At the end of each academic year, Newman College (the newest associate member of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities) holds the Valete Mass and dinner for those who are completing their degree at the University of Melbourne and have been a resident in the College for the duration of their whole degree (be it undergraduate or graduate).
Last year, forty-three students participated in the Valete Mass and dinner. Below is the text of the homily given by Rev. Bill Uren, S.J., rector of the College, during the Mass, which was held in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit on Friday, October 5, 2018. We thank Guglielmo Gottoli, deputy provost of Newman College, for sharing the homily with AJCU for publication in this issue of Connections.
We are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7)
About three weeks ago, The Australian published a special anniversary issue of its weekend magazine. It was, the editor pointed out, thirty years since we celebrated Australia’s Bicentenary, when the First Fleet of eleven convict ships arrived into Sydney Harbour on January 26, 1788.
As it was thirty years since the Bicentenary, the editor of the magazine arranged for interviews on the topic with thirty prominent Australians. They were invited to comment on what they considered to be the most significant developments in Australia over the past thirty years; what they would have changed if they could during that time; and what would be their their wishes for the next thirty years. The final question invited them to nominate the Australian they most admired.
The immunologist, Ian Frazer, nominated another distinguished immunologist, Sir Gustav Nossal. The Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, nominated former Prime Minister, Paul Keating. The cricketer, Adam Gilchrist, nominated actor, Hugh Jackman. Medical pioneer of the bionic ear, Graeme Clark, and poet and critic, Clive James, both nominated Sir Howard Florey, who developed the drug, penicillin. The athlete, Cathy Freeman, nominated the ophthalmologist and humanitarian, Fred Hollows, whom we heard about in the Mannix Lecture at Newman this past August.
The two, however, who interested me most were both famous Australian authors. Tim Winton nominated his mother, Bev. He wrote, “She’s in her 80s, she’s crippled with arthritis, and can’t drive anymore, but she still volunteers every week as a mentor to struggling kids in primary school.”
Richard Flanagan, the winner of the Man Booker Prize for literature in 2014, nominated his nephew. He wrote, “My schizophrenic nephew, Billy, [is] a battler who lives in nightmares and never gives up, who somehow manages a life of kindness and dignity. That’s achievement. That’s courage. Only the goodness of others sustains him. And sustained he is. That’s him. And that’s the Australia I love.”
St. Paul reminded us in this evening’s First Reading that, like Tim Winton’s mother, Bev, and like Richard Flanagan’s nephew, Billy, we are all earthenware jars: cracked and chipped perhaps, but not any less admirable or any less useful. In Jesus’ and Saint Paul’s day, earthenware jars were used to contain and conserve all sorts of commodities – foods, liquids, clothes, odds and ends, treasures even. In the absence of glass, tin, cardboard and plastic, earthenware was the standard container. It was serviceable, but, of course, it was also fragile. It could sustain chips and hairline cracks, but if you dropped an earthenware vessel, it was very likely to break.
So, an earthenware jar is a good metaphor for the human condition. We all have our cracks and our chips, but, provided we are handled carefully, we are capable of quite significant achievements. We may contain treasures. As St. Paul says, we may be in difficulties on all sides, but we are never cornered; we may see no answer to our problems, but we do not despair; we may be knocked down, but never killed. In a way, we are better than earthenware jars because, although we are certainly vulnerable and fragile like them, we are also resourceful and resilient.
Nonetheless, however, we recognize that there are times when our chips and our cracks appear. Then we are like the Apostles in this evening’s Gospel. James and John persuaded their mother to approach Jesus and ask him for positions of honor in what they hoped would be his future kingdom. When the other Apostles heard that James and John stole the march on them in making this request, they were indignant. So, Jesus had to instruct them all that his kingdom is not about honor and power, but about service: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The Apostles were very human, very fragile individuals. They took a long time to understand what Jesus was on about. Judas ultimately betrayed Jesus; Peter denied him in his hour of need; some of them were virtually racists; others were proto-terrorists; and James and John were both ambitious and opportunists. They certainly were chipped and cracked earthenware pots. Yet these were the Twelve whom Jesus chose to convey his message to the world. And after a desperate time of doubt and disillusionment when Jesus was executed, they bounced back and became inspired and courageous heralds of Christ’s message. But they had to become aware of their own fragility – like Peter’s shame after denying Jesus three times – and to learn that following Jesus means not honor and power, but service in the Christian and, indeed, wider, community—cracked and chipped earthenware pots, but holding a veritable treasure.
Now, most of us are aware of our own chips and cracks, even like Tim Winton’s arthritic mother, Bev, and Richard Flanagan’s schizophrenic nephew, Billy. But they can be marks of honor, battle scars, as it were, in our life’s journey. It is not the outward appearance but the treasure that we carry within us that matters. So, briefly, let’s identify this treasure. May I ask a few questions?
Are you honest and truthful, transparent in your dealing with others?
Do you treat other people with courtesy and respect?
Do you apologize when you have given offense and forgive others when they have offended you?
Do you reject all forms of sexism and racism? Do you reject any form of discriminating among people purely on the basis of the color of their skin, their country or suburb of origin, their wealth or poverty, their sexual orientation, their intellectual, cultural or sporting achievements or lack of them?
Are you an agent of reconciliation and compassion, especially for those on the margins of our society?
The answers to these questions identify the treasures with which we should be trying to fill the earthenware pots that symbolize our human condition: honesty, truthfulness, transparency, loyalty, courtesy, respect, and a forgiving, non-discriminatory, compassionate spirit.
We hope that these are the virtues – the treasures – that living at Newman has fostered not only in our valetants in the years they have been with us, but also in all of us who have participated in this community of the mind, the imagination, the heart and the spirit in 2018. And that, despite our chipped, cracked and, at times, very earthenware condition, these virtues will shine forth and illuminate in service those with whom we come in contact.
“Luceat lux vestra” – “Let your light shine.”