The readings of today’s Mass deal with the mission of the Church. With the event of Pentecost, the disciples became more explicitly aware of the fact that their mission was to extend to all nations. “All nations” means every corner of the world, but it also means each succeeding generation and every cultural context. You have carried out your studies in the context of contemporary Irish culture and you are now called to develop your experience as a contribution to forging an Irish culture of the future.
I congratulate the graduates here today. You constitute the largest number of students ever to have graduated from the Institute. You come with qualifications in religious education, theology, the humanities and pastoral care.
Each of you has studied theology as a component of the various programmes. I am pleased to note the high value that Mater Dei attaches to the quality of its teaching of theology. It is one of the few Institutes in the country which has a broad theological faculty, with lecturers in a comprehensive range of theological and biblical disciplines as well as in religious education. Each year the Institute’s staff produces a significant number of publications.
I wish to encourage the Institute to continue in this path. The links with Dublin City University offer the possibility of developing interdisciplinary research. Mater Dei can take a role of leadership in an on-going dialogue between faith and society and on the contribution which Christian faith can bring to discussions on how we wish to construct our future.
Theology is an academic discipline. For it to guarantee its legitimate place in the scientific world, the teaching of theology must always be of the highest quality. I feel that we need in Ireland an examination of the way theology is being taught in order to guarantee that in the future we can have a small yet adequate number of teaching centres, each with an appropriately broad faculty, capable of the highest quality of theological teaching and research.
The dialogue between faith and life is important. Today’s graduates will go on now to take their part in that dialogue. Through their lives they will propose a vision of life which springs from faith in Jesus Christ and thus bring the light of Christ to reflection on human and social progress.
I would hope that graduation will mark not so much the end of your studies of theology but a significant moment in what will prove to be a lifelong engagement with theology. As people who have studied the discipline of theology with the rigour and seriousness that it requires, I am confident that you will have much to contribute to Irish society in education, healthcare and the other contexts where your professional development may lead you. In an Ireland which is learning to live with and integrate a greater plurality of religious traditions, you will have a particular competence to participate in society’s reflection on the relationship between belief and citizenship.
It is important, however, that we do not lose sight of the ecclesial nature of Catholic theology and of catechesis in particular. The teacher of theology is never simply a competent expert who imparts “information concerning religion” to his or her students. The best teachers of theology seek to invite their students to a personal encounter with the living God who is at the heart of all theological speculation and reflection. Such teachers never seek to impose their beliefs on their students – theology is not about “indoctrination” or manipulation. They will, however, wish to share their love and passion for God – not in a spirit of imposition but because of a profound desire to make known the Good News of a God who loves us without limits and in ways that we never fully understand. Theology at its best will always invite students to enter into mystery rather than reduce religion and belief to a set of propositions to which we choose to give or not give intellectual assent.
Jesus must always be the starting point and goal of Christian theology. Good theology will draw on history, philosophy and the knowledge of various languages in order to understand who Jesus is. Theology will seek to address the question of who Jesus is in order to communicate his abiding relevance, and that of his message, to the people of our own time. The teacher of theology is challenged to present the person and the message of Jesus in ways that are true and faithful to him and which at the same time address the hopes, longings and questions of people who live in a world that is very different to Israel two thousand years ago.It is not easy to propose the faith in a pluralist society. In your work in school you will encounter parents who have lost much of the real sense of what faith means for social interaction. You will have to convince them that the revealed message of Jesus Christ really does bring an irreplaceable contribution to society.
We are called to speak to a world which increasingly prizes success and which stresses self sufficiency. To that world we bring the message of one who was rejected and led to death on the cross. A world which only prizes success is both an inhuman and a godless world. The story of creation is also a story of salvation. We need not just success. We need to be present with the Christian message in the world of human weakness, witnessing to the possibility of healing and reconciliation and salvation.
In that world of success and celebrity many are troubled with uncertainty and anxiety. To them our lives must witness to the re-assuring certainty that the love, which Jesus made flesh and communicated in his words and actions, still has the capacity to touch human hearts, to change lives, to heal human frailty. All of us, the strong and the weak, the successful and the struggler, touched by the Good News come together to form this special community, this ecclesia which constitutes the Church. It is Jesus who is the “source and the summit” of this community: it is above all in the celebration of the Eucharist – when we eat his body and drink his blood – that we become one body.
Your challenging task will be to communicate to your future students not only information concerning religion and belief systems but also an awareness of the closeness to them of Jesus – the Jesus who in our Gospel today promises to be with us always, “even to the end of time.”In my conversation with Pope Benedict XVI during the recent ad limina visit of the Irish Bishops to Rome, the Pope spoke to me about societies in Europe where young people follow many years of religious instruction but where the level of religious literacy among young people has reached a remarkably low point. It is a point that he developed also in his conversations with the Bishops of Switzerland.
Through you and your teaching, I hope that the young people you will meet will come to overcome indifference and to know that they are loved infinitely and unconditionally by Jesus. This knowledge is the greatest gift we can give to young people who live in a world that seems only to value those who are deemed to be “achievers”. To insist on the God-given dignity and value of each one of your students, in the context of an increasingly consumerist and materialistic society is perhaps the greatest service you can make to education and, ultimately, to the spread of the Good News.