“Did you say the quite definite message quite definitely?” That was the puzzling question put to the one thousand Belvedere students who filed into Gardiner St Church on Wed 21st September for the Mass to open the school year. All preparations were made over the week by Belvedere College headmaster, Gerry J Foley, Pastoral Assistant Eoghan Keogh, and other teachers. Guards were alerted to shepherd the lads across the busy street, the choir had their music prepared, and by 11.55 all began. Fr Bruce Bradley, recently appointed Rector of the college, was principal Celebrant and the preacher who posed the probing question. He was speaking in the context of how much one person can make a difference in life, and how school can prepare people well to make that difference. Read his homily below.
Homily for School Mass at Opening of Academic Year 2011-12
St Francis Xavier’s, Gardiner St – Wednesday 21st September 2011
Readings: Ephesians 4,1-7.11-13 (And to some his gift was that they should be apostles; to some, prophets; to some evangelists; to some pastors and teachers); Matthew 9,9-13 (He saw a man named Matthew – and he said to him, “Follow me”’).
A famous Danish philosopher called Sǿren Kierkegaard, who lived in the early part of the 19th century, once had a strange dream in which he heard himself being asked: ‘Did you say the quite definite message quite definitely?’ He puzzled for a long time over those words andeventually came to an important insight. He realised that what they meant was that the message each of us must ‘say’ in our lives is the utterly unique message of who we are.
Each of us is born to be an original, not a carbon copy of anyone else. Each of us has a vocation – like Matthew in today’s Gospel. I have mine, you have yours. Each of us has a ‘message’, a quite definite message to speak with our lives. Matthew was a tax-collector – maybe not a brilliant career-choice then or now – and presumably thought that was his destiny. But when Jesus called him to leave his taxes and follow him, that call had a much deeper resonance for him, which sounded in the depths of his heart. This wasn’t just a job. This was a call to discover and – metaphorically speaking – ‘say the quite definite message’ of who he was, not Matthew the tax-collector but Matthew the evangelist.
The journey to that discovery of who we truly are is the journey of our lives. School-days are the time of preparation. The new boys in Elements probably feel just now that these school-days will go on forever. Those in Rhetoric are probably beginning to realise that their school-days are rapidly coming to an end. In truth, like everything else in human life, school-days pass quickly and there’s no time to be lost. There is – and there should be – plenty of scope for enjoyment and it’s true that you’re only young once. But using this time to lay foundations for the future is really important. Wasting the opportunities this privileged time of life offers can have serious consequences later on.
The Scottish writer Donald Nicholl remembers a visit he paid one afternoon to a doctor friend in Edinburgh. He and his friend spoke for a while about the recent sad death of a child in the operating theatre of a nearby hospital. Nicholl said he felt, in his own words, ‘great sympathy for the doctor who had been in charge of the operation since he had encountered such an unexpected complication and could hardly be blamed for what had eventually happened’. But his friend did not agree. ‘I think the man is to blame’, he said. ‘If anybody had handed me ether instead of chloroform I would have known from the weight that it was the wrong thing.
You see I know the man well. We were students together at Aberdeen, and he could have become one of the finest surgeons in Europe if only he had given his mind to it. But he didn’t. He was more interested in golf. So he just used to do enough work to pass his examinations and no more. And that’s how he lived his life – just enough to get through, but no more; so he has never picked up those seemingly [extra] bits of knowledge that one day can be crucial. The other day in that theatre a bit of [extra] knowledge was crucial and he didn’t have it. But it wasn’t the other day that he failed – it was thirty years ago when he only gave himself half-heartedly to medicine’.
That man’s ‘thirty years ago’ is your now. He grew up to be a negligent surgeon, whose negligence was fatal for the child who died. But that didn’t have to happen. The surgeon had once been a young medical student, with plenty of time and opportunity to prepare and everything to strive for. But he was a slothful student, he didn’t give himself to the tasks set him with sufficient care, he did just enough to get by. He failed to acknowledge to himself that actions – or inactions – have consequences. He didn’t use the years of preparation to be ready for what life would ask of him later on.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist who survived the concentration camp of Auschwitz in the Second World War, wrote a famous book about the experience, which is still in print. It’s called Man’s Search for Meaning. In that book, among many other wise things, he says that life is asking each person: ‘Why are you here now at this point in the history of humankind?’ Life is asking that question of us. And when we say ‘life’, we mean God. The voice of conscience, which points us to our duty – whatever that duty may be and, at this time, a decent effort at study is a significant part of yours – is not a trick of our psyche. It’s the voice of God. It’s God’s purchase on us. And, as Christian believers, we recognise God in Jesus Christ.
In him, God is made visible. He is our conscience incarnate. He lives out before our eyes what the quiet inner voice of conscience calls us to – in the end, to love and nothing but. It’s a paradox that, precious, unique and original as each one of us is, it is nevertheless by following Jesus as our model that each of us will become truly and fully who we are.
History shows that the saints, those who took Jesus at his word and were most serious about being his followers, were never boring carbon copies or facsimiles – they were always uniquely and intensely themselves. By keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, each of us will be able to answer the challenge of history to us about why we are alive now, in this particular time and place. By trusting in him, each of us will be able ‘to say quite definitely the quite definite message’ we have been put on earth to ‘say’ with our lives. That’s why we’re at Mass together now. We begin again today. Amen.