By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — A cool breeze offered free air conditioning for the first Mass of the 2020-21 school year at St. Ambrose University, held outdoors Aug. 16 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, welcomed students to campus in person. “It’s wonderful to see you with masks and social distancing. We can make this work.” She asked the gathering to pray for the many needs in the world and to pray together.
Bishop Thomas Zinkula presided at the Mass celebrated atop the hill in front of Christ the King Chapel. St. Ambrose University Chaplain Father Thom Hennen concelebrated. More than 125 students gathered below the hill on the grass, some sitting on blankets, and all wearing masks and practicing social distancing. The university’s KALA radio station broadcast the Mass live and SAUtv videotaped it.
During his homily, Father Hennen welcomed the students. “Sister Joan, our campus ministry team, our faculty and staff can’t tell you how excited we are for you to be here, even with all of the adjustments we are all having to make, to ensure that we can be safe and that you can have a growth-filled, faith-filled and meaningful college experience.”
The past five months have been far from what anyone could have imagined prior to the pandemic. “But you are here. We are here. Most importantly, God is here,” Father Hennen said. His homily focused on the readings from the liturgy, a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit. He quoted Ezekiel in the first reading, “I will take you away from among the nations, gather you from all the foreign lands and bring you back to your land.” The St. Ambrose community has been scattered and distant — literally distant — for the past few months, the chaplain said. “We still need to maintain a certain distance from each other, still going forward, and yet we gathered as one.”
He talked about how the campus shut down abruptly in March. “But today, you have been brought ‘back to your own land,’ to this place that has become a home away from home and which will forever hold a special place in your hearts.”
In the second reading from Galatians, St. Paul listed the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. “How we will need these things this year,” Father Hennen said.
In the Gospel for the Mass, from Luke, Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads a passage from the prophet Isaiah. He proclaims glad tidings to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom from the oppressed. “It seems to me we could use a little of this ourselves: glad tidings in a year that has seemed like one bad news story after another, liberty in a year when we have felt like captives, sight for what may seem like a dark tunnel of this pandemic, or sight for our blindness to enduring injustices. And freedom, not that false freedom that is simply license to do whatever we please, but true freedom, which is always at the service of the good.”
Father Hennen said that after a massive storm with hurricane-force winds knocked out power and much more on Aug. 10, he overheard a student remark, “‘This is so 2020.’ Yes, it has already been a difficult year, one of the most difficult in recent decades. And yet, as we stand at the threshold of this new academic year, placing our hope and trust fully in God, even as we take every reasonable precaution, I believe that with the Holy Spirit to guide us, we can make this year a year acceptable to the Lord.”
Bishop Zinkula, Father Hennen and three individuals walked down the sidewalk to the students to distribute Communion. Peer student ministers held Ambrose umbrellas over the ministers to mark where they were distributing Communion.
As Mass concluded, Bishop Zinkula blessed and dedicated the new academic year. He asked God to send down his Spirit upon the students and teachers who serve St. Ambrose and to fill them with wisdom and blessing. “We pray that this academic year may truly be a year acceptable to you through our love and sacrifice. May these students devote themselves to their studies and share what they have learned in order to enrich the lives of others.”