The following is an excerpt from a talk that I presented in the St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel on the occasion of the Loyola Society’s 2018 Fall Evening of Reflection. The talk is entitled We Are Called to Love and Serve: Reflections on the Ignatian Ministry of Fr. Robert J. Welsh, S.J.
Fr. Welsh wanted each Ignatian to have a personal knowledge of our Lord through prayer and the sacraments. As President, Fr. Welsh said Mass with every one of my freshmen sections at least once a year. It was essential to Fr. Welsh that these young men come to know Jesus not only through their Theology classes, but also through a personal encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist.
The theme of each homily was the same: the importance of knowing, loving, and serving Jesus. But a bit more surprising was his insistence that his congregation of freshmen sing - SING, and not just any song, but the hymn “Earthen Vessels.” With his lilting Irish voice he would courageously lead a group of shy and awkward freshmen in what he told them was his favorite hymn, and it is in the lyrics of this beautifully simple song by the St. Louis Jesuits that we can find the key that unlocks Fr. Welsh’s vision of that movement from knowledge to love and service.
In the last verse of the song we sing:
“He has chosen the lowly
Who are small in this world
In his weakness His Glory
In Jesus the Lord.”
Fr. Welsh certainly saw himself as someone who was, as the lyrics say, “small in this world” yet still chosen by Jesus. Many in the Saint Ignatius community remember Fr. Welsh as a tireless fundraiser, but his efforts were always undertaken with the belief that he was a humble earthen vessel whose strength lay in his weakness in deference to the glory of the Lord. For him, all of his efforts on behalf of Saint Ignatius, first as Development Director and then as President, were a way to put his knowledge of Jesus into the practice of love and service.
For all of his prestige in the Greater Cleveland community, especially among the movers-and-shakers with whom he helped to revitalize our Ohio City neighborhood, Fr. Welsh always remained a humble servant of Jesus. His role in the decision of Saint Ignatius to stay here and not move out of the city was directly related to that humility. For him, Saint Ignatius was an urban school, one that loved and served, one that stood with and for the lowly, the small, and the weak, the earthen vessels of Ohio City.
The very successful Arrupe Neighborhood Partnership was founded during the time of Fr. Welsh’s presidency and is a shining example of the role that he hoped Saint Ignatius would play in turning Ohio City into a true neighborhood and not just a geographical area of disparate and unconnected parts. The Welsh years saw Saint Ignatius move from being perceived as a part of the yuppie gentrification of Ohio City to being known as a friend and a neighbor. Today, under the leadership of John Gill ’97 and Pat Valletta ’05 our students interact with our friends and neighbors on a daily basis, and the Arrupe Neighborhood Partnership has become an essential source of assistance to hundreds of people of all ages throughout Ohio City.
As people look around campus and think of the legacy of Fr. Welsh’s presidency it is easy for them to focus on all of the impressive, new buildings that stand as monuments to his humble fundraising efforts in the service of his beloved alma mater. The magnificent trinity of Science Center, Intramural Gymnasium and Chapel dedicated to the Blessed Mother give our young men the opportunity daily to strive for greatness intellectually, physically, and spiritually. But maybe the greatest legacy of the Fr. Welsh years is the old and not so impressive house that sits at the very south end of a now-truncated West 30th Street. Could there be a better symbol of the legacy of Fr. Welsh than this earthen vessel that houses the Arrupe Program, our humble attempt to bring authentic Christian love and service to our friends and neighbors?
So as we look to Fr. Welsh for guidance in our quest to answer the call to love and serve, it is crucially important that we remember the necessity of keeping humility at the forefront of all of our efforts. We, the earthen vessels spoken of by St. Paul, are small and fragile yet created with the utmost of care by the hands of our Father who bestows upon us the power to love and serve in His Name.