Engaging with One Another; Engaging with Difference

Author: Rev. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C.

Dear Students,

I hope this message finds you well as you prepare for your first day of classes following summer break! I have appreciated hearing from so many of you about your summer experiences these last few months, and I look forward to gathering with you tomorrow evening to celebrate the annual Opening of the Academic Year Mass.

It’s hard to believe we find ourselves at the start of another academic year; one I’m confident will bring about personal growth and opportunities for meaningful engagement in your residence halls, clubs and activities, and social interactions. Regardless of where and with whom you encounter these moments, please know that we in Student Affairs look forward to being a part of your journey as we continue our important work fostering student formation and facilitating ongoing dialogue within our vibrant and diverse academic community.

Throughout the coming year there will also be challenges as we navigate our day-to-day lives. I know from my conversations with students that many of you carry deeply personal crosses along with concerns about events and trends in our wider society and world, and the impact they can and do have on your lives as people and Notre Dame students.

With this in mind, I wanted to share with you a topic I have reflected upon myself since the end of the previous academic year: how do we as members of our academic community engage with difference, and how might we find inspiration in our identity as a Catholic university animated by the charism of the Congregation of Holy Cross?
Upon further consideration of this question, I was reminded of a lecture given by a leader in the church that addressed difference as a basic feature of the earliest Christian community. Those initial differences often resulted in many of the first (and often most dramatic) ethnic, cultural, and theological controversies and clashes in the church we have come to know today.

Yet alongside difference stood unity, and it was through engagement with difference, even when challenging, that a deeper communion was reached. Some of the most beautiful images in scripture and the Christian tradition are those that demonstrate the universality of the church, and the incredible diversity of the People of God. This communion was with both God and one another, and defined crucially by its ability to transcend—without erasing or ignoring—the differences among them. Our differences matter, yet they alone cannot define our community. We must engage with them and with one another in such a way that individual experiences and perspectives are valued, where the inviolable dignity of the other is held sacred, and which ultimately lead us to the kind of profound unity and communion that can only be found in God.

Our ability to engage with difference in this way is part of what sets us apart as a university, and makes us stronger collectively and individually. It also allows us to model, as Fr. Ted Hesburgh, C.S.C., said, what it means for a Catholic university to be both a lighthouse and a crossroads. “The lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition… a crossroads where differences of culture and religion and conviction can co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality, respect, and love.”

Friends, I invite us all to consider “engaging with difference” as a collective theme to guide our reflection and activities this year. I encourage us to prayerfully examine what this means, and how we are called to enter into this kind of engagement personally and as a community. Whether we encounter difference in a residence hall, student club or activity, a conversation on the quad, or in the classroom, I hope we can find in this encounter an opportunity to let the same Spirit that guided the first followers of Christ to lead us into deeper communion with the ultimate source and destination of all unity.

Please know of my gratitude for the ways each of you enrich our community, and the opportunities you will create to engage with one another. You are in my prayers as classes begin and the semester gets underway. I look forward to a wonderful year ahead!

In Notre Dame,

Fr. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C.
Vice President for Student Affairs