On the second floor of University Hall hangs a photograph of the Loyola College groundbreaking celebration of May 20, 1928. A temporary stage hovers in the background, while benches and folding chairs, cars parked haphazardly and people fitted out in their finest populate the picture from the far-away to the foreground. From other photos of the day, we know that at least one bishop was present, many priests, and, without a doubt, much of the lay Catholic leadership of the city of Los Angeles.
Each time I pass the photograph, that day seems almost a fiction and the people frozen in time, as if they are rendered in painting. The air was filled with filmy haze, as if a veil obscured them, making them insubstantial, nothing but actors on a stage. When that day’s light was dimmed, surely all was dismantled, and the drama that must have existed in someone’s suspended belief gone, evaporating into the mist.
I thought of that photo today as I sat in the next-to-last row of Sacred Heart Chapel awaiting the start of the Inauguration Mass to celebrate the investiture of David W. Burcham as LMU’s 15th president. From my faraway vantage point, the altar seemed to take the place of that temporary stage, as bishops, priests, nuns and lay leaders gathered to celebrate. Then I realized that it was not the 1928 photo that failed to come alive but my eyes.
Eighty years ago, the people captured by a photo were the community that gathered around this university. Their bishop, Jesuits and lay leaders were present to set forth on new land the path for a private university founded on the values of a religious faith and the charism of a religious order founded by a 15th century Spaniard who was a priest and a war veteran.
They could barely describe the day that we witnessed at LMU today — we celebrated the university’s most recent milestone — even though they may have imagined something like it. The field on which they gathered, no more than low grasses, dirt roads and barely rolling hills, dwarfed them. And today, the university that stands there would dwarf them, too.
Some of them surely imagined an edifice, or several, that would gradually take shape. But they could not know what decades later would be the testimony of their vision and work. In a sense, they didn’t know what they were building.
Today, we inaugurated our 15th president. We can look back over eight decades and see and touch what has come of the work. But, in a sense, we don’t know what we’re building either. We continue to build something that, we hope, in 80 years will be handed to people we cannot name or describe and can barely imagine. Not a one among us today, probably, will be in the chapel with them then. Only a few of our names will be remembered. When they look at our photos, our cars will seem slow; our clothes, quaint; our mobile devices, toys.
It’s a paradoxical thing to witness: On a day celebrating vision and institution — things foundational — we see clearly our transience that is mystically at core of it all. We, too, are made up of haze, mist and spirit, and we build something permanent, something needed by the world.