Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ homily during his Installation as first Chancellor of St Mary’s University, UK
Given at Westminster Cathedral at Vespers on the occasion of his installation as inaugural Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, on 27 May 2015
This is a wonderfully formal ceremony, rich in content and significance. Perhaps for the next few minutes I can be a little less formal and a little more personal.
It is a great privilege and pleasure to take on this role as Chancellor. There have been many moments of preparation. One always comes up. What I am going to wear!
Decision taken was that I remain in the formal dress of Cardinal as the suitable garb for the Chancellor. A clear statement, among many this afternoon, that our University sees itself as an expression of all that is best in the tradition and life of the Catholic faith. Doing so gives the University strong and deep roots and a stability of culture that no secular designation can bring.
When I think of St Mary’s, two people come into my mind.
The first is Pope Benedict, with his remarkable visit to the University in 2010. Look at what he did. First he met with and spoke to the men and women religious of England and Wales. Please read again the speech he gave, touching on the history of the University, the world-wide commitment of the Catholic Church to the work of education, ‘often laying the foundations of educational provision long before the State assumed responsibility for this vital service to the individual and society.’ Deep historical roots indeed.
Then he met with the children, in the Big School Assembly. There he spoke to the heart of the invitation to life that is served by education. As is noted in the booklet, he invited the children ‘to become saints’, explaining that this meant never being satisfied with second best. His words: ‘I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore others. Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good, but on its own it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is indeed good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy…..In your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn. All you do is placed in the context of God and from that flows friendship with God’ and that is the ultimate source of our happiness. A vision of education for us to keep before our eyes.
Then he went to the Waldegrave Room and met with leaders from all sectors of society who were of other religious faiths. This was the strongest of all signals of the true breadth of the project of St Mary’s: that of bringing together, in every profession, in every walk of life, the strengths and resources of religious faith together with the best of scientific and contemporary endeavour. He stressed this: ‘The quest for the sacred does not devalue other fields of human enquiry. On the contrary it places them in a context which magnifies their importance as ways of responsibly exercising our stewardship over creation.’ As broad a mandate as you could wish.
This visit, and this person, Pope Benedict, stands, for me, as a strong sign of the path still to be followed by St Mary’s, in depth of endeavour, in vision of education and it wholeness of life.
The second person is not at all well known, but for me no less important. It is my father. In circumstances that I do not need to explain now, he found himself needing to acquire formal teaching qualifications, even though for five or more years he had been teaching in various classrooms. So he became a student of St Mary’s – or Simmaries as it was known.
He was a great teacher and a fine man, expressing in daily down-to-earth life precisely the qualities I have been speaking about. In the later part of his career he was approached a number of times about being a head teacher. He would have none of it. He said his joy and calling lay in standing in front of a class of ‘little nippers’ and seeing their minds and lives slowly opening to the wonders of life and learning. He was generous, staying on after school hours to provide what was known as the ‘play school’ but actually was to enable children to wait in safety until their parents came home from work and, while they waited, to get on with their homework for that was nigh impossible once they got home. Later in his career he switched to primary school teaching, just to take on a new challenge. One of my cherished home memories is of my parents talking together, long into the evening, about what they were doing in the classroom, for my Mum too was a wonderful primary school teacher.
At this moment I can hear him telling me to stop. That’s more than enough, he is saying. Have you no sense about how long you should go on for – most priests don’t, he is adding! But there is one more thing I want to say. Just one sentence from the reading we have heard this afternoon: ‘Accept the strength that comes from the grace of Christ.’
I hope those words long remain at the centre of your lives, both individually and as an institution. You have seen your Vice-Chancellor receive a very formal mandate and give a very solemn undertaking. This is indeed a mandate of the Church, but, just as importantly, it is an invitation to rely on someone who is beyond all doubt and defeat, the one alone who has conquered the evil and death which is written into our world. He indeed is our source of courage and also our source of joy. In him may St Mary’s always be a place of great joy, Gospel joy. Then it will indeed prosper. Amen.
Given at Westminster Cathedral, London
27 May 2015, the Feast of St Augustine of Canterbury