Welcoming Rev. Dr. Bryan Massingale
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February 13, 2023
Rev. Dr. Bryan Massingale visited Seattle University on Feb. 9 to deliver the Patrick Howell, S.J., Catholic Heritage Lecture. In introducing Father Massingale, President Eduardo Peñalver reflected on how the speaker’s topic, “A Spirituality of Racial Metanoia,” is relevant for a Jesuit and Catholic university like SU. Here are President Peñalver’s remarks:
I am delighted to have the opportunity to welcome all of you to this afternoon’s Catholic Heritage Series lecture and to thank Fr. Bryan Massingale, whose work I have long admired, for joining us and sharing his wisdom with us.
The topic of today’s discussion, A Spirituality of Racial Metanoia, speaks to a question of great urgency in our society, as we continue to grapple with the legacy (and ongoing reality) of centuries of racial injustice. It would be appropriate to have this conversation at any time of year, but it is worth acknowledging that it is occurring as part of our university’s participation in Black History month. A Jesuit university, particularly one like Seattle University, with our vision to be innovative and progressive, is an important place for this kind of conversation.
In the Bible, metanoia is often translated as “repentance,” which seems to give it a somewhat negative and backward-looking valence – I am penitent for things in my past that I regret, for which I feel guilty . . . for which I deserve to be punished. “Catholic guilt” jokes notwithstanding, our “guilt” and need for “penance” are not the reasons I think this conversation is an especially appropriate one for Seattle University to be hosting and leading.
Metanoia is a much richer concept than this usual translation as “repentance” suggests. In New Testament Greek, metanoia literally means a “change of mind.” Some commentators have given it an even more expansive gloss, as “an opening of the understanding that leads to transformation.”
This broader sense of the word, which focuses on our need for (and the process of) transformation, gives metanoia a more forward-looking orientation. This does not render the past irrelevant. Any meaningful process of change starts with an honest appraisal of where we are and how we got here. But the motive for engaging in that act of reflection on our past and present is our deeper interest in what we want to BECOME.
To my mind, it is that spirit of becoming that makes a Jesuit and Catholic university – that also aspires to be innovative and progressive – an ideal place to reflect on racial metanoia. As I have said on many occasions, our unique constellation of commitments – to be a university that is innovative and progressive and Jesuit and Catholic – creates a productive instability at the center of our self-understanding, an instability rooted in the tension between our longing for “somewhere better than this place” and our acknowledgment that in many ways there is “nowhere better than this place” for engaging in that kind of reflection.
Giving each element of this tension its due commits us to acknowledging with gratitude the goodness that already exists around us and within us while at the same time challenging us to see with clear eyes our shortcomings and our need for transformation.
As a community of faith, Catholics are not where we want to be when it comes to racial justice. Our Church’s awareness of racial injustice has been a centuries-long work in progress. Consider the institution of slavery. As John Noonan observed in his book, A Church that Can and Cannot Change, “Around the world, slaves were used by religious orders as labor.” The Jesuits were no exception, as we know from the recent discussions of Georgetown’s 1838 sale of 272 enslaved men, women and children to raise money to bail out the university’s struggling finances. And yet, at the same time, for as long as slavery existed, there were Catholics, and Jesuits, who condemned it as incompatible with human dignity, and who fought to end it.
Our own faith community’s inconsistent witness over the centuries on behalf of racial justice creates for Seattle University a special obligation to be leaders in a conversation about how we must – and can – transform ourselves. But our purpose in acknowledging our past and present shortcomings is not to stand in ahistorical judgment of the people who came before us, or to get stuck in a doom loop of self-loathing. Recognizing our undeniable past failures and the persistence of injustice into our present reality is only helpful when it becomes the occasion for a greater awareness of – and commitment to – our need for transformative action.
And this leads to a final reason that it is so important and appropriate to have these conversations at Seattle University. Our foundation in Catholic and Jesuit spirituality gives us a deep commitment to a faith that does justice. The Jesuit commitment to joining contemplation with reflective action informs our mission of empowering leaders for a just and humane world.
And that project of contemplation and action begins with both an acknowledgment of our failures but also with a recognition of God’s enduring and boundless love and grace. And that in turn gives us a justified confidence that we have within this community the tools we need to deepen our understanding and to transform ourselves, and, by extension (through our students) to transform the world around us. Our recognition and gratitude for the gifts already present in this community gives us the hope that transformation is not only necessary, but also possible.
Visit Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture to learn more about Father Massingale and the topic he addressed.