ADDRESS AT CONFERRAL OF PAPAL AWARDS
St Mary’s Cathedral House, Sydney
Dame Margot, Sir Richard and Sir John, My Lord Bishop Ingham, Mr Justice Kunç, Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor, professors and friends all,
November looms, the month of endings. With the last week of Ordinary time the Church’s liturgical year comes to an end not with a bang but only a whimper, this year on 28 November. At the other end of the month, on 2 November, we observe the memory of All Souls, marking the end of the lives of the faithful, and so November is the month in which we particularly pray for the dead and offer Masses and other suffrages. But the biggest ending we honour is on the Solemnity of All Saints, which marks the end of the Church on earth.
This year it falls on a Sunday and so Coronavirus or not it will be celebrated by many Catholics. As if the Catholic Church didn’t have enough saints – and it is estimated that it has recognized about 10,000 so far – it celebrates all the others as a job lot and we assume that we are talking billions. All Saints is the festival of all who have gone to God, whether fêted or not.
Is this just spiritually greedy? We already have an average of 29 saints to celebrate each day, which can make praying the Mass and Divine Office rather complicated. And if the saints are not only those who have demonstrated heroic virtue and been transparent to divine grace, they are also held up to us by the Church as worthy of imitation. “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” as St Paul said.
“Imitate them?” you might laugh. Imitate the Incredibles who sang happy songs as they were torn apart by lions, or who lived atop a pole or in a cave dressed in animal skins or nothing at all, or who were hyper-pious and inclined to trances, visions and levitations, or who lived for years on nothing more than the Blessed Eucharist or bled with the marks of Christ’s Passion? Don’t get me wrong: I think those saints were mostly real and the tall tales told of them often underestimate rather than overestimate the miraculous dimension of their lives. But they were certainly eccentrics, if glorious eccentrics, these acknowledged saints, and not really the sorts of people you’d want your daughter to marry!
If the way some of the saints lived here on earth doesn’t appeal much to us, our image of how they live in heaven might be equally unappetizing. Sitting on clouds, staring at God, playing harps and singing hymns is not going to attract moderns who treasure individuality, variety and entertainment so highly!
Then there’s the problem that saints are expected to live exemplary lives. But many of us are like the young Augustine who prayed “Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet”. We hope we’ll be holy by the time we’re old and die, but in the meantime we’re inclined to live a middling good and banally bad life. We’re weak and there are many distractions, and who wants penance in a consumer culture? Who’s up for virginity, missions and martyrdom in a postmodern world where nothing’s worth living for, let alone dying for? Who wants plenary indulgences when indulgence of a rather different sort is the order of day?
But the Feast of All Saints stands in contrast to these thoughts, instead insisting that a saint is not only someone who does whacky or truly extraordinary things. All Saints is about normalising holiness. The call to holiness, as the Second Vatican Council insisted, is universal (LG ch. 5; cf. Mt 5:48). And that means there are all sorts of people who have dedicated their lives to the imitation of Christ and service of Church and society. When I say that All Saints marks the end of the church on earth, I don’t just mean its chronological ending but also its ontological purpose. The Church is for getting people to heaven. Even those who get into the last pews it counts a success. And there are many. Indeed the Council said there are as many ways of being called and gifted for Christian service as there are Christians (LG 32).
But sometimes, it seems to me, the same person is given more than their share of gifts and thus called to more than ordinary service. Amongst the glorious eccentrics we might think of someone like St Catherine of Siena who had gifts of prophesy and living on nothing but the Eucharist and levitating and healing. And so, too, amongst our more ordinary saints, some seem gifted to serve and attain to holiness by multiple routes, seemingly fitting several lives into one. Today we’ve heard of service in such fields as law, heritage, education, finance, healthcare, bioethics, public policy, church – all this in just three lives!
I’m proud to say that I count all three of those being honoured by the Holy Father and the Church of Sydney as personal friends. John McLaughlin taught me as a law student at the University of Sydney in 1983 and in 1984 I taught alongside him at what became the University of Technology; I have valued his friendship ever since. I have had the benefit of Richard Haddock’s expertise on more Church committees than he or I could name and number. But one I particularly treasure was his time on the Local Organising Committee for the World Youth Day 2008. He was one of many who helped prepare for and deliver that most extraordinary moment of grace in our Church and nation’s history. And Margaret Sommerville I have known ever since Fr Frank Brennan SJ and I – and no doubt several others – started working on her to return to Australia and help us deal with some of the great ethical challenges of the age such as euthanasia. Since then I’ve admired her clarity and courage. But doing this sort of service to the Church was only one amongst the many things each of these three has done for Church and community, and meanwhile they have had families, friends and even some gainful employment. Now, I’m not sure whether nay has the stigmata or is inclined to levitate. They will probably be uncomfortable being associated with the saints, whether the glorious eccentrics or the more run-of-the-mill All Saints. They would be the first to tell you of their unworthiness of such a title and their loved ones would tell you of foibles that would seem to disqualify them. Yet each one inspires me and countless others by their many virtues and their generous service. Each one shows us that the call to the Christian life, indeed to holiness, is not to some ‘holiness elite’ in Roman collars or religious habits, but for all members of Holy Mother Church. They bear witness to the truth that we are all called, in St Paul’s words, to be “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Col 3:12). Congratulations to you all!