10 December 2015: Campion College 2015 Graduation Mass, Father Peter G Williams at Campion College, Toongabbie
In January of 2008 the Washington Post undertook an experiment. They asked a young man to play some tunes on an old violin during rush hour in a Washington subway station in the heart of DC. Now it wasn’t just any old violin, it had been made in 1713 by the master craftsman Antonio Stradivari and was valued around US$4m.
And the player was no ordinary musician. It was Joshua Bell, who is acclaimed as one of the greatest virtuoso’s of the instrument in the world. And the tunes he played were six of the greatest solo works for violin. So there stood Joshua Bell playing the Stradivari violin dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and baseball cap in the subway with his violin case open to catch the small change.
What happened? Well, not much.
In the forty three minutes that Bell played 1097 people walked by, seven stopped for a minute or more, twenty-seven gave money for a total of $32.00. That means that 1072 people went by without pausing or noticing anything.
What can we conclude from this experiment?
Perhaps we could critique the education system given that this subway station was close to major Federal offices of the government where the vast majority of employees would have a college education. To finish sixteen years of education and not be able to recognize some of the greatest music of Western civilization seems rather odd.
But of course the response to beauty is not really a question of education. It is innate in the human soul. One of those drawn most by the music that morning was a busboy (someone who job it is to clear up 2 dishes at a café.) Many would say that the recognition of beauty and the pursuit of truth are the very staples of what constitutes a complete and fulfilled life.
The content of the liberal arts degree that you have undertaken here at Campion these past three years is in microcosm an introduction to beauty and truth mediated through a study of Western civilization. Your degree has been framed in the matrix of an exposure to philosophy, history, language, art and theology that showcases the best of classical Western liberal education founded and built upon a Christian worldview shaped by centuries of profound learning and reflection that has produced some of the greatest artists, musicians, academics, philosophers and theologians the world has seen.
At the core of this human achievement lies a response to the life of faith lived in and through the Catholic Church that has provided the very fertile environment for this process of discovery to take place. At its heart is the response implicitly found in our Gospel passage this morning – “You did not choose me, no I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last…” The response to that call initiated at baptism and nourished by participation in the sacramental economy of the Church is captured most succinctly by Pope St John Paul II in his writings on the “universal call to holiness.”
This is not some elusive spiritual aesthetic, but a life forged through the practice of classic Christian charity, which much of necessity have a solid foundation. As St Paul writes: “…let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you. Teach each other, and advise each other, in all wisdom.” 3 Those who are privileged to have had opened before them the treasures of beauty and truth found at the heart of Western Christian culture are invited to frame their lives and subsequent education from that world view.
There are of course in our pluralistic society many ideologies that compete vigorously for the minds of the young (and not so young).
Tragically many of those world views which in essence are either fads or intellectually shallow render beauty as a vulgar sentimental commodity, and truth has become so relativized that it has lost its authenticity to act as a bedrock by which ordinary men and women can orientate their lives. Faced with such a dilemma the tendency is often to retreat to the comfort of a rather closed world where the likeminded and fellow travellers can console each other and despair of the decadence and the intellectual torpor that masquerades as a new form of ‘enlightenment.’
We must acknowledge that at least in the Western world the Christian faith is once again under siege and the upsurge of an aggressive and rampant secularism coupled with a militaristic atheism and a largely indifferent population is assuming a new hegemony which shows no sign of diminishing. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had the prescience to respond to what were the ‘signs of the times’ and to equip the Church to engage with a template to understand the modern world expressed principally in Gaudium et spes which from the beginning of the Constitution does not admit of defeat or a sense of doom, but rather exalts in “joy and hope” – because that joy and hope drives the Church and its members to constructively engage with the 4 world.
In a similar vein in the midst of national calamity some eight centuries before the birth of Christ, the Prophet Isaiah was also able to express joy and hope: “…God proved himself their savior in all their troubles…he redeemed them himself, he lifted them up, carried them, throughout the days of old.” It is the case that we must develop strategies that will lead to a new sense of commitment with those who shape our society and be confident that we are indeed being lifted up and carried on eagle’s wings. To acquiesce or simply abandon the engagement would be defeatist and would ultimately drive the Christian faith and the Church to the periphery and be viewed by the mainstream as obsolete and the possession of religious eccentrics and the maladjusted.
In recent days the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life in Great Britain has released its findings. Amongst other things it concludes that the United Kingdom is no longer a Christian country and that expressions and symbols associated with Christianity should be expunged from public life. The report goes on to say: “There also needs to be an overhaul of how religious education is taught. Many syllabuses tend to portray religions only in a good light … and they tend to omit the role of religions in reinforcing stereotypes and prejudice around issues such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race.”
The Church in Australia already understands that there are those would seek to inflict the same agenda on public life and our education system. Whilst we accept that we cannot superimpose our faith and belief on to others, we still have a right and a responsibility to prosecute our cause and to 5 present the Gospel as a viable alternative to what Pope St John Paul II often referred to as “the culture of death.” As graduates of a College such as Campion you are now ready to take your place in our society and add your voice to the conversation that will ultimately shape the future direction of our nation, but St Paul rightly cautions us that we should do so with “kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” – the hallmarks of a true Christian character.
As to the experiment with Joshua Bell and the Stradivari violin, there was one demographic who were captivated by his performance. They were children, who were mesmerized and resisted the attempts by their parents and carers to move on because they wanted to stay and listen, but were dragged away by adults who had somewhere else to go. Let us not fail those children in opening to them beauty and leading to the truth we know is to found in Jesus Christ. The Jubilee Year of Mercy inaugurated two days ago by Pope Francis provides the springboard for the whole Church to present in new and fresh ways the concept of divine mercy found in Jesus Christ and mediated through the Church.
That is the mission of the Church, and therefore belongs to all of us.
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