Addresses and Statements

Short Address + Blessing of Dr Kevin Fagan Memorial

29 Aug 2022

St John’s College, University of Sydney, 28 August 2022

“What is the good life?” Philosophers have offered their wisdom on the matter since time immemorial. Socrates thought it was about the quest for wisdom, Epicurus the pursuit of rather baser pleasures, Aristotle the cultivation of virtue, the Stoics a life in accord with nature. For the children of the Enlightenment, it was faithfulness to reason and freedom. Kant thought it was about fulfilment of duty, Locke the pursuit of life, liberty, health and property, Hume respect for the moral sentiments, Rousseau the dream of emancipation. For Mill the good life was what promoted the greatest pleasure for the greatest number, for Marx meaningful labour and leisure without alienation, for the Existentialists, authenticity… I won’t attempt even a one-liner on the post-moderns since, to the extent I can make sense of them, they are allergic to systems and metanarratives in any case!

Of course, philosophers aren’t the only ones with something to say about the good life. Our great aunts might offer something more commonsensical, such as being civil, diligent, moderate and kind. We could ask the First Australians, the litterateurs, the pop culture vultures, or the self-help experts. There are many places to go for wisdom…

Why haven’t I yet mentioned the Christian conception of the good life? That’s for two reasons. First, because Christianity is heir to and then has shaped many of these ideas, and might be said to incorporate elements of them all, while critiquing, purifying and integrating them through faith and reason. But secondly, and more importantly, the Christian view of the good life begins with the paradox of relinquishing our views of the good life, indeed relinquishing life itself. Those who would save their life—and so make the most of it—must first lose it, Jesus said (Mt 10:39 etc.). This was not just another of His subversive aphorisms: it is the interpretative key to His own whole mission and what informed the generations of His disciples thereafter.

For Christianity’s heroes are the martyrs, and their blood ‘red’ martyrdom has inspired the ‘white’ martyrdom of virginity, of missionary endeavour, of pastors, and parents, and more. These heroes let go of their egos, ideologies, interests, and sought instead to conform themselves to Christ, to see with His eyes, think with His mind, feel with His heart, speak in His voice, choose in accord with His will. That requires a lot of letting go. It is the total gift of the self—in loving commitment to God, to spouse and children, to comrades-at-arms, to patients or students or flock—that makes Christians ‘icons’ not in the pop sense but in the real sense of the word: images translucent with a divine grace, windows into another world.

Yet Christians believe that, in giving their all, they get everything good back a hundredfold. On the face of it, Kevin Fagan (1909-1992) was given a lot to begin with. He was a legend at my old school of St Ignatius, being twice dux, top of most subjects, head prefect, captain of rowing, gold medallist in debating, title role in Hamlet. He was a star next in this College with his exhibition to the University to study Medicine, where he did brilliantly as a resident at RPA, while also being Captain of the football team and stroke of the College VIII, before gaining his MB BS with first class honours and being appointed Assistant Superintendent of Hobart General Hospital while still in his twenties.

So Kevin Fagan the man was indeed given much: but from the one to whom much is given, Christ said, much will be expected (Lk 12:48). Dr Fagan readily rendered them all back to God and humanity. When World War Two began he signed up, as we have heard, for the Army Medical Corps and, when posted to Singapore as a major with the 8th Division, became a POW of the Japanese first in Changi and then on the infamous Thai-Burma railway. We have heard some stories this afternoon of his courage and care in that horrible situation, for which he won the universal admiration of the men. On his return he became a legend for a fourth time, now as Chief Surgeon at Prince Henry Hospital, a Macquarie Street specialist physician, the most highly revered surgeon at Lewisham, Royal North Shore and RPA hospitals, and a great believer in the compatibility of the best of the medical science and art with the best of ethical wisdom. He kept giving of himself, again and again, applying his talents in excellent ways but, perhaps more importantly, demonstrating a Christ-like self-giving, dying to self and being reborn as a result.

To put it another way, Kevin’s human gifts of intellect, athleticism, leadership and charm were paired with theological virtues of faith, hope and love and expressed in that most Christian vocation that is healing. Treating an inordinate number without the drugs, equipment and conditions he needed in the camps, he exhibited a kind of compassion that meant each prisoner felt like they were his only patient.[i] He shared most of his rations with others, and seemed to live on air, such that some thought him more angel than man.[ii]  On the Thai-Burma railway he witnessed the worst of human cruelty and best of human courage and care. In places of darkness, he shone a light, the light of faith.   

I am delighted that the quadrangle in St John’s College will now remember this great man, who lived like his divine Master, giving himself so others might live. If ever there was a good life, this was surely one. And so here, before his surgeon’s coat upon a prison cross, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember him.