gathered to consider the world’s population reduced to a village of just 100 people with all existing human ratios being the same. 

They will hear that 82 would be non-white; 67 members would be illiterate; 24 would be without electricity; 50 would be malnourished; 60 would be Asian; 33 would be Christian; 7 would have access to the internet; 5 would be from North America; and only one would have a college education. I will then invite them to fully engage the privilege that is before them, being an integral part of the Jesuit institution of higher learning we call Rockhurst. 

This address will take place by the bell tower where the words of Fr. Peter Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the 29th superior general of the Jesuits, are carved in stone. The words were first addressed to a group of students, at another Jesuit institution, in 1997. Fr. Kolvenbach said: “You are called by the Society of Jesus to be men and women who reflect upon the reality of the world around you with all its ambiguities, opportunities, and challenges, to discern what is really happening in your life and in the lives of others, to find God there and to discover where God is calling you, to employ criteria for significant choices that reflect Godly values rather than narrow, exclusive self-interest, to make decisions in the light of what is truly for the greater glory of God and the service of those in need, and then to act accordingly.”

Phrases such as the ambiguities and challenges, the reality of the world around us, and making decisions in light of what is truly for the greater glory of God and the service of those in need, have a particularly significant poignancy and relevance this year. Our nation is suffering from the most recent demonstration of hate, racism and violence that we witnessed in Charlottesville just days ago next to the campus of University of Virginia. Indeed, similar acts were perpetuated just yesterday in Barcelona, Spain.

Our newest companions and their families have to be wondering if such a thing could take place on or near our campus. Here is my answer. Be assured that Rockhurst will continue to make safety our number one priority. We also condemn terror, violence, racism, and other acts of hate. However, I cannot and will not assure you or them that everyone will be comfortable. In fact, as a university, the opposite may take place. 

Expression of ideas, with violence, can never be tolerated. However, speech and ideas, even those abhorrent to just about all of us, may need to be heard. If we claim we uphold the protection of free speech and the expression of multiple positions and ideologies as a constitutive part of being a university, we can expect to experience great discomfort and pain when such ideas are uttered. The allowance of such expression is not an endorsement of the ideology.

Firstly, they are opportunities for us to demonstrate our respect for the human dignity we each hold. No matter what anyone says or does, we are unable to change the fact that each of us is a work of the hands of God. Secondly, encounters laced with such vitriol challenge us to fortify our positions and arguments. Thirdly, these experiences invite us to begin to address the core issue of racism, hate, and/or intolerance that is being expressed. I believe this is what St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, meant in his Spiritual Exercises, when he wrote that “love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.”  

My hope, my desire, and my prayer for the class of 2021, our transfer students, our new graduate students, and all those who are part of the Rockhurst University Community is to feel welcomed, respected, and valued along each step of the way. We are pilgrims on a shared journey. Together, we seek God in all things. If we allow God to accompany us in this in pilgrimage, we can be assured that our journey will be experienced in justice and peace, and our ultimate destination will be full union with God. 

Thomas Curran, S.J.