It is not by chance that we install the fifth Chancellor of Australian Catholic University on this day, 11 February. It happens to be the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on the date of the first apparition to Bernadette Soubirous at the grotto of Massabielle. It is also the World Day of the Sick. Martin Daubney has long been involved with the Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta, for whom this is a day of special celebration, since both Lourdes and the Order of Malta have at their heart the care of the sick. Lourdes speaks of “nos chers malades”, our dear sick, and the Order has spoken for a millennium of “our lords the sick”. Today, then, is the day of the wounded and weak of this world who are to be cherished and served.
The apparitions at Lourdes came in 1858 when the secular age seemed close to its apogee, when the forces of rationalism and positivism seemed unstoppable, at least in France. At such a time, the apparitions seemed to many a load of superstitious nonsense, feeding the most reactionary forces which resisted progress of any kind. In such a world, as Ruth Harris notes, “the apparitions…seemed nothing more than a ‘survival’, a lingering cultural manifestation of a remote, impoverished and illiterate world” (“Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age”, 357). Certainly the seer, Bernadette, was young, poor, uneducated and sickly; she didn’t even speak French. Yet the figure of this silent girl, “kneeling in ecstasy in a muddy grotto” (ibid, 366) would not and will not go away. She was not one of those whom Jesus calls “the learned and clever”, of which universities understandably are full, which is why it may seem perverse to focus upon her as we install the Chancellor of a university, himself a learned and clever man. Yet neither Bernadette nor Lourdes is quite what they seem to be.
The apparitions and the culture of pilgrimage which flowed from them emerged at a time when body and spirit, science and religion, reason and faith seemed locked in mortal combat, irredeemably opposed one to the other. Yet the phenomenon of Lourdes undid such oppositions and pointed to a new and hitherto unimagined mutuality. It was certainly about spirit, about the supernatural, but it was also very much about the body, and from the first Lourdes has been an intensely physical experience. It was about religion, but it was also about science, with the establishment of the Medical Bureau in 1883 raising the distinct possibility that medical science might actually support rather than discredit faith in the miraculous. Lourdes was certainly about faith, but it was also about reason, its powers and its limits.
It is strangely right therefore that we install the new Chancellor on this day, 11 February. In the array of Australian universities both old and new, Australian Catholic University is called to witness to the mutuality of body and spirit, science and religion, reason and faith; and the Chancellor is to be a prime guardian of that mutuality at the heart of the University’s identity. He is to help ensure that ACU is replete with people who are truly “learned and clever”, since academic excellence is non-negotiable. The Catholic intellectual tradition tells a formidable story, and that story continues in the University as a service to the whole society. Yet ACU also hears the words of Christ read in the Gospel today: “Learn from me”, he urges. This is the other kind of learning at the heart of the University, hidden from those who are smart and sagacious, too clever by half, but revealed, says Jesus, to “mere children”, to people like Bernadette Soubirous.
This is a learning in no way opposed to the academic learning proper to a university. Indeed, one enhances, even requires the other: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”, writes Pope St John Paul II at the opening of his Encyclical Letter, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). The Pope goes on to say that faith without reason withers into superstition and reason without faith withers into rationalism. They are, he says, like conjoined twins, the separation of whom leads to the death of both.
Insofar as we try to fly on one wing alone, we will know the travails and burdens of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened”. The attempt to fly on one wing is exhausting and in the end it is doomed. Yet the Lord says: “I will give you rest”; and that rest, the joyful sabbath of God, comes to those who listen to Jesus and learn from him. This is to learn the way of true humility, the way of “mere children”, which overturns the pride of the smart and sagacious, the arrogance of those St Paul calls the teachers and debaters of this age (cf 1 Cor 1:20). Without that rest, the work of a university becomes a yoke that is harsh and a burden that is heavy; but as we listen humbly to Christ and learn from him like children the yoke becomes easy and the burden light, however intense the work may be. The Chancellor’s task is to help ease the yoke and to lighten the burden, to insist in season and out of season upon the burden which unburdens.
In this Mass of Installation we contemplate the heart of Jesus, the pierced heart from which flow living waters springing up to life eternal. The wound becomes a fountain, as it did and does at Lourdes and as it must in Australian Catholic University. Lourdes takes to itself the wounds of the world, even the wound unto death; but only because it believes that there is no wound that cannot become a fountain, not even the cosmic wound of death. ACU then will embrace all the wounds, will embrace all the wounded; it will have a heart for the weakest. It will, as the prophet Ezekiel foretells, gather them together from far and wide, will bring them home in a world where they can seem lost and will feed them well in a nourishing community, a true universitas, where all the oppositions break down, where a new mutuality is born and where human solidarity is more than a slogan.
With the coming of a new Chancellor in Martin Daubney and a new Vice-Chancellor and President in Zlatko Skrbis, Australian Catholic University enters a new phase of its life, a new stage of its journey. Some things will change as they must, but others will remain unchanged. The important thing is to know the difference – to know what can and must change and what cannot and must not. In making that discernment as the leadership changes, we do well to look to the figure of the young, poor, uneducated and sickly girl “kneeling in ecstasy in a muddy grotto” (Harris, 366) who sees and hears “what eye has not seen nor ear heard nor the human heart conceived” (1 Cor 2:9).