(This speech was delivered by Father Willie to the student body, faculty, and staff on August 24, 2021, to kick off the 2021-22 school year.)
First of all, I want to take this opportunity, in the presence of the whole Belen community, to welcome the newest members of the Wolverine nation. Even though you were here yesterday for your day of orientation and I had the opportunity to address you and your parents, today I do it in the presence of the rest of your Belen brothers and all of the school’s faculty and staff.
To everyone else, welcome back. It is my hope that the summer months were an opportunity to rest and explore and, ultimately, get ready for this academic year.
When we finished last year, I clearly stated we were not offering a virtual option to learning this year. This is why we are all here. Even though, for now, we will be wearing our masks in class, we will all be right here where we belong.
I was recently asked in an interview what lessons I had learned with the whole COVID ordeal. I can tell you there have been many. But the one, most important lesson I have learned has been that, for as important as technology is in the world of education, nothing will ever replace human contact. We need schools and we need to be in them. We need the buildings, the classrooms, the desks, the playing fields, the chapels, the libraries, the hallways, we need them all. While programs like Zoom and YouTube are great and open up amazing possibilities, we cannot continue to live our lives on computer screens.
This is the reason God, who can do all things, chose to become a man as the way to save the world. God’s mission was to reveal to all people of all times and all cultures and all languages, the Truth of the gospel. The message, of course, is there is one God who is above all and before all, He is a God of unconditional love and insists we love each other. He could have fulfilled this mission in many different ways. He could have continued sending messages through prophets. He could have waited for technology to advance and sent us posts on Facebook or Instagram. He could have miraculously written it in the sky. He could have snapped His fingers and made it happen.
Instead, He chose to go through the hassle of becoming a man in the person of Jesus Christ. He knew there was nothing more important, more formative, more compelling than the human experience, human contact where the message of love was best and most decisively expressed through the words and, especially, the actions of the person. This is the truth about Jesus Christ… God becoming man to reveal the love of God. As I tell you every year, this is the reason it is the image of the sacred heart of Jesus that reigns supreme in the center of our campus.
This personal and human revelation of love that Jesus lived impacted very powerfully our founder St. Ignatius of Loyola. It was through a very personal and intimate relationship with Jesus that he was able to accomplish all the extraordinary things he did throughout his lifetime.
As you know, it wasn’t always like that for him. It wasn’t until that fateful day in 1521 at the Battle of Pamplona, when he was 30 years old, that a cannonball crushed his legs and he was sent back to his home in Loyola. It was in that moment of physical and emotional pain that he began to question his life and realize he needed to change. It was Jesus who called him to conversion. That cannonball was the event that changed his life forever, when he put aside his life as a soldier for the King of Spain and began his life as a soldier for Jesus, the king of Kings.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of that incredible moment. A few months ago, Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, launched an Ignatian year to celebrate this important experience in the life of St. Ignatius. It is a testament to the fact that all seemingly disastrous experiences can actually be extraordinary opportunities for grace. It is also a testament to the fact that we are all, no matter who we are or what state of mind we may be in, called to conversion.
Conversion is a misunderstood word. Most people think that conversion only refers to those people who do not believe, then believe. Or to those people who are not Catholic and then become Catholic. That is not true. Conversion is something we are all called to. All of us, every single one of us, needs to evaluate and reevaluate our lives in order to continuously move towards deepening a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. This is part of our ongoing formation and will continue for the rest of our lives. Simply put, if you stop growing, if you stop improving, if you stop learning, it means you are dead.
That has to be the center of life at Belen Jesuit. Every one of us, every teacher, staff member, alumnus, student, parent, Jesuit priest, everyone is called to continuously grow and learn and convert. But it is not simply a random process that takes you in any direction. It is a conversion towards Jesus Christ. There is no way to get around it. Jesus clearly said in the gospel, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Please note, he did not say he is “a way.” He did not say he is “a truth.” He did not say he is “a life.” He said he is THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life.
That means there is no science without Jesus. There is no history, no English language, no Spanish or Mandarin, no physical education, no math, no anything without Jesus… because he is the Truth. There is no college counseling, no guidance counseling, no discipline, no clubs or Christian service without Jesus… because he is the Way. There is no football, no crew, no lacrosse, no baseball, no basketball or soccer without Jesus… because he is the Life. Simply put, there is no Belen without Jesus.
This is why I have chosen the theme for this academic year to be the same theme the Society of Jesus chose for the Ignatian year… “To See All Things New in Christ.” It is a call to conversion. Teachers are to see their subjects and how they teach them in a new way, through the eyes of Christ. Students are to see the classes they take and the sports they play in a new way, through the eyes of Christ. Parents and alumni and Jesuits are to see their lives and how they live them in a new way, through the eyes of Christ.
There is no doubt this is a tall order. It is a challenge that will last way beyond your time at Belen. You, Wolverines, will take this to college after you graduate, to your businesses when you start them, to your wives and children when you have them, and you will take it to your graves.
This 2021-2022 year marks the 60th anniversary of Belen in Miami. Sixty years of hard work, ups and downs, challenges and struggles, but it has also been 60 years of dedicated and committed service to Jesus Christ. We have come a long way, and there is still a lot more to do. Now, more than ever, the world needs committed Christian men who can lead and serve and Belen intends to provide them. We have been doing it for 167 years, we will do it for many more years to come.
Our Lady of Belen… pray for us.