400th Anniversary of Heythrop College

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Given at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St Simon Stock Church, Kensington, on 21 June 2014.

Today we celebrate and thank God for the illustrious history of Heythrop College stretching back over 400 years. The story of this College starts with a simple novitiate established in Louvain in 1607 thanks to the generosity of a Spanish lady, Doña Louisa de Carvahal, resident in London and well aware of the growing difficulties faced by Catholics in general and religious orders in particular in the aftermath  of the failed Gunpowder Plot.

They were remarkable times, riddled with suspicion, anxiety, treachery and courageous, obstinate faith. Perhaps we gain something of a feel for those days through the music we are hearing today. This Mass for Four Voices by William Byrd comes from the last period of his life when he had withdrawn to be more focussed on his Catholic faith. It was published in the early 1590's, but only in unmarked copies, easy to hide, because to be caught even simply in possession of this music could lead to arrest, heavy fines or imprisonment. At this time Byrd was living under the protection of his near neighbour, Sir John Petre and we can helpfully imagine this music being sung in the private chapel of Ingatestone Hall in Essex: a small candlelit chapel, with a great intensity of devotion, and this wonderfully concise and spiritual music, sung by four voices only, for there was no room in the tiny chapel for any greater number.

This music can help us to appreciate the richness of the heritage that is ours.

In 1614, the simple novitiate in Louvain became a college of theology and philosophy and with its transfer to Liege it grew rapidly into a community not far short of a hundred. However, by 1794 the 33 scholastics and 21 priests in residence together with their Rector, Fr John Howard, were forced to flee by forces of the revolution, taking refuge in Stonyhurst. Then came the move to Heythrop Hall, a house owned by the Shrewsbury family and bought from them in 1870, which has given its name to the College.

Being the inheritors of such a long tradition is indeed a cause for thanksgiving. Yet it is also a source of real challenge. As the College reflects on its role and future it must surely call on this heritage and be shaped by all that is best in it.

Heythrop is and always has been a centre of true academic endeavour and learning. Today, perhaps more than ever, it is set within the context of education as proposed and supported by the state, by public culture. And that perhaps is its deepest challenge. What precisely might Heythrop bring to that public endeavour?

This history highlights the key relationship between the academic and the spiritual. In this tradition they are inseparable. Let me quote from the address given by Pope Francis to the community of the Pontifical Gregorian Universities in April this year.

'Your intellectual commitment, in teaching and in research, in study and in the most comprehensive formation, will be all the more fruitful and effective the more fully it is animated by love for Christ and for the Church, the more the relationship between study and prayer is strengthened and made more harmonious. This is not outdated', he proclaimed, 'it is the centre!'

Here is a real challenge in a world that wants to relegate the spiritual to the entirely private sphere and see the study of even theology as an objective inspection of ideas and theories rather than the faithful exploration of the call of God and the summons of faith.

And another challenge arises from this same point. There must be within the academic endeavour characterised by such faith a thorough and continual openness of thought and mind and will. Pope Francis again: 'The good theologian and philosopher has an open, that is, incomplete thought, always open to the maius of God and of the truth, always in development. This is strengthened over the years, it expands over time, it deepens with age.'  He adds to this appeal words of warning which are direct and forceful and which, to be quite honest, I hesitate to quote in full. But they are the words of the Holy Father. He warns: 'The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre....The theologian who does not pray and who does not worship God ends up sunk in the most disgusting narcissism. And this is an ecclesiastical illness. The narcissism of theologians, of thinkers, is really disgusting.'

The College in Liege was visited by Fr Provincial in 1678. He asked the students this question posed by Jesus: 'Are you ready to drink the chalice that I am about to drink?' Clearly they were, for shortly afterwards six innocent Jesuits were tried and executed as a result of the Titus Oates Plot. They are the forebears in whom we find our inspiration and motivation today. This example will ensure that Heythrop is free from all academic narcissism. That can indeed be a hallmark of our contribution to academic life!

The readings of our Mass today call us to this same centre. Who can conquer the 'world', understood in the sense given it by St John? Victory, and therefore liberty, freedom - indeed even true academic freedom - is to be found in Christ Jesus and in following him. It is to be found, as St John goes on to say in that same passage, through his death, the blood, in a sharing in his risen life, the water, and in a life of study always open to the Holy Spirit.  This faithfulness to him is the way in which we know we are living correctly, studying correctly, teaching correctly and learning correctly.

The architecture of our lives as human beings, of our world, our society that in academic life we want to find, explore, propose, is the fruit of God's creating gift, made visible in Christ Jesus and unfolded by the work of the Holy Spirit. And surely one of the things we wish to bring to the wider academic endeavour of our society is that unshakeable sense of this wholeness, this architecture, the integrity of the quest for learning. Along with Cardinal Newman, we always seek to propose that there is more to academic endeavour than, in Pope Francis' phrase 'a heap of notions unconnected to one another'. We have to be trying, amidst all the complexity of regulation and expectation, to propose, I quote again, 'a true evangelical hermeneutic for better understanding of life, the world and humanity in a spiritual atmosphere of research and certainty based on the truths of reason and of faith.' Pope Francis continues:  'In this manner, philosophy and theology permit one to acquire the convictions that structure and strengthen the intelligence and illuminate the will...but this is fruitful only if it is done with an open mind and on one's knees.'

But let us return to Liege. In 1696, the English army was engaged in battles in France. The Jesuit community there found itself providing help as a field hospital for the wounded English soldiers. The College received formal thanks from none other than the Protestant King William of Orange himself!

This permits me to make my final points about the inspiration Heythrop today can draw from its heritage.

This act of kindness by the College reminds us, surely, that study can never be separated from the world around it. The human context, the people of the College community itself and needs of the wider society, should be a real focus of care and concern. This creates the atmosphere of human care, of a deeper compassionate humanity, which puts all study and learning into a truly human dimension. This is spoken of by Pope Francis, to your confreres in Rome, as 'a dose of realism that is so necessary to ensure that your knowledge will be human and not that of a laboratory.'

And finally we must note that the experience of the College as a field hospital led to that remarkable exchange of respectful greetings. Such respect and mutual regard always lie at the heart of true dialogue. And today, too, dialogue has never been more important as the antidote to misplaced religious zeal and the constant temptation to see only in oppositional terms and strategies of conflict.

Surely in this day, when so many are closed to the call of religious truth, we must not neglect or push to one side the crucial witness of practical human care and the great reservoir of human truth and wisdom. These too, in their beauty and goodness, are the fruit of God's spirit. These human qualities still and always open every heart to the call of the beyond. They must often be our starting point, the quiet call of wisdom which sets us off on the journey to God.

Father General, Fr Nicholas, speaking with me on Thursday, remarked that this Pope is more often quoted by non-academics than most others because he often quotes sources of human wisdom including his own grandmother in phrases and sayings which express that reservoir of human wisdom and which are so memorable and repeatable. We too must cherish this wisdom today. This too is a dialogue to which we are called: a respectful recognition of the seeds of the gospel found in all that is best in our society, calling on that goodness, wanting to affirm that goodness and seeing in it, whatever its cultural or individual shape and expression, the ground on which we all stand and from which we can reach out towards our Heavenly Father. As Father Nicholas said to me, 'Even the Cyprus trees themselves believe in God.'

Today we thank God for Heythrop College, in all its different manifestations. We pray for those who guide it today, for those who contribute to its academic work, for those who study in its halls and libraries, for those who support and encourage it, that this College will be true to its great history and make a truly evangelical contribution to our world today.