HOMILY FOR UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME AUSTRALIA GRADUATION MASS
‘A long melancholy meditation on loss, impermanence and that noble, stubborn, foolish thing called love.’ ‘What gives it its emotional heft is the sense of expiry and mortality that hangs over it.’ It ‘confronts the irreversible forward march of time, the pain of abandonment, the loss of love.’
So wrote three reviewers of the great classic of Western literature. I’m not talking about Romeo and Juliet, or even Paris and Helen of Troy, or Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Isolde. No, I am of course referring to Toy Story 3 – the 2010 film that grossed over $1B worldwide.
For the few here who missed it, Andy, the owner of the toys, has grown up and is going away to university. A bag of his favourite childhood toys, intended for storage in the family attic, is accidentally donated to a day-care centre. Through an hour of highs and lows, the film explores themes of transition and maturation, culminating in a teary ending, as Andy realises his toys are best cared for by a new generation, and the toys wave him goodbye.
The crucial message, however, is not the sorrow of separation so much as the response to it. To begin with, the characters are all in denial: Andy, on the cusp of a new life, has been putting off sorting his toys; the toys themselves are either naively optimistic or overly pessimistic. No-one recognises that the relationship is not what it was; none wants to admit that things have changed and must change. But as the boy and toys go through their comedy-tragedy, they slowly realise that though growth and change are always accompanied by some letting go, they are life. We form new relationships, take up new causes, tread new paths.
Such a coming-of-age is happening at the University of Notre Dame at present. After an extended period of foundation, growth and consolidation the University will welcome a new Vice-Chancellor for the whole University and a new DVC Sydney. There will be more to come of crystallizing identity, deepening mission and building profile. Some will be experiencing the conflicting emotions of Woody, Buzz and the rest of the Toy Story gang. But each generation must pass on what it has achieved, hand over the animator’s pen to a new generation, tell a new instalment of the tale. Toy Story 4 comes out later this year…
Another UNDA coming-of-age is our celebration of the tenth graduating year here in Sydney. Some of our graduands will feel keenly the emotions associated with completion, change, separation. In the words of St. Paul in our epistle: your childhood is over, you are allotted now a particular grace, some to be leaders, some prophetic voices or teachers, some pastors or carers (Eph 4:7-16). From here you may go on to further studies, professions or other opportunities, leaving this stage behind you and striking out afresh.
Striking out afresh need not mean striking out alone. Hopefully you have made some important friendships that will sustain you in the years ahead. In our epistle Paul talks of the Church as a community, like a body with Christ as head and each of us a part. The University, too, is your university for life – a matter to which I will return.
You also strike out with a degree in hand, a mind developed, a character tempered – by long hours of discussion, study, assessment and asking profound existential questions like ‘Why, oh why, am I again starting my assignment at midnight the day it’s due?” Jokes aside, it is my hope that at ND you’ve gained not just knowledge and competencies in some discipline, but also wisdom and compassion, through Logos and reflection upon the underlying faith and reason of your discipline – asking the big questions, seeing a bigger picture.
The term alma mater comes originally from the Latin phrase alma mater studiorum, meaning ‘nourishing mother of studies’. It is the original and still official name of the University of Bologna, the first university in the world and one whose story is closely tied up with the Dominicans! It’s from this phrase that we have our words alumnus and alumni for graduates, literally meaning ‘those who’ve been nourished or nurtured’. The first universities adopted this idea, partly because wisdom had long been depicted as a mother feeding her babes, but also because universities aspired to be nurseries for the mind of those leaving behind their mums and toys, and embracing the arts and sciences, the professions and the wisdom of the adults.
Christianity, of course, celebrated another mother, Mary the mother of Jesus and of the Church, who was also known as Alma Mater from as early as the fourth century AD. Mary, the woman who ‘pondered all things in her heart’ (cf. Lk 2:19,51), was if you like the first university student. And Mary, the woman who shared all she knew with that Boy who would teach the world, was as it were the first university. Student and teacher, she is our mother, Notre Dame.
From today, dear graduands, you may refer to Notre Dame as your alma mater. I trust that will mean more than just an olde moulde phrase for ‘my old uni’. It should be a warm recollection of a place where you gained professional learning for your career but also a deeper nourishment for life. Then, in St Paul’s word of hope, you will resist buffeting by the winds of ideology, fashion and opinion, and be safe from the tricksters and the culture.
Dear graduands, Graduation is a time to celebrate your hard work and achievements; a time to be grateful to those who helped to get you there; and a time to consider how best to apply all you’ve learnt in the future. It’s a time to ask where God fits into your plans or, better, where you fit into God’s. By god’s grace you were given a mind and heart, imagination and memory, a body and a stretch of life, talents to do good and freedom to choose it. God so loved the world, so loved humanity, so loved you, He gave His only Son – to became one of us, to live and learn as we do, live and love as we do, live and die as we do. By His Incarnation He shows we don’t have to choose between God and humanity, faith or reason, between ideals and practicalities, science or religion, profit and people. In all such matters we can be both-and people, if we cultivate virtuous hearts, apply sound principles, and lean on each other and on Him.
Some here tonight are believers, some non-believers, and many still searching. But we can all agree on that we care deeply for the world and its people. We want to do our bit to make that world more just, compassionate, peaceful. We want to be beacons of hope, idealism and care. We want to be the love of God in our world, as was Jesus’ parting commandment to us (Jn 15:9-17). Success for us will not be measured just in salaries, properties or gadgets accumulated, not just in sexual conquests, power exercised or social media fans – important as some of these things are. No, we seek a happiness that comes from commitment to some higher things and a willingness to give ourselves to them. We seek, dare I say, to be saints.
As you graduate from university and, like Andy from Toy Story, begin a new stage in your life, I charge you with a mission: take your newly minted degrees to whatever lies ahead, determined to see the bigger picture and make a real contribution. Congratulations graduands of the University of Notre Dame Australia! May God bless you and your futures!
INTRODUCTION TO UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME AUSTRALIA GRADUATION MASS
St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney
Welcome all to St Mary’s Cathedral for the celebration of our Mass for graduands of the University of Notre Dame Australia.
I acknowledge concelebrating with me Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney and Vicar for Tertiary Education, Most Rev. Terence Brady DD VG; Sydney Campus Chaplain Fr James Baxter OP; and other priests.
I also welcome the Chancellor, the Honourable Chris Ellison; Governors, Trustees and Directors of the University; Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic and Interim Head of Campus, Professor Margot Kearns; 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. Welcome also to Professor Zlatko Skrbis (Zlat-co Sker-bish), Acting Vice Chancellor of ACU, who is attending on behalf of Vice Chancellor Professor Greg Craven.
Above all, I welcome our graduands, their family members and friends: to you all a very warm welcome!
 A.O. Scott, ‘Voyage to the bottom of the day care center’, New York Times 17 June 2010 https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/18/movies/18toy.html
 Sukhdev Sandhu, ‘Toy Story 3 review: adults will cry as much as their children’, The Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/toy-story-3/review/
 Dana Stevens, ‘Tear Story: the wonderful highs and lows of Toy Story 3’, Slate, 17 June 2010 http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2010/06/ tear_story.html