Address of Archbishop Dermot Farrell at an Ecumenical Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving on the occasion of the announcement of Fellows and Scholars,
Trinity College, Dublin, Monday, 26th April 2021.
It is a privilege to deliver the address for the ‘Trinity Monday’ Service in this College, and I want to express my appreciation for extending the invitation.
In these difficult times, I also wish—on my own behalf, and on behalf of many people in this city and beyond—to pay tribute to and thank the researchers and academics from this and other universities, for their significant contributions in the fight against Covid-19 which is not only affecting peoples’ health and incomes, but also the entire social, cultural, and spiritual fabric of society. Its effects are palpable in all dimensions of our lives—in our work, in industry, in our relationships, and even in the ability of religious communities to gather for worship. In an environment of isolation and fear, the expertise and profound humanity of many researchers have provided reassurance and calm in a sea of fear and uncertainty. In expressing our indebtedness, it is also necessary to note, that unlike Jonah’s gourd, this is not something that appeared from one day to the next. As you appreciate, contributions are made, because research is constant, ongoing, and valued. It is here that we see the ‘sense’ of the university—and not just in the sciences, but in the humanities as well—in the quiet but constant quaerens intellectum—a seeking to understand.
At the end of March, my attention was drawn to piece in the Financial Times by American poet, Molly McCully Brown. McCully Brown, recipient of a year-long writing fellowship, the single stipulation of which was to travel and write outside America for one year without returning. In May 2019 she found herself in Dublin, and after a visit to the Seamus Heaney exhibit in the National Library finds herself in the Long Room. She writes, “it was as sacred a space as any cathedral I’d seen, or tried, to see all year…I felt acutely how unlikely and irreplicable an experience I was having.” In the Long Room McCully Brown senses something of the deeper life the University seeks to promote.
The last fifty years have witnessed enormous change in Irish Universities as they tried to respond to the perceived social needs and market demands. Some have dubbed it the commercialisation or commodification of education. When I retired as President of Maynooth in 2007 the metrics of the commercial world were already embedded in the linga franca of Third Level education. Under such pressure to be relevant, universities sometimes lose sight of what led to their foundation, and of what their authentic mission consists. Of course, marketable skills are essential, but universities also have to provide enduring values—information, knowledge, even wisdom need to find a right relationship to the earth “and all its inhabitants,” as it says in the Psalm (Ps 24:1). Without this broader relationship, the insight of Maurice Blondel’s sardonic aphorism is rapidly realised: “The one who marries the spirit of the age is soon widowed.” Many of you will have seen first-hand the threat to languages—ancient and modern, to classics, and to the academic study of religion in such an environment.
The university is a very long established institution—in its idea much older than the dates assigned for the beginning of even the oldest universities conventionally so called. As you know, the great universities of the West have their roots in the philosophical and theological schools of the Middle Ages. As you also know, the 21st century is a long way from the Middle Ages. And yet, we would be foolish if we let ourselves be convinced, that the only complexity was technical. There are other complexities—existential complexities—which it is the University’s privilege and responsibility to explore and communicate. People are much more than potential sources of revenue, or bases for power. Philosophical knowledge as distinct from knowledge of philosophy is important.
It is clear from the complex history of Trinity College that the changes built on what went before. The College exits today because it was dynamic and did not jettison the values associated with disciplines and those associated with practice and vocation, or cling rigidly to its past achievements. That same dynamism will be the guarantee of its future. I wish to congratulate Professor Linda Doyle upon her appointment as Provost. I hope that in working for a higher inspiration among the philosophers, scientists, artists and the humanitarians, you will help humanity to advance.
Most of us have the experience that the reality that is happening to us is only revealed over time, be it the growth of a friendship or a lifelong relationship, be it in the growth of knowledge, understanding or wisdom. Indeed, this is true of love itself: it is revealed over time—as any older person will tell you. What a loss it would be, if your new vision, and your hard-earned skills and your youthful energy has no impact on what is being gradually revealed by the transcendent One across the globe. You are members of your generation and as women and men enculturated in this age, can do something that others cannot do as we seek to be freed from the limits that life imposes on everyone. What a difference Trinity graduates are going to make to the world! No one can foresee just how each one of you will respond to life’s challenges. But one thing is certain: there is no shortage of work to be done in the vineyard. There are families to be established and nurtured; intellectual frontiers to be explored; young minds to be taught; the sick to be cared for; the poor to be lifted up; strangers to be welcomed, and much wisdom to be handed on to future generations.
Our world changes rapidly—and rarely has it changed as suddenly as in this past tragic year. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the many dimensions and demands. And in the midst of all this—there is something profoundly personal, deeply intimate. I am reminded of the lines of the late Welsh poet R.S. Thomas:
Some ask the world
and are diminished
in the receiving
of it. You gave me
only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.
I wish you God’s blessing on your work, and energy and joy in the way that opens up before you. I pray that each of you will touch many lives, and be touched by the wonders that have been given you. Yes, that you may be blessed by ‘sourceless light.’