Rev. William B. Neenan, S.J. told students Tuesday night that they are on third base right now not because they hit a triple, but because they were born there.
“You didn’t hit a triple,” Neenan said. “You are on third base because of all the good things that have happened to you and your family generations and generations back.”
Neenan included himself in this group, as well. He described his background growing up in Sioux City, Iowa, his early love for the St. Louis Cardinals, and his bias against Notre Dame from a young age, given that his father’s alma mater was St. Louis University.
Neenan graduated from St. Louis University as well and from there entered the Society of Jesus. He later went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, where he taught economics for many years and was the first tenure-track Jesuit professor at a large, secular university.
Neenan set up his speech with a first principle of Jesuit pedagogy: to tell the class what one is going to say, say it, and then tell them he said it. “The theme of what I’m going to say is summed up by that joke where the person was on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” he said.
His wry sense of humor was also on full display during the speech. “At some point I’m going to sit down here because I tend to fall asleep when I’m talking,” he said.
Associate Director of the Church in the 21st Century Center Karen Kiefer took the initiative in bringing Neenan in as a speaker, asking him if he would share five things that he has learned at Boston College. “If a BC alum founded Google, it would be called Neenan.com,” Keefer said after the speech before taking questions.
In his speech, Neenan listed the five things he has learned at the University. “I’ve learned that there’s nothing to be learned from losing a game twice,” he said. “When you lose once, you learn something. Second time around, you ain’t learned nothing. That’s one thing.”
Neenan joked that the second thing he has learned is that the Missouri River, not the Mississippi, is the longest river in the United States, before ribbing students for sneaking into BC without knowing this.
The third thing Neenan discussed was Rev. John Bapst, S.J., who ministered in Maine before becoming the first president of BC. Bapst would travel down from Canada to celebrate mass for the French Canadian Catholics of Maine, whom many locals were prejudiced against.
Bapst denounced the public schools in Ellsworth, Maine for forcing students to read the Protestant King James Bible rather than allowing some students to use the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible.
“He got in trouble,” Neenan said. “The people of Ellsworth, Maine drove him out of town and said ‘Don’t come back, because if you come back you’re in a lot of trouble.'”
Bapst came back about six months later. According to Neenan, he was celebrating mass in a house and the people of Ellsworth knew he was there, grabbed him, tarred and feathered him, tied him to a tree, and were about to burn him to death when a Presbyterian minister intervened and saved his life.
“We are here today on third base because people like Bapst did what they did and founded Boston College,” Neenan said.
The fourth example Neenan gave for why students are here today at the University was president Rev. Thomas Gasson, S.J., who facilitated its move to Chestnut Hill.
The fifth and final example was former Athletic Director Bill Flynn who continued the football program even after the team could no longer play at Fenway Park in 1955. Many Jesuit universities have since discontinued their football programs.
“If Boston College had dropped football in 1955, none of us or very few of us would be here tonight,” Neenan said. “I would have retired at the University of Michigan. I would be in Milwaukee now eating bratwurst and trying to understand what beer is all about.”
Neenan added that BC is not a national university because of football, but that it would not be one without football.
“There’s a context here,” he said. “We all think, ‘Here I am at third base.’ Well, good luck. You haven’t even hit [the ball] yet. So don’t pretend that you did this all by yourself.”
Neenan then critiqued the song “My Way” by Frank Sinatra and the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley which ends, “I am the captain of my soul / I am the master of my faith.”
“I had an impact, I think, at the University of Michigan, and it was because I was a Jesuit,” he said. “I didn’t wind up on third base. I followed 450 years of Jesuits doing marvelous things around the world.”
Finally, Neenan took a more serious approach as a Jesuit, Catholic priest and said that traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have not endured for roughly 3,500, 2,000, and 1,300 years respectively because people have participated in spirituality rather than in organized religion.
“Those of us that are [Roman Catholics] have had it passed along to us,” he said. “You have an obligation to pass that on because people have been suffering for 2,000 years to pass it on to you. You like the values you have. Well, you didn’t end up on third base accidentally.”
Neenan then responded to questions about what it means to be Catholic and about his vocation, particularly with regard to why he joined the Jesuits. He also offered reflections on prayer.
“I would suggest to all of us that during the day, ask ‘Am I happy? Am I sad? Am I angry?'” he said. “Ignatius would say that’s a very profound type of prayer.”