Conferment of Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws

Last Updated:

Given at the degree ceremony of the University of Liverpool on the occasion of the university's conferment of the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, at Philharmonic Hall, Hope Street, Liverpool on 20 July 2016.


Thank you very much for the honour you bestow on me today. I am truly grateful for the recognition that this honorary degree represents: recognition not just of some personal achievements, elegantly presented by the university's orator, but also recognition of the important role and contribution made by the Catholic Church in our country and world today. It is for me, personally, a moment of pride, and for us all a reminder of the importance of faith in God as expanding and inspiring all our shared efforts for the common good of all. 

I thank you, too, for giving me this opportunity to return to Liverpool and to this great Philharmonic Hall. It is many years since I took my place on this stage, yet I remember those occasions well. I sat just over there, as a young player of the French horn, in our school orchestra, when year after year we gave concerts here. I can't remember how good those concerts were, but I do remember the satisfaction they gave to us youngsters. 

At this moment I want to offer my warmest congratulations to all who have received their degrees and awards at this ceremony. You have worked hard for this moment; I have just turned up! 

For you today marks a moment of passage, from a life focused on academic achievement to one which now seeks a constructive outlet for the talent and ability you now know you possess. Finding the right opportunity and fashioning that outlet will not be easy and there are many challenges ahead of you. And if finding the right employment, the right personal pattern of life, the right social context in which you can flourish is not easy, nor too is the world in which you are to play your part. 

For some time social commentators have insisted that the key characteristic of our world today is that of uncertainty. They have been quite certain of that! But in recent times the depth of that uncertainty has been made clear.  Ask the people of Nice.  Ask the people of Baghdad; or the people of Istanbul.  There is economic uncertainty and so much political uncertainty, even in America. 

This is the world in which you will grow to maturity and to which your contribution will be important. It is an uncertain world so it is surely important for you to have a good compass by which to steer your course, a sense of direction or inner stability. 

My grandfather was a seafarer. He often sailed out of this port of Liverpool, on transatlantic crossings, on one of which Marconi was conducting his early experiments. Unfortunately I did not inherit his sea legs. Rather I can remember a short sea crossing I made many years ago from one of the Mediterranean islands back to the Port of Naples. The ship was small and the sea seemed mighty. I can still feel that overwhelming sickness and disorientation! An old sea hand was standing there. He told me to stop looking at the side of the ship as it heaved through the seas. He told me not to look at the sea, with its rolling mountainous waves. He told me to look only and steadily at the horizon, the only still point to be found. It worked! As I fixed by eyes on that unmoving point, my stomach settled, the fear subsided and I could think clearly again! 

Here's the question: what is your horizon as you set out on what can be stormy seas? Certainly each of you have received today a precious testimony of your competence, in whatever subject that may be. But is that enough? I think you know that it is not. Each of us also needs something that goes beyond a proven competence, a tutored capacity for reasoning, study and conclusion. We also need something that recognises and arises from our spirit and by that I mean at least our capacity for courage, for daring, for compassion, for love. I mean our anger at injustice and our instinct for what is right. I mean our readiness to forget our own immediate advantage and to respond to the needs of another. 

There is a strong and telling image that captures what I want to say. It is this: the human spirit soars on two wings, on the wings of both faith and reason. Yes, both faith and reason. Reason alone will not enable us to rise as we should.  Faith alone is vulnerable to exploitation. It is faith and reason, working together, testing each other, each contributing to the fashioning of the pathway by which we walk that forms the best horizon for us in this stormy world. 

Permit me, for a minute, to put this thought directly into a political context. In doing so I would like to use words spoken by Pope Benedict when he came to London a few years ago. Addressing directly our political leaders, and the formers of opinion, he said: 'Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, (which you will surely do) must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than a social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.' 

It is in the face of that challenge, which frankly can appear everyday as each of us makes our way and our contribution, that the wings of both faith and reason are needed: faith offering fresh light to reason, and reason testing and purifying faith. 

So my appeal to you today is simple: don't try to fly with one wing only! As I congratulate you mightily on what you have achieved and as you launch out onto the next phase of your lives, find and fix your eyes on that larger horizon; find and fix your guiding star rather than just be blown by fashion or reaction. Then you will be true builders of a better society and contributors to a richer common good.

For me that horizon, that star, is always the light of God's presence, shining in a thousand different ways but always in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the true fulfilment of our humanity. That light of God is refracted into our lives through so many prisms and casts such colour into our hearts. I ask you not to ignore that light whenever you glimpse it, but treasure it, seek it and give yourself time and opportunity to respond to that moment of wonder whenever it may come. But come it will. 

Congratulations to you all. Congratulations on your achievements. May God bless you and through your efforts may our world truly be a brighter place.   


Thank you.


At the time when the Honorary Doctor of Laws was conferred on Cardinal Nichols, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool is Professor Janet Beer.