HOMILY FOR UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME AUSTRALIA GRADUATION MASS – ST. MARY’S CATHEDRAL, SYDNEY
Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most prolific and diverse authors. She has published 17 novels, 10 anthologies of short stories, 20 poetry collections, 7 children’s books, 10 non-fiction books, 3 television scripts, a graphic novel and 3 libretti – so far. Her wide-ranging achievements have been recognised through 28 honorary degrees, and more than 55 other awards. Many of you will know her best-selling science fiction series, the Oryx and Crake trilogy. They tell the story of Crake, a mad scientist whose ambition is to eliminate humanity and replace it with his own genetically-modified species, the ‘Crakers’. Throughout the novel, Crake and his best mate Jimmy argue over the meaning of life and how we should think of human beings. At one point Jimmy, exasperated with Crake, asks: “As a species we’re doomed by hope, then?” To which Crake replies, “You could call it hope. That, or desperation.”1
Crake argues that what is ruining the world is humanity’s imagination: because we can imagine our deaths, says Crake, we can also hope to postpone them, at least for a time, by ensuring our prosperity and security; and this, he thinks, is what motivates so many harmful decisions. Many of us would not agree with Crake on this; his friend Jimmy, for example, doesn’t, and points out that if we’re doomed by hope, we are at least equally doomed without it. “Only as individuals,” responds Crake. And here the two friends hit on an important truth about humanity: that without hope individuals cease to be individuals. Without hope, our life loses a trajectory, aspirations, commitments, reasons to strive. Our sense of taste is dulled, colours not so bright, sounds not so clear. Without reasons to hope for distinct things for ourselves and each other, human beings are homogenised; they are all the same. The rather gloomy German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote about this a lot, and described this widespread loss of hope and therefore of commitment to the future as ‘the end of history’, ‘the age of the Last Men’, who will care for nothing but the present, and therefore only for present comfort and the status quo. “‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’- so asks the Last Man, and blinks.”2
The University of Notre Dame Australia is, I believe, a cradle of hope. The Sydney Campus recently celebrated a decade of success as the entire university celebrated its silver Jubilee and more. First established in 2006 with a foundation cohort of 450 students, the Sydney Campus now boasts nearly 5000 students and 500 staff. It teaches at Auburn, Campbelltown, Hawkesbury, Lithgow, Mt Druitt, Parramatta, Wagga Wagga, and Werribee, as well as our two Sydney CBD sites at Darlinghurst and Broadway. It excels in critical university indicators, being named the leading university in Sydney for Student Support, Overall Quality of Educational Experience, Graduate Employment, and Median Graduate Starting Salary; and is the top university in Australia for Skills Development in this year’s Federal Government is Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching. The Good Universities Guide 2017 also placed Notre Dame among the top five Australian universities, gaining 5-star ratings in a record seven of the Guide’s categories this year. Management, staff and students should all be very proud that the University is generating such extraordinary results.
Of course, in the end, plaudits come and go; qualifications do not guarantee success in life; deep and lasting fulfilment is much more important than ‘success’ as this world sees it. And here I think the University from its admissions policy, through its flagship core curriculum, its emphasis on ethics, and the contents and pedagogy of all its disciplines, its pastoral care, community service projects and other faith-and-ideals-based pursuits, makes a real difference. You could hardly immerse yourself in the culture of Notre Dame and still believe, like Crake, that all hope for humanity is empty. Instead, your perseverance through years of university studies – the early classes, the late nights, the deadlines, the headaches and the coffee – all this speaks not to the pessimism of Crake, but to the optimism of Jimmy: that doomed as we might be even with hope, we would be much more doomed without it. Your commitment speaks of faith in the future, and a readiness to do your part to make the world a better place.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” so opens the Old Testament of the Bible, and especially the story of the Genesis of humanity. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” so opens St John’s New Testament, and especially the story of the Redemption of humanity. The motto of the University comes from here: In principio erat verbum, ‘In the beginning was the Word’. In harking back to the beginning of creation, the ‘time before time’, and to the beginning of redemption, the time beyond time, the University points to a future illuminated by that same creative and redemptive Word. As Christmas approaches, we recall that that Word became flesh, a baby born of a Virgin, who though Wisdom Himself submitted to ordinary human experiences such as growing in knowledge and understanding, through teaching and learning.
Not everyone here tonight shares the Catholic faith we celebrate in that motto, that Christmas story and this Mass, and, paradoxically perhaps, I rejoice in that. Of course I would love to share my faith with each and every one of you; I would love us to be united by our deepest beliefs and ideals; I would love to work with you for building a better world on that basis. But the fact is that we come from many different religious traditions, that some of us are more enthusiastic for God and the things of God than others, and that some of us are more hopeful for humanity and its ideals than others. Yet here we are gathered in an act of worship and celebration, aware of those differences yet insisting that as human beings we have more in common than our differences, that we are capable of sustaining reasonable disagreement and even enriched by it, and that we can live and work together on many levels. Our presence together tonight is a refusal to accept the bleak future predicted by Crake and others for humanity; it is a testament to that common wisdom from which we have received at University and to which we hope to contribute; and it is a statement of faith that there are great possibilities for our future.
My hope is that during your time at UNDA you have acquired not just professionally useful knowledge and saleable skills, but the beginnings of wisdom and reasons to hope. That may not be measured by QILT, but such wisdom is the basis of a truly good life, one that brings deep and lasting happiness to the person and also benefits others. It may not be recognised by the Good Universities Guide but such hope means we are not Nietzsche’s Last Men, not doomed to self-destruct as Crake predicted. For you the bland autumn of complacency and the icy winter of despair give way to the bright spring of hope and the warm summer of faith.
One of Margaret Atwood’s compatriots and fellow woman novelists, R. J. Anderson writes: “We need all kinds of books, because there are all kinds of readers. And a story that one person finds depressing and pointless may be the same story that inspires another person to go out and change the world. So read the books that move you, that make you gasp and rage and weep. Read books that challenge and provoke you, books that remind you to examine your assumptions and check your privilege, books that make you question if what is or could be, should be. And leave a little room on your bookshelf for hope. Because none of us can live without it.”3
All kinds of books for all kinds of readers: that’s what a university is, at least a good one like UNDA. Go forth now from this celebration and your forthcoming graduation ready to share your little wisdom and inspire hope in others. God bless you in the years ahead!
INTRODUCTION TO UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME AUSTRALIA GRADUATION MASS
ST. MARY’S CATHEDRAL, SYDNEY
Welcome all to St Mary’s Cathedral to the celebration of our annual Mass for graduands of the University of Notre Dame Australia. I acknowledge Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney and Vicar for Tertiary Education, Most Rev. Richard Umbers; the Episcopal Vicar for Schools Education, Very Rev. Michael McLean; the Chancellor of the University, Mr Peter Prendiville; the Deputy Chancellor, Prof Tony Shannon; Vice Chancellor, Professor Celia Hammond; Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Hayden Ramsay; the Governors, Trustees and directors of the University; the Deans, Executive, Academic and General staff; Distinguished Guests, Donors and Benefactors, Affiliates and Friends of the University from the Church, academy, judiciary, health or business. Above all, I welcome our graduands, their family members and friends: to you all a very warm welcome!
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 5
3 R. J. Anderson, “Why I Love Books for Children and Teens: The Whole Story”