A stand-out memory for me of life in university is that first day in College – with all its nervousness and anticipation; wandering and getting lost among historic buildings, libraries and lecture halls; student cards, clubs, and societies; new faces the promise of making new friends.
I’m very conscious that this year’s Dedication of Studies Mass is taking place in a very different context: with social distancing, sanitizing and face-covering; webinars and blended learning; studying and socializing from a laptop in Halls or at home.
I know that university communities are sharing in the anxiety, disruption, and uncertainty that has marked these months of pandemic. A first-year psychology student told me recently that this is not what she or her friends were expecting from College. “It doesn’t feel real”, she said. And it’s upsetting for her that young people are being stigmatized for the spread of Covid19. At times the irresponsibility of a few has perhaps tarnished the image of all. But my experience of young people since the beginning of the pandemic has been of your generosity and self-sacrifice, your volunteering to help the elderly and isolated, your stepping up to serve in the retail and hospitality sector – not to mention the many students of medicine, pharmacy and nursing who have supported our health workers and carers on the so-called ‘front line’.
Many of you have shown great resilience and are making personal sacrifices to keep safe your parents, grandparents, and other vulnerable family members. These are stressful times for us all, and I am aware of the support and encouragement that you are quietly giving to each other, especially to friends and others who are fragile and struggling to cope, either mentally, physically, or spiritually.
This time two years ago I was in Rome with Pope Francis for the Synod on Young People. I remember coming home from the Synod with a strong sense that the primary vocation and mission of young believers in Christ is to reach out to other young people and invite them to share in the joy and hope that comes from friendship with Jesus. Pope Francis put it beautifully when he wrote after the Synod:
“The Lord is calling (you) to enkindle stars in the night of other young people” (CV33). As “members of the Church”, he added, you “must dare to be different, to point to ideals other than those of this world, testifying to the beauty of generosity, service, purity, perseverance, forgiveness, … prayer, the pursuit of justice and the common good, love for the poor, and social friendship”.
Yesterday in Assisi, the beatification took place of a young Italian schoolboy, Carlo Acutis, who did just that. He dared to be different. Carlo had a strong sense that every young person should use their unique gifts to change the world for the better. Although his own life was cut short by leukemia at the tender age of sixteen, he was already well known as someone who loved God deeply, who cared about the poor, and who used his talent with computers to help build up faith. Carlo once remarked that young people easily fall into the trap of consumerism and, although they may want to be different, they end up just like everyone else. “We are all born as an original” he once said, “but many people end up dying as photocopies”.
Perhaps that is one of the dangers of youth nowadays – to find yourself slavishly conforming to the banal uniformity of fashions and expectations that others have decided for you. An alternative is to realize that you have a unique calling from God, a personal invitation to follow Him. God will provide all the graces, gifts, and skills that you need to say ‘Yes’ to His invitation and help you discern what particular service he is asking of you in the world. Saint Paul certainly took up the challenge. He wrote to the Philippians: “I am ready for anything anywhere … There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength”.
It is sad, however, that so many people turn down God’s invitation in their lives – perhaps being too distracted or too self-absorbed – to hear the gentle voice of the Good Shepherd who walks beside them.
In the Parable of the Wedding Feast, the king is furious that those invited to come to the banquet and celebrate with him, were totally disinterested and even treated his invitation with disdain. It reminds me of something else Pope Francis wrote to the young people of the world after the 2018 Synod:
“Dear young people, make the most of these years of your youth. Don’t observe life from a balcony. Don’t confuse happiness with an armchair, or live your life behind a screen. Whatever you do, do not become the sorry sight of an abandoned vehicle! Don’t be parked cars, but dream freely and make good decisions. Take risks, even if it means making mistakes. Don’t go through life anesthetized… Please, don’t take early retirement” (CV143).
This evening’s Mass is for the Dedication of Studies. It is worthwhile asking: for what, or to whom, do we tend to dedicate our studies? Of course, there are many worthy causes, for example, to achieve our full potential, to make the most of our chances in life, or, to earn the best possible qualifications for future advancement. Some will commit long hours of research this year in the hope of adding to the body of knowledge in a particular field or achieving an international breakthrough in science, medicine, or technology. Others will dedicate their efforts in recognition of teachers, parents, or sponsors whose sacrifices made it possible for them to reach university.
In this Mass, we dedicate the coming year of study in thanksgiving to God, being mindful that all our gifts spring from God, and that these gifts are given not just to improve our own chances but for the betterment of others, the improvement of the world and for the building of God’s kingdom.
The peculiar ending to the Parable of the Wedding Feast speaks of someone turning up to the banquet unprepared, without a wedding garment, as if they had taken the invitation totally for granted. Down the centuries, scripture scholars have pondered what this ‘being without a wedding garment’ might signify. Saint Gregory the Great suggested that, even though the guest had faith enough to get himself into the wedding feast, he lacked the essential wedding garment of love or charity. In other words, he kept his faith to himself. He was not prepared to ‘give it away’ in love and charity for others.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity of education at Third Level. It is a special invitation to use wisely our God-given gifts. God expects much of those to whom He has given much. Your challenge is to use your talents generously – to change this world for the better; to be ever mindful of our neighbors throughout the world who are poor; to show compassion towards the vulnerable; to remain alert to the marginalized or forgotten.
I ask the Lord to bless each one of you – students and staff – who make up the community of Queen’s University Belfast; that the Good Shepherd will guide you along the right path this year, especially those who feel lost in the darkness and uncertainty of these Covid19 times. Stay safe. Pray safe. Be leaders in taking care of yourselves, your families, and of each other. Amen.
Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland