Given at the Chapel of Maria Assumpta, Heythrop College, Kensington Square on 20 January 2014
Today's Mass celebrates a major achievement and like most achievements it is the result of hard work and dedication. The 'reactivation' - my first ever re activation! - 'the reactivation of the ecclesiastical status of the Bellarmine Institute at Heythrop College' brings together the best of the past, - and here a special welcome to Bishop Kenney, a graduate of the Oxfordshire Heythrop, himself being 're activated this evening - roots it in the complex realities of the present and opens a real promise for the future. It can be no easy task to negotiate and hold together 'big beasts' such as the Congregation for Catholic Education and the University of London, to say nothing of the Society of Jesus! But this has been done and our congratulations are due to Fr Michael and his impressive team. This Institute will be a great service to the life of the Catholic community in years to come.
In the spirit of Pope Francis we must see this moment in the light of the call to the Church always to be thoroughly missionary in its outlook and activity. So this is a missionary endeavour. What does that mean?
Well, to begin with, it is an endeavour rooted in prayer, in the gifts of God and achieved only through God's grace. Everything missionary about the Church comes from our true discipleship. We are, always, missionary disciples, missionary only in as much as our lives are a communion with The Lord, a lived relationship with him, spurring us on to share the great gifts we receive.
First among these gifts, in this academic project of the Bellarmine Institute, are the gifts of wisdom and understanding. The first reading made two things clear. These are gifts that must be sought in prayer, and they must be desired above all else. We read that wisdom and understanding are given after prayer and entreaty and that they are indeed rooted in the very life of God.
The challenge here is very clear. The Institute is part of this great University in which understanding of all manner of things is sought. But is the culture of the University one that recognises that understanding is always best achieved in and accompanied by prayer? Does it esteem wisdom above all things, above recognition, prestige, finance, institutional well-being? Of course these are important factors in the project of a university. Yet the mission of this Institute is surely to be a witness here, in the University, to these more fundamental truths.
This is not a stance which in any way offends against the best strivings of the world of academia and scientific endeavour. Indeed, Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium goes out of his way to state that 'the dialogue between science and faith belongs to the work of evangelisation at the service of peace' (242). He looks to a coming together of the different and proper methods of intellectual enquiry, rejecting the absolute claims of the methods of the positive, empirical sciences - a claim which is ironically self-contradictory - stating that such a synthesis can 'elevate us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence.' In line with his predecessors he insists on the dialogue between faith and reason by which, he says, 'All of society can be enriched thanks to this dialogue which opens up new horizons for thought and expands the possibilities of reason. This too is the path of harmony and peace' (242).
Characteristically, he also points out moments in which we, as missionary disciples, are likely to lose our nerve. He speaks of 'scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified' and reminds us that believers can never claim, or be part of the claim, that such scientific opinion carries 'the same weight as a dogma of faith'. Our faith is to be confident and robust, not always easy in the self-confident and occasionally dismissive culture of some places of higher learning.
The Gospel we have heard this evening reminds us of the importance of building on the rock of this faith. Just as importantly it reminds us that faith means action, not simply ideas or aspirations. It is the person who does not act on faith who is in danger. As Pope Francis insists in the same Exhortation, reality is more important than ideas, and the action by which we are to be judged is always our actions toward the poor and those most in need of our help. This too is a challenge to us all, not least to a fledgling Institute.
Recently, at the beginning of the Year, we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of The Lord, a suitable note for the beginning of this Institute. In his homily, Pope Francis highlighted the words of the Gospel that at this baptism the heavens were opened and the voice of the Father was heard proclaiming the presence of his Son, to whom we were to give our full attention and welcome. This is the great gift of the Father to our world, the gift of light and truth, lifting from us the veil of darkness and doubt.
He went on to remark that when the heavens remain shut then our lives can be very burdensome and exhausting. When the heavens are shut, or our hearts shut to the openness of the heavens, then we lose our compass, our sense of lasting purpose and give our full efforts to goals that cannot satisfy or redeem us.
My prayer is that this Bellarmine Institute will indeed open the heavens to all who share in its life; that here they may find that graceful exploration of truth, inspired by the words and action of the Beloved Son of the Father, which casts light on every aspect of life and learning. I pray that the presence of this Institute within the University will be a great blessing for all the endeavours of the University, a beacon of true humanity and a light of divine grace.
I am sure you all join with me in this prayer.