At the 2020 and 2021 Convocation ceremony on September 11, 2021, St. Mark's College was honoured to present the degree Doctor of Sacred Letters, honoris causa to Dr. Paul Burns and Dr. Angus Reid, two distinguished individuals who are most deserving of this recognition.
In their speeches, Dr. Burns and Dr. Reid recognized the trying times that today's graduates face and spoke of the value of education (in particular, Catholic education), the importance of mentors, and our ability to make a difference.
We invite you to read the 2020 and 2021 Honorary Doctorate speeches below.
Your Grace, Archbishop Michael Miller CSB, Dr. Michael Higgins, our Principal and President, Colleagues on the Faculty and Staff, Fellow Graduands, Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, both here present and participating on zoom, I accept this honor with profound gratitude and not a little surprise. I began teaching in 1962 at a Catholic High School in Toronto. Among my assignments were two Religion courses in grades 10 and 11. This was before I had studied any theology. Luckily for the first course I found a mentor. We met three evenings a week and from his assistance, I learned a lot about the Gospel of Matthew and about ways to engage young students. For the Grade 11 course on Church History, I had no such guide. I was given the textbook and told just to teach that. Imagine trying to engage the imaginations of 15-year-olds with the importance of Council of Nicaea and the Greek term homousion to defend the divinity of Christ. At that time, I just did not have sufficient background to explain the issues. I realized that I had to learn much more about the development of the Catholic Intellectual tradition.
In graduate studies, I examined classical education from the focus on the epics of Homer and later Virgil to the constructive interventions of the philosophical contributions of Plato and the comprehensive theological analyses of Augustine, right through to the thirteenth century and the emergence of the Western university.
Speaking today on the 20th anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, I am reminded that many innovations in education were responding to serious contemporary crises. Plato was responding to the destructive 30-year war between Athens and Sparta with the degeneration of Athens from a successful democracy into a failed state stricken by a devastating plague driven by demagogues flouting their self-serving opinions and ultimately, voting for the death of Socrates. Then Augustine, in response to the sack of Rome in 410, composed his massive review of Roman culture informed by insightful Christian critique. He completed this work only two years before the Vandal capture of his own city in North Africa.
So as we face multiple crises such as the Covid pandemic, devastating climate change and the challenges of Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, it is appropriate to reflect on our experience of education to help us address these issues in informed and constructive ways. For today let me just focus on the role of my mentors.
My mother and my father were experienced teachers in public high schools in Ontario. They identified themselves very clearly as Catholic. This was a time in Ontario when that combination could be very problematic. They were confirmed in this vocation during their years at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. They were profoundly influenced by Father Henry Carr a teacher, a university administrator, and a college football coach during the 1920s.
Carr had graduated from Oshawa Collegiate and came to St. Michael’s as an undergraduate. He saw a clear value for Catholics in public education. As College President, Carr built on his conviction that Catholic Colleges could find effective ways to partner with public universities. Due to his success in Toronto and later at Saskatoon, both Archbishop Duke and President MacKenzie of UBC asked Father Carr to come to Vancouver to establish a Catholic College here. He initially encountered considerable resistance. Ultimately the only formula open to him was a theological college affiliated with the University of British Columbia. He arranged for university positions to be opened for Basilian priests to teach in Philosophy, History, Classics, Religious Studies and Economics. Let me identify two areas of his influence on me.
He had a strong sense of the Catholic mission to all people. This informed his capacity to form friendships and establish collaborative networks with people of many different backgrounds. I tried to emulate this gift of his. I remain grateful and indebted to the many friends and supporters in the faculties of arts, education, science, medicine and our sister theological colleges of VST, Regent and Carey. Many of these people helped to extend our mission out to campus. In the same way, I am also grateful for students in university residences and in the Newman Club who were ambassadors for our mission to students on the UBC campus.
When he was at St. Michael’s at the University of Toronto, Carr recognized that the university aspired to become an international research university. To partner with that objective, Carr established the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in the late 1920s, right when my parents were students. In his speech at the opening of St. Mark’ College in 1958, Father Carr dreamed of a similar initiative here. He proposed an Institute of Patristics Studies. He took at least one step in this direction. If you visit our Library you will find an extensive collection of 106 Latin volumes of the Fathers purchased with a donation from Phyllis Ross, Chancellor of UBC.
Let me finish as I started with another example of my classroom experiences.
Plato composed his treatise on The Republic to address the crisis of the tragic fall of Athens culminating in the condemnation to death of Socrates. At the centre of that Dialogue, Plato uses metaphors of the sun and line together with the Allegory of the Cave to present the critical difference between mere opinion and valid knowledge to be promoted with his new curriculum.
This model of education and the Christian expansions of it identify three objectives. The students learn basic skills of reading, speaking, writing and mathematics. Secondly, they learn the permanent ideas that promote the common good for the human community, and thirdly, they open the way to experience the divine.
After going through this dialogue with the class, I decided to have students act out the Allegory of the Cave. They dramatized it with attention to Plato’s text. The student who climbed out of the classroom window into the world of sunshine shouted her enthusiasm for the new and better world she could see. When I invited her to come in for the rest of the class she shouted, "Are you crazy? They will kill me." She disappeared for the rest of the day!
Many early Christian thinkers adapted the Platonic intellectual tradition to the Christian faith articulated, for example, by Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea who connected the divinity of Christ to the hope in everlasting life for all peoples. He borrowed a device from Classical Rhetoric to express it as follows: the Son of God became human so that humans can be divinized. I had learned something about the passions around the Council of Nicaea that I had not known back in 1962.
To my fellow graduates may your education and your mentors be as helpful to you as they have been to me.
To say that you are graduating in an unusual time is, of course, an understatement. The worst pandemic in a century has blighted your world at many levels. And just when we think it’s over another wave rolls in. It’s as if time is standing still while we wait for the scourge to pass.
But time never stands still – although lately it seems to be operating in reverse.
I say this because one of the peculiar features of “now” is an obsession with the past. Across most of the western world, there is a focus on historical places, people, and events that is surprising, heartbreaking and illuminating, depending on the circumstances. This reflection and reanalysis can be a sign of a healthy society, or it can topple more than just statues.
But today I want to talk about the world you are stepping into – not the past but the future. I don’t stand here with a crystal ball but I’m fairly confident that four forces will play a huge role in shaping what’s coming next at work, at home, in our communities and on the public square.
The first of these forces involves technology. Much of this will be a continuation of the startling digit inventions of the past two decades with a special emphasis on artificial intelligence. The impact here will be felt everywhere with massive changes in the jobs landscape and further growth in the gig economy which threatens to wipe out middle-class jobs.
But as Sarah-Jane Dunn, a London mathematician at Deep Mind, points out, the software revolution of the last half of the 20th century which involved programming electrons on silicon will be dwarfed by the advances in the first half of the 21st century in what she calls “the living software revolution.” This involves the ability to program biochemistry on living cells and organisms to generate new therapies, repair damaged tissues, reprogram faulty cells. The vaccines that are playing a key role in ending the pandemic are part of this revolution.
But there is a darker side to this technology which involves everything from the manipulation of DNA to produce perfect babies and the development of therapies that are so expensive that they will only be available to a super-rich class. Channeling science for the good of all humanity will be a challenge in the new era that is unfolding.
The second force that will shape the future is the changing demography of Canada. Two changes stand out. The first involves the immigrant sourced growth in the population of Canada. By 2050 it is expected that the population of Canada will reach about 50 million. All this growth will come from immigration as foreign-born residents of Canada shift from around 20% of the total today to about 40% in three decades.
The second change involves the ageing of Canada’s population. By 2050, it is projected that about thirty percent will be over 60 years old and 1/10 over 80.
Taken together these two changes will tax our capacity to care for the elderly and the capacity of our culture to make the necessary adaptation to a level of diversity unique in the world.
The third force changing our future landscape involves the environment. I don’t have time to deal with this in any depth except to say that warming models project that Canada and especially the north will warm far faster than the rest of the planet. Adjusting to this reality will require new ways of living, extracting resources and moving about the country. Yes, there is a new green economy, but getting there will mean a huge transition for many Canadians.
The fourth and final dimension which is noteworthy involves values and beliefs. In Canada and elsewhere in the developed world we are witnessing the disintegration of the “values consensus” that has served as a cement for our institutions for many decades. This disintegration touches everything from the meaning of truth to the role of religion as a positive force in society. Our concept of history, democracy, and life itself has become increasingly a matter of opinion, shaped by the cacophony of voices on social media.
The result is a society that risks losing its center of gravity and a dangerous fragmentation into echo chambers which ignore the truth, thrive on conspiracies and flaunt civic norms. Witness the January 6 attacks in Washington or the most recent anti vac protests outside our hospitals.
Before I close, I don’t want to leave you depressed that the future is all is gloom and doom. There will be exciting new opportunities to make a difference and find a foothold. But it will require focus, resilience, leadership, and a strong moral compass if we are to survive, adapt and succeed.
Fifty years ago, I graduated from a Catholic college as you are doing today. I have always thanked God that I had this opportunity to learn the art and science of discernment – not just from what I gained in class but through the many debates and discussions in a setting committed to linking knowledge with deeper truths and beliefs. My many friendships from my Catholic college days have lasted a lifetime. And yours will too.
And what of the future?
Let me close by quoting the late Ralph Abernathy, a civil rights leader and Baptist minister who said, “I don’t know what the future may hold but I know who holds the future."
It’s up to you. Good luck and God Bless.