Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

Mass to open the Academic Year at Newman House

Mass to open the Academic Year at Newman House

Sunday 13th October 2013


At this Freshers Mass many of you are coming together for the first time, beginning your life here in the Universities of London. For others this is a return to the disciples of term time. Together you are engaged in the great project of learning.

Today in this Mass we celebrate the memory of Blessed John Henry Newman and we are gathered in Newman House. So it is right that we look to him as a guide and inspiration in this great project of learning.

Newman put a great deal of effort into university life. He was in Oxford for many years both as a student and as a University Tutor. Later, when he was asked to establish a Catholic University in Dublin, he gave much profound thought to what a university should be and should strive to attain.

In his writings there are many points for our consideration. But there are two essential points I would like to put before you this morning. First, Newman was committed to the breadth of university education, to a comprehensive breadth of knowledge. Secondly, he was convinced that there was an underlying unity to all knowledge and that this unity was under threat.

So, in his plans for the Catholic University of Dublin, Newman made provision for a comprehensive range of subjects to be taught. He recognised that each has its own scope, methodologies and outcomes. At the same time he insisted that this distinctiveness of each subject did not grant to it an autonomy from the overall project of learning. He was determined to avoid the fragmentation of learning in which each subject was pursued in isolation from the rest, in pursuit of specialised knowledge alone, in preparation for a single-focused career or productivity. This is very much what has happened and what you experience in most university education today.

He was also anxious to avoid another outcome which has, in fact, come about. He could foresee that the independence of subjects would lead to a domination of one method of learning: the empirical study of fact and the formulation of hypotheses directed towards practical change and outcomes. Do not misunderstand me. Newman's was not a position of opposition to the empirical method and it's effectiveness. But he was opposed to that method dominating education, to it taking up a predominance which then marginalised all other methods. This, too, is what has happened. Truth today is more or less restricted to that which can be established empirically. The empirical has claimed a philosophical pre-eminence, which is a very un-empirical claim indeed!

For his part, Newman claimed that there is a profound unity to all knowledge and that a University should indeed be a genuine 'community of learning' in which the different disciples come together to explore and exchange their insights and their common ground. I do not think this is a feature of current university life. But Newman House itself could become such a 'community of learning', and thereby be a kind of 'sacrament' of the university itself.

Newman's view was one of knowledge having a 'monumental structure', comprising of knowledge of the physical world, of all human endeavour and of theology, too. There are many approaches to this 'monumental structure' and each participates in the large whole, the overarching unity of knowledge.

This overarching unity is, as it must be, founded in the Transcendent, in the mystery of God. It is theocentric, for God is the first and final cause of all things. God is the source of all knowledge for it is God alone who guarantees the coherent and intelligibility of all things.

Think, if you will, of the opening lines of the Book of Genesis where we read that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters, over the chaos. That movement of God produced a cosmos out of chaos, an ordered world which we continue to explore to this day. It is this presence of God which renders our world intelligible and which is the most profound harmony between religion and science.

Now all of this is encapsulated in the person of Christ.

Of course we struggle to express this most profound aspect of our faith. Think of the opening lines of St John's Gospel. It is through the Word of God that all things have being. That same Word becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus, the Christ. He, then, is the Word through whom all things are made. His character is to be found in all things, if we have the eyes to see it. Think of the Easter Vigil ceremony, in which the Paschal Candle is marked with the Alpha and Omega, for Christ is the beginning and end of all things and his light shines deep within them all. In faith, Christ is the apex and summation of all creation. At Mass we can, with the eyes of faith, see the priest holding in his hands the whole of creation.

In the Gospel of our Mass this morning we heard the narrative of the healing of the ten lepers, a miracle also presented in the First Reading with the cure of Namaan.

You will know that leprosy stands for the fragmentation of the human community. The leper is cast out. The leper must stay apart. The healing of that leprosy repairs the fragmentation of the human community. It restores right relationships and rebuilds community.

In the same way the presence of Christ can heal the fragmentation of knowledge and restore the community of learning. To see knowledge in the light of Christ, to allow him to touch every aspect of our learning is to begin to perceive the true unity of our separate endeavours and to see the whole of knowledge rooted in the truth of God and flourishing to its fulfilment in God.

A healed skin; a healed project of learning.

Now, finally, what does this mean in practice?

First: take school seriously! But in doing so remember that the original meaning of the Greek word 'school' is leisure! So take school seriously. Don't spend excessive hours in study. Give yourselves a break, broaden your interests get to know about other subjects and see the interconnectedness of all learning.

Secondly: give yourself some rest, some peace and some time for prayer, time simply to be with the Lord. We have been given two important lessons in prayer in the readings this morning.

In the First Reading, we heard of Namaan taking some of the soil of Israel home with him so that when he offered sacrifice to God, he could do so standing on good soil, on holy ground. Well, here is the holy ground for you. Your Catholic faith is the good soil on which you can confidently stand, on which you can gladly offer this sacrifice of praise, the Holy Mass. Build your lives on this soil and they will be well built.

The second lesson we have been given came in the Gospel Reading and the sole return of the Samaritan to give thanks to God for his cure. Thanksgiving is to be a key note of all our prayer. Indeed at the beginning of every prayer we do well to thank God for all his blessings. Then we start off on the right foot.

So build up the practice of prayer in your daily lives. In doing so you build up a personal relationship with the Lord, a relationship which goes beyond turning to him in anxiety at exam time! Rather this relationship is to be the foundation of your lives, a relationship that embraces heart and mind, burden and joy.

Finally, come to know Mary, whose icon adorns your chapel. She is given to us as our mother precisely so that she can lead us to Jesus and help us to strengthen our relationship with him, especially in times of difficulty and fear. Today, as you will know, our Holy Father Pope Francis is consecrating the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Let us be part of that great act so that our hearts are united with her's and so that she may take us always into her care.

This celebration of Mass gathers up all these themes and takes us into the life of Christ which is totally one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

So - for our learning

     -  for the wonder of all knowledge

     -  for the invitation into the fullness of life that is given to us

     -  for the gift of Mary to be our Mother

We say:  Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and every shall be, world without end. Amen.

+Vincent Nichols

Archbishop of Westminster

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