23 Nov Full Text: Dean Susan K. Wood’s 2019 Convocation Address
Convocation Address 2019
November 23, 2019
Susan K. Wood, SCL
I extend a heartfelt welcome to our graduates, their friends and family, our Board of Trustees, the Chancellor of the University of Toronto, TST representatives, honored guests, and my colleagues here at Regis. I stand here as the new Academic Dean. I’m here today largely because of the vision articulated for Regis in the preface of the present strategic plan that compellingly unites academic excellence with ministerial sensitivity in service to Church and society. I feel called to put my energies towards implementing this vision that will propel Regis College into its future.
The generic statement of purpose, “to form women and men for ministry and service in the Church and society” does not by itself differentiate Regis from other theological schools. What gives this purpose specificity is the context, the time, and the charism within which this theological education occurs. The context is 21st century Canada, a country living out its reconciliation with indigenous peoples in a society becoming increasingly secular, in the most multicultural city in North America facing challenges of providing affordable housing, adequate hospital beds, and social services for its most vulnerable citizens, and a location in downtown Toronto up the street from the Parliament building on the campus of the world-renowned University of Toronto. The context is also the papacy of Pope Francis, who, in the footsteps of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, is rebuilding the church by calling its members to be missionary disciples.
The time is the 21st century. A personal story: I am the second Ph.D. in theology of a total of three in my religious community. (The third became a college president before the ink was dry on her diploma and went immediately from assistant professor to college president overnight.) The first obtained her doctorate in the 1950s when there was only one theological school in the United States where a woman could receive a Ph.D. in theology. She was a neo-scholastic theologian, the dominant theology of the pre-Vatican II years, in both training and temperament. At the kitchen sink one day, she asked what kind of theology I wanted to do. My answer was: “creative theology.” Her response was: “What’s that?” My answer did not compute with her experience where “creative” and “theology” didn’t belong in the same sentence, even though Thomas Aquinas, unlike his neo-scholastic interpreters, was a tremendously creative and innovative theologian of the 13th century who incorporated so-called “pagan” Aristotelian philosophy in his theology.
Our churches are no longer in the 1950s, at home in a predominantly Christian society characterized by high church attendance, stable religious affiliations, burgeoning seminaries, and traditional families in the model of the 1950s TV show that most of you are too young to remember, “Leave it to Beaver.” This was a world of intact marriages, stay-at-home moms, and daily family dinners eaten together. Nostalgia for those days appears in a turn to traditionalism in worship. We circle the wagons and isolate ourselves from encounters with difference even to the point of home schooling our children. However, in a line taken from the Wizard of Oz, “We are no longer in Kansas, Toto.” How odd that that nostalgia reaches back to a time before the lived experience of most people experiencing that nostalgia. That time has become a sort of mythical golden age imagined as a solution to the fragility of human relationships, to cultural instability, and to rapid change.
The fact that we are no longer in Kansas is a good thing. When external structures no longer shore us up, we are forced to go deeper, to develop internal resources, to take personal responsibility for our beliefs and our actions, in short, to be adults in church and society. When we are no longer protected from difference by flight to racially segregated suburbs, by single-sex schooling at any level of education, by self-sufficient churches, we must dialogue with the “other.” We are called to dialogue with states, with society, with cultures and the sciences, and with other believers. In this dialogue we discover the Spirit, who has already been at work within other cultures, religions, churches, and peoples. In this dialogue, we live out the Jesuit vocation and charism to seek and find God in all things. In this dialogue we are transformed, the evangelizers having become the evangelized through the encounter with difference.
Creative theology mines our historical theological heritage for its best wisdom, but builds on that with new methodologies to address new questions such as those raised by closer encounters with other religions, ethical challenges posed by new technologies, cultural challenges posed by the migration of displaced peoples, reconciliation with indigenous cultures, and the challenge of witnessing meaning and faith in a culture where consumer values commodify and instrumentalize human beings, where transcendental values are collapsed into immanent utilitarianism.
So how do we do this here at Regis? We do this by “forming scholars and critical thinkers grounded in academic rigour who pursue truth, practice justice, and live out their faith with integrity.” The transformation intended by this educational formation is wholistic, both intellectual and affective, one that does not exist for itself, but for service to others in the pursuit of justice, in interfaith and cross-cultural relationships, and in practical engagement with the world. At the same time, it is intellectually cutting-edge. Ministry and service to the world are not intellectually soft but require our best thinking and theological creativity. Those among us with advanced theological degrees are called to humility, to engagement with the “humus,” the earth in the form of real people, their practical concerns, and ultimate destiny. No ivory tower or intellectual arrogance here! Those among us with ministerial degrees are called to minister intelligently, able to extend ourselves beyond a catechetical answer, able to engage the critical questions raised by professionally educated people. Both are deeply spiritual endeavors. Hard, creative, critical thinking is a form of intellectual worship. We are called to love the Lord our God not only with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength, but also with all our mind, and, in doing this, to love our neighbors as ourselves (Lk 10:27).
Graduates, go forth with the preparation that Regis has given you with our blessing. Yours is a noble task.