Given at the University of Notre Dame Catholic Education Conference Mass at Westminster Cathedral on 12th March 2019
I welcome you all to this celebration of Holy Mass. I welcome especially all those who are participating in the Education Conference taking place this evening on the theme of 'Contemporary Issues Facing Catholic Schools: Lessons from the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States.’ I welcome members of the London Gateway of the University of Notre Dame. I welcome Bishop Arturo Cepeda from Detroit, Bishop Thomas Deenihan from Ireland and those who are present from St Mary's University, Twickenham, especially its Vice-Chancellor, Francis Campbell. I wish God's blessings on your endeavours, as we praise and thank God in the Sacrifice of the Mass.
The opening prayer of our Mass this evening points to the heart of the Christian quest, a quest well explored and developed in a Catholic understanding of education.
In the prayer, we asked our Heavenly Father that 'our minds may be radiant in your presence with the strength of our yearning for you.' It is that word 'yearning' that catches my eye: our longing for God, our constantly returning sense of incompletion, our search for fulfilment. These longings drive us on, often into the thickets of selfishness or self-delusion, sometimes into the arms of our loving and merciful God.
Recently I came across these words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke):
'Such various noise runs through my blood,
Yet I can tell: I am made of longing.'
('Book of Hours', R. M. Rilke. Quoted in 'The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance,' by Fr Erik Varden).
Surely appreciation and perception of that 'longing', of which each person is made, lies at the heart of education: the longing that drives each student in his or her ambition, hard to identify, vital to shape and direct; the longing in the heart of every teacher, what he or she really wishes to achieve for the students in their care.
I also came across these words of Blessed Basil Moreau CSC, founder of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the inspiration of Notre Dame University. He spoke, in 1856, of the zeal of the teacher as:
'a flame of burning desire which one feels to make God known, loved and served and thus save souls. Apostolic activity is, therefore, the essential character of this virtue, and every teacher who is animated by the virtue will fulfil the duties of his state with eagerness, affection, courage and perseverance... Our zeal’, he said, ‘is always guided by charity and everything is done with strength and gentleness: strength because we are courageous and unshakeable in the midst of difficulty and trials ... and with gentleness because we have the tenderness of our Divine Model.' (Christian Pedagogy, 1.1, art 4, 1856).
'I am made of longing!' This profound truth is unfolded for us in the first reading we have heard, from the Prophet Isaiah. He speaks to us of the power of the word of God, which 'goes out from my mouth and does not return to me empty.' This is the word through which we are created. And this creating word leaves its imprint on every human being, fuelling the longing which we feel but to which we often cannot give a name, or give a wrong and misleading name. The longing we feel is a longing for our fulfilment in our loving Creator, the fulfilment of the word stamped in our innermost being. And that too is the longing of God. So the Incarnate Word comes forth from God's mouth and does not return empty. Rather, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, he achieves our redemption. He holds before us the promise of eternal fulfilment, the satisfying and completion of every longing we experience. In Jesus I find who I am and all that I am intended to be. He becomes our light, our strength, our truth and our joy.
For this reason, we readily and often proclaim that Christ is at the centre of every educational endeavour.
On Saturday, here in the cathedral, during a ceremony welcoming all those who are to receive baptism at Easter, I listened to one lady who told me that she spent long hours in prayer in the Tyburn Convent Chapel. I asked, 'But who has taught you to pray?' She gazed at me in puzzlement. 'But I just pray from my heart!' she said. Yes! That is the longing written into every human heart. It is the longing that drove the disciples to ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. In response, he gave them the right words to say: 'Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name ...', the prayer we all know so well and which is given to us afresh this evening.
How important are words in your task of education: teaching them, teaching through them, choosing them with care so that your words too become words of life and never words of sarcasm or belittlement or mockery which kill the spirit and turn the longing of which we are made to avenues and desires which become destructive. Those avenues are wide and inviting today. We must encourage each other to stay on the right path, even if it appears to be the narrow road. It leads to the greatest fulfilment of all!
I thank all present this evening for your great work in education. I thank parents, friends, work colleagues, for your efforts to encourage and accompany those with whom you share life and effort. I pray that our coming to the Lord in this Eucharist will refresh in us a longing for the well-being of each other, rooted in a longing for the Lord, for his kingdom, so that our minds may indeed be radiant in his presence and our service be generous and courageous in every circumstance.