Addresses and Statements


05 Feb 2019


St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Sydney

There are in religion two contrary tendencies. The first focuses on the spiritual dimension of human beings. It regards the physical universe as confining and distracting, and emphasises God the pure spirit, the angels also, and the dead now released from bodily life. It relates to God in an intellective way, through private prayer and practices, avoiding public liturgies, sacrifices and sacraments; church buildings, icons, bells and smells are considered distracting, even idolatrous. Regarding the rest of life, this approach tends to devalue bodily existence, sex, partying and the like, to discount social activity, and to offer a spiritual path to a nirvana free of the drag of bodily life. The upside of all this is that it encourages us to be more and better than the animals, and to cultivate our spiritual lives. The risk that it demeans important aspects of human life, treating us as angels – and as any Santa student could tell us, we are not angels, even if we are capable of great intellectual and spiritual accomplishments.

The opposite religious tendency focuses upon the physical dimension of things. Some regard the material universe as the only tangible and certain world there is, and so focus on physical beauty and fitness over inner qualities, and on the natural and man-made environment. To the extent that this leaves any space for the spiritual, it is mediated by signs and symbols, visual pageant and audible glory, community and the body. God and the things of God must be seen, touched, tasted, smelt, sung. But most of life, on this account, will be our actions in the material world. The upside of this approach is that it respects our material nature and presses us to service. The risk is that it demeans the spiritual – and as any Santa student could tell us, there is more to life than the things we can see and control.

So, which is right? A philosopher once asked a boatman to take him across a lake. While they were crossing, she aske if he’d ever studied philosophy, to which the boatman said he had not. “Ah, then you have lost half a life!” the philosopher said. While they were still crossing, a storm came up, and the boat began to sink. The boatman asked the philosopher if she could swim, to which she replied that she could not. “Ah,” replied the boatman, “then you have lost a whole life!”

This story might seem to poke fun at philosophers, academics, even teachers, for as the saying goes, those who can’t… teach. But the fact is, both interlocutors were right: the philosopher knows the importance of truth, goodness and beauty, if life is to be rich, purposeful and fulfilled; while the boatman knows this thinking must be practically applied in the real world. Contemplation without action has no body; action without contemplation has no soul. So it is with the two aspects of religion – the physical and the spiritual, the active and contemplative – that neither is enough by itself; only together do they answer to the complexIty of the human being, human community, human life.

Today’s readings reflect this. Ecclesiasticus praises God’s deeds of creation and redemption (Ben Sirach 50:24-6). Action, either by God or us, matters. But the Sage recognizes that what is in our hearts matters also: we must be cheerful and peaceable. In our epistle Paul starts with character: the Colossians and all of us should be holy, compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient (Col 3:12-17). But the Apostle recognizes that what we do matters as much as who we are; indeed, the two deeply affect each other. So he goes on to talk about external behaviour: forbearing others, ending quarrels, practising charity, teaching wisely, living in unity, showing gratitude to God.

Jesus also reflects on both dimensions in John’s Gospel this morning (Jn 15:9-17). Love is what matters above all: loving God, neighbour, the world, self. It’s a whole attitude to life and to each other; it goes to the heart of what the Christian is. But it must be expressed in action in the world: in keeping the commandments and laying down our lives in service. It’s not enough to feel lovey-dovey or be holy inside: we must “go out and bear fruit,” Jesus says, “fruit that will last”.

Eight centuries ago, St Dominic started a religious movement to unite the physical and spiritual dimensions in Christianity, the contemplative and active, inner love and practical charity. Against those who would press us to choose one or the other, he insisted, with the orthodox Catholic faith, that we must be both. The Incarnation, after all, is the story of a pure spirit uniting Himself to a bodily nature. The sacraments, likewise, use natural elements to mediate supernatural graces. The resurrection, also, for which we all long, is the ultimate reunion of our souls and bodies, and their glorification in heaven. The past, present and future elements of our faith are all, according to Dominic, both material and spiritual.

800 years ago St Dominic was preparing to move into the convent attached to the ancient Basilica of St Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Pope Honorius III had approved his Dominican order in 1216 to fight those dark heresies that demeaned everthing material; now he gifted him Santa Sabina for their headquarters. The oldest extant basilica in Rome, with excellent views and an appealing orange grove, it memorialised a second-century Roman matron and martyr. It was to be home not only to Dominic but to Thomas Aquinas, Pius V and many other saints.

In 1891, my predecessor Cardinal Moran asked St Dominic’s daughters, who had for three decades ministered in Maitland NSW, to establish a convent and school In Sydney. In 1892 they did so, on The Boulevarde in Strathfield, naming it in honour of St Dominic’s beloved Santa Sabina. There were at first six day students and three boarders. In subsequent decades it grew in sisters, students and staff, in lands and facilities. It gained a reputation for excellence in academic disciplines and religious formation, in debating, performing arts and sport. The College’s website explains that this was due to the spirituality and philosophy of St Dominic the College has promoted. When I was a young man considering his vocation, I knew nothing of the Dominican friars; but I knew the Dominican sisters at Santa had schooled by cousin and at Del Monte her brother, and that was enough to recommend the Dominican idea to me. I found out more and I joined them!

So it is that Santa Sabina must aim not just produce young women who are brainy nor young boys who are brawny, neither holy ghosts nor worldly beasts. The whole child and whole woman must be educated and formed for a life of high Christian ideals and action. Thus the Mission statement of the College highlights three things:

  • that Santa is a Catholic school – a place where the ecclesial identity and mission of the school is honoured, where the Catholic faith in all its richness is treasured, transmitted and lived, and where God is praised, blessed and preached above all
  • secondly, that Santa is a Dominican school – a place where faith and reason, the material and spiritual, the intellectual and the practical, are integrated and promoted in the context of prayer, study, community and service as Dominic exemplified
  • and thirdly, that Santa educates students to personal excellence, tojust and compassionate action, and to an optimistic global vision.

If the College is faithful to these three missionary goals it will continue to do great things in the next 125 years!

And so today we give thanks for the first 125 years of Santa Sabina College. We honour and give thanks for the Dominican Sisters who made all this possible, their lay colleagues and benefactors, the families who entrusted their young ones to the school, and all staff and students past and present.

Grant us, Lord, the grace to be worthy of those who have gone before us, those presently entrusted to our care, and those yet to come. May boys and young women emerge from the College as the saints we need for our times.

Thanks be to God for Santa Sabina!


St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Sydney

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for our celebration of the 125th anniversary of the commencement of Santa Sabina College on 15 January 1894. I remember preaching 15 years ago at the Mass for the 110th jubilee, and it’s good to be with you again for today’s quasquicentennial celebrations!

I am pleased to acknowledge the presence of: the Prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands, Sr Mary-Clare Holland OP, and many of her sisters; the outgoing Chair of the Dominican Education Australia, Suzanne Fabian, and several members of the Board of Trustees; the Chair of the College Board, Tony Woods, and several board members; the Principal of Santa Sabina, Dr Maree Herrett, and her leadership team; the State Member for Strathfield, Jodi McKay MP, and other distinguished guests. Above all, I welcome the many students, staff, parents and alumnae present today.

As we prepare to celebrate this quasquicentennary let us call to mind the times we’ve failed to live the high ideals of the College…