Homily for Mass of Graduation, University of Notre Dame, Australia

16 Dec 2014


Welcome to the University of Notre Dame Australia Graduation Mass for 2014.

Today has been a day like no other in this great city. We are especially mindful of the victims of the Martin Place siege, commending their souls to Almighty God and praying for consolation for their families. We pray also for healing for the injured and traumatized, and in thanksgiving for the survivors and the police and emergency workers who assisted them. We pray also for our civil society, its leaders and members, praying that this terrible day does not mar the spirit of our community going forward. Please continue to pray for peace, healing and generosity to our neighbours after this tragic event, in solidarity with people of all faiths in our blessed city and country.

I am pleased to acknowledge the presence tonight of:

  • My brother priests
  • Sister Annette Cunliffe RSC, President of Catholic Religious Australia; and other priests and religious;
  • Chancellor of the University, Mr Terry Tobin QC attending his last Graduation Mass as Chancellor; the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Celia Hammond; and the Senior Deputy VC, Prof. Hayden Ramsay;
  • Distinguished guests, Benefactors, Trustees, Governors, Affiliates and friends of the University from the Church, academy, judiciary, health or business.

Above all, to all our graduands, their family members and friends, a very warm welcome!

Mass of Graduation, University of Notre Dame, Australia
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 16 December 2014

We are not used to hearing words like ‘siege’, ‘hostages’ and ‘security forces’ associated with our city. Yet for the past day and night we were subjected to pictures and sounds that would normally evoke far-away lands. In a café only two blocks away from St Mary’s Cathedral, only one block from the Supreme Court, even closer to the New South Wales Parliament, Reserve Bank and Channel 7 studio, hostages were pinned for hours against the windows and forced to hold up a flag which blasphemously used the name of God as a threat. The distress was visible on their faces, as was the relief of the first five to escape. We went to bed hoping to wake to good news. But in the early hours of this morning there were flashes of gunfire, police intervention to save lives, merciful escapes, but finally death. Hell had touched us.

Only history will tell how much 16 December 2014 will affect the attitudes, behaviour, life-style of this city. But today the heart of our city was broken by the deaths of two innocent ‘hostages’ along with their tormentor, and injury or trauma to many more. A young, gifted barrister and mother of three was on her way to chambers to assist her clients; a young café manager was likewise intent upon serving others: both lost their lives at the hands of a perpetrator whose motives and affiliations are still unclear. We must avoid too quickly jumping to conclusions or pointing fingers. Yet here we are, only two blocks away from the site of the tragedy, celebrating a Mass for our Graduands. Do these two realities have anything to say to one another? I think they do…
The University of Notre Dame Australia was established 25 years ago this very month with the motto “In principio erat verbum – In the beginning was the Word”, the opening words of St John’s Gospel. Here, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is the summit both of unaided, human, philosophical reflection and divinely-revealed, theological exposition: that underlying all of creation, at its ‘beginnings’, is a person, and that Person is no arbitrary power like the gods of the ancients, but a person of reason, articulation, communication. God is pure spirit, pure mind, who thinks of Himself so perfectly that a whole new Person is generated in the process, His very own Image, and between Them there is Verbum, exchange of thoughts, in speaking and hearing.

Our Mass honours Mary as Notre Dame Seat of Wisdom and Carrier of the Word. You might say she was the first university, the first human place where the Verbum or Wisdom of God was systematically pondered, treasured in her mind and heart. In that Wisdom she found light in the darkness of her life and ours. Though born into a violent world, her Boy was Prince of Peace and His Gospel of Peace proposed a very different future to that of the purveyors of violence.

I am aware that some of our graduands and their families are from faith traditions different to my own and I celebrate that fact. Perhaps some of you have lived through frightening situations in your native lands that make what happened this week seem mild to you. Yet whatever our differences we have so much more in common: our human nature, our common inheritance of wisdom, and the universal appeal of Jesus’ message of a love that treats others as we’d wish to be treated ourselves.

What was visited upon our city this week was not love and it did not celebrate our common humanity. Yet our response today has happily been one of extending the hand of friendship and helping everyone feel included. Spontaneous floral tributes appeared in Martin Place and campaigns of solidarity on the internet. Leaders of all religious, political and ethnic backgrounds have called for calm, for prayer, for harmony and support. Services have been offered for the victims, their families and friends. And reports have emerged of the heroism of the male victim of the siege, Tori Johnson. Apparently seeing an opportunity, he grabbed the gun; but tragically it went off killing him, but triggering the police action to save the rest of the hostages. Katrina Dawson, the other victim, was apparently shielding her pregnant friend from gunfire. That kind of self-sacrifice, inspired by faith and hope and love is the true spirit of Christmas and Easter and the best of every religion. And it inspires the best institutions of religion, such as our University of Notre Dame.

These days universities are often seen as businesses, selling educational qualifications to those who can afford them, so the graduates may in turn generate wealth, income and consumption, and so keep the wheels of the economy turning. Rarely do we nowadays hear them described as places of wisdom and love. Yet this is precisely what a Catholic university must be: a community of scholarship, where people receive, enlarge and transmit knowledge to others; where we care deeply about the truth and about each other coming to the truth; where we sit alongside Lady Wisdom, where faith and reason meet, and help each other be seated there.

This week, the University will confer honorary doctorates on two very worthy candidates. Dr Carolyn Woo is the CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. equivalent of Caritas. Her international agency serves over 130 million people in 100 countries. A devout Catholic, she has worked in business and the academy, including as Dean of Business at the University of Notre Dame Indiana. For the geographically and accent challenged, that is not another campus of UNDA alongside Fremantle, Broome, Darlinghurst and Broadway, but a distinct and very distinguished American university with which ours has a long and happy association. Dr Woo has, in fact, been a member of our Board of Governors.

Mr John Phillips will receive a posthumous doctorate. He was a dear friend of mine, of my predecessor Cardinal Pell, and of many involved with our university. A highly renowned banker and economist, he served as Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank and Chairman of the Foreign Investment Review Board. He was involved in the establishment of the Australian Catholic University, was Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, Chair of the St John’s College Council and member of the Pontifical Council, ‘Cor Unum’. A loyal son of the Church, he was long a member of our Archdiocesan Finance Committee.

Our two honorary doctors are fine examples to our graduands of how you can put learning, faith and ideals into action in a life, richly lived and satisfying, which also makes an enormous contribution to others. We pray for such lives for our young graduands tonight.

Tonight in a heartbroken city young people get ready to emerge from university and we congratulate them. As the new Archbishop of Sydney, I am thrilled that so many UNDA-trained doctors, teachers, nurses, businesspeople, lawyers, thinkers, future priests, religious and lay leaders, are ready now to join the wider community. Your education has offered you more than technical proficiency: it has given you the capacity to serve others, your spouse and children, your neighbours and work colleagues, your community and culture, your friends and those in need of friends. In the words of Pope Francis, education gives us the power to build with God “a humane world for all human beings and not only for one group or privileged class” (Address of His Holiness, 27 October 2014).This is how you will love in the way Christ mandates (Jn 15:9-17), with that cross-shaped, dedicated, self-sacrificing love told in the university crosses you will receive tonight.

But our celebration remains muted. People have died, others been damaged, many are traumatized. The Babe of Bethlehem – the true Wisdom before which even Our Lady falls silent in wonder and worship – teaches us some difficult truths. One is that He is Good News, which means there will always be hurting people in need of Good News, of healing balm, of light in darkness. Secondly, that we must forgive: in Sydney tonight, the family and community of a troubled man who brought violence to our city, are hurting and fearful. We must find mercy in our hearts for them. Thirdly, at the first Christmas there were Jewish shepherds, Christian parents, pagan Roman soldiers and Magi who worshipped the stars: we too must find ways of expressing good-will to all those who love God and seek wisdom.

So tonight as we pray for the persecuted and the dead, we also pray for light in the darkness. We pray that our 2014 UNDA graduates will be beacons of that light, living verbi or words of wisdom and love, causes for hope in our sometimes bleak world.