Below is the homily of Cardinal Collins at the installation of Prof. Randy Boyagoda as sixth Principal and Vice President of the University of St. Michael's College, held on October 21, 2016.
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Luke 12:54
It is said that on a philosophy exam the only question was: “Why?”. One enterprising student answered: “Why not?”. But surely we can do better.
Each of us lives from day to day, caught in the onrushing and at times overwhelming torrent of raw experience. There is no lack of experience: we all have 24 hours of it every day until we die. What we lack, and what we need, is the ability to interpret it, to see what it signifies, to answer wisely the question: “Why?”
The Gospel at today’s Mass, read at every Mass throughout the world today, which we have just heard proclaimed, addresses the profound question of how to interpret our experience of reality - how to interpret the signs of the times: “Jesus also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
We look, we look: so rarely do we see. I remember years ago, in my ongoing and frantic effort to relax, I took up photography as a hobby, and read a wise book by Freeman Patterson entitled: “Photography and the Art of Seeing.” His point was that a disciplined and skilled photographer is trained not to miss the significance of what he or she looks at: by looking intentionally, the photographer can see, can interpret what is really there. We all need to see how to interpret the present time, how to understand what it signifies.
And that is what Jesus challenges his contemporaries, and us, to do. They knew how to interpret their experience of the weather, and like the weather wise peasant praised by Cardinal Newman in his work on the assent of faith, they could see that the wind coming from the Mediterranean would bring rain, and that the wind coming from the desert would bring scorching heat. They had developed, as do we all, the ability to grasp the significance of what is happening, in the lowly but practical matter of weather. He rebukes them because in the much more important matter of the meaning of life, they had missed the coming of the kingdom of God in their midst: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
They experienced the presence and message of Jesus, but they did not see what it meant. In the words of Francis Thompson, a homeless Victorian poet with a PhD in life on the street: “Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces, that miss the many-splendored thing.” (Francis Thompson, The Kingdom of God) They did not lack experience; nobody lacks that: they lacked the key to interpret rightly the significance of what they were experiencing.
That is why we need universities: to help us all, individually and as a society, to interpret reality, to see with deeper insight what is happening in the world in which we live – the world of our age, the secular world.
To some extent that obviously means that the study of theology is important. In his Idea of a University Newman insisted on that, for grace forms the frame for nature. But Newman also insisted that a university must focus upon the whole of nature: upon our secular experience. Grace builds on nature, but does not suppress it or displace it. Nature is good. It is very good.
In the intellectual tradition which is the foundation of the University of St Michael’s College, and which goes back through the medieval universities which gave rise ultimately to our modern universities, back to the intellectual heritage of the Carolingian renaissance and the patristic tradition, the whole experience of education is an opportunity to see and interpret the reality which we daily experience, and to do so with the help of sensible and wise interpretive keys that privilege both faith and reason. This is the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, of Newman, and Dante, Shakespeare and Tolkien, and more recently, in this very university, of Gilson, Maritain, and McLuhan. This is a noble tradition of wise interpretation, and a particular offering made by the University of St Michael’s College to the rich fellowship of the University of Toronto.
To interpret the present age, as this is done in the tradition of Catholic universities, obviously means to privilege the perspective of the light of faith, but it equally privileges the perspective of reason, the other wing which allows us to fly. I love the closing dialogue of Chesterton’s first Father Brown detective story, the Blue Cross, in which Father Brown reveals how he knew that the criminal Flambeau was not the priest he pretended to be: Flambeau attacked reason, thinking that this would make him seem Catholic. Not a smart move, and certainly not in harmony with the Catholic intellectual tradition. A university is deeply engaged in this age, in this secular world, which is where we live. Faith and reason, grace and nature are not at odds, but are more closely related than concave and convex.
As all of us, young and old, navigate through life, and drink from the firehose of experience, we all need to ask: “Why?” “What is the significance of our experience of life?’ There are many keys to interpreting experience, and whatever we say, we all use one or another, consciously or unconsciously. Many of them are rich in wisdom. I think that the dominant one today, not rich in wisdom, but sterile and deadening, was articulated astutely by Shakespeare, in the words of the not so wise Macbeth, grieving the death of his wife:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
Their way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Macbeth, Act V, scene 5, lines 19-28)
That is a despairing way to interpret what life signifies, to answer the question “Why?”, and it is common among us, our dominant interpretive key. But this present time, this secular age, this nature upon which grace builds, but which grace honours and does not reject, has more to offer than that. We need to interpret the signs of our times more wisely, through a perspective that allows us to do that.
The University of Toronto, and the University of St Michael’s College, are institutions which offer the forum in which we can take the time, and have the freedom, to seek to answer wisely, and not with the despair of Macbeth, the question: “Why?”.
As Dr. Boyagoda formally enters into the responsibilities of his office as Principal and Vice President, I pray that God will bless him richly in his work of stewardship, in this institution, of its rich intellectual tradition of scholarship which offers a sensible, reasonable, and fruitful response to the challenge to interpret wisely our common experience of reality. May he, and may the University of St Michael’s College, joyfully engage in the wild adventure of grappling with the questions that matter, and so offer glory to God and service to us all.