My dear Brothers and Sisters……. This isn’t the way it was planned!
Virtual meetings and celebrations are certainly a great scientific advance, but it is not the same as meeting in person, and praying together in the celebration of Mass.
In this unprecedented time, perhaps there is still an interesting challenge. Should we be considering the pandemic through the context of our faith? There seems to me to be an opportunity to question the way we try to live our faith, during the pandemic. Just as I have to question how I might best be a bishop in these very strange circumstances, so members of the University might also need to ask how best do we live our faith in the circumstances that surround us, at this stage of our lives.
The Gospel in our Mass today is a gift to us in these difficult days. A pharisee, probably intending to trip Jesus up with his question, asks which is the most important commandment of the law? That is quite a question given the mountain of rules and regulations that pharisees imposed on themselves which covered every details of their lives. Which one could be the most important? Would it concern prayer? Ablutions? The Sabbath? Family?
Jesus does not hesitate in his reply. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the greatest. And the second commandment resembles it. You must love your neighbour as yourself.” That actually means having to gauge every situation and to interpret how best, in this given situation, can I show my love for God and for my neighbour? It cannot just be a matter of applying a rule or regulation. We must recognise the opportunities to love.
We are in the midst of a pandemic. All the normal rules, routines, requirements, good practices need to change in the light of the dangers of contagion. If we are to love God and our neighbour in these times we need to make the safety of our brothers and sisters a priority. If that means social-distancing, curbs on our socialising, on-line lectures and tutorials, then that is what we need to do. I have no doubt that there is certainly inconvenience in all this, and various obstacles and demands, but it is living our faith.
Faith cannot be something that we just have intellectually in our heads, that simply gives us an identity, or sense of belonging.
Faith is not simply a list of beliefs and rules to be accepted and observed.
Faith is something that needs to guide our every action, educating our decisions and choices.
Faith puts into practice those two most important commandments:
That we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, `and strength.
And that we must love our neighbour as ourselves.
Faith calls us to be alert to the opportunities to love, that can arise in every event of our day.
And how might that apply itself within our University life and work, particularly at this strange time of the pandemic? I think it helpful to call upon St John Henry Newman, so closely associated with this University, for a reminder. He opens that very powerful meditation with the words:
“God created me to do Him some definite purpose. He has committed some work to me that He has not committed to another. I have my mission”
Can we say that with conviction? “I have my mission”? Does it really apply to me? If I know that God has gifted me with my unique mission, I know that he has equipped me with all the gifts and skills that I need to fulfil that mission. That seems to me to be the foundation of all that university should mean to me. It is here that I develop, in many and various ways, my gifts and skills for my mission. That certainly applies to my academic aspirations, but it goes much further. It is here that I learn so much more about relationships, my attitude to politics and society, my ambitions, my priorities.
The Old Palace has had an important place in nurturing faith in countless undergraduates, graduates, tutors, and professors in its remarkable hundred years as the Catholic Chaplaincy. I remember, with gratitude, living here in my third year as an under-graduate. Today is the time to give thanks for all who have contributed, in whatever way, to its life and activities. But we must also pray that, in these strange times, we can help to discern the best way ahead for the ministry of this place, and to recognise our individual contributions to this place.
Our prayer remains essential as a foundation for all our work and is the key to any progress that we may be able to make. St Paul encourages us when he says, in his letter to the Philippians, “There is no need to worry, but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving”. We need to remind ourselves of the power of prayer in all the circumstances of our lives. Prayer invites God into our lives and actions. Our “contemplation” in prayer helps us to value all that we have. We pause, in the presence of God, to recognise the beauty of nature and its delicacy and to remind ourselves of our co-responsibility in protecting the dignity and well-being of all our brothers and sisters. Prayer for the life and apostolate of this Chaplaincy is important today and each day.
The Pope calls us to hope. In a recent general audience he said: “hope is audacious” and in Fratelli Tutti he says (and I quote) “I invite everyone to renewed hope, for hope speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independently of our circumstances and historical conditioning. Hope speaks to us of a thirst, an aspiration, a longing for a life of fulfilment, a desire to achieve great things, things that fill our heart and lift our spirit to lofty realities like truth, goodness and beauty, justice and love… Hope is bold; it can look beyond personal convenience, the petty securities and compensations which limit our horizon, and it can open us up to grand ideals that make life more beautiful and worthwhile. Let us continue, then, to advance along the paths of hope”.
As we celebrate a centenary of the mission of The Old Palace, let us remember the sense of Hope, in very different but challenging times, that those students of this University must have fostered in 1920, in the rebuilding of nations after the First World War. Let our hope sustain us as we encounter the needs of our own days, and the possibilities and opportunities for the future, as we wrestle with the demands and challenges of the pandemic.
Thank you for whatever part you have in the life of this place. I hope that all of us can begin each day with the reassurance of hope and the knowledge that we each have our unique mission and we need to identify and develop the gifts and skills that God has given to each one of us, so as to play our part in His plan.
(Unfortunately, Bishop John Arnold couldn’t be present at the Mass. Fr Nick King SJ delivered the homily on his behalf at the 11am Mass)