Rector’s Address at Commencement Dinner

25 February 2018

Why are we dressed up in all this gear, these gowns, the multi-coloured hoods and funny hats? Why do we do it? What’s it mean?  I suspect that if some people were to walk in on us right now, they might be tempted to wonder if they’d jumped on the train on Platform 9¾ and ended up at Hogwarts.  Or they might be moved to repeat the words of Othello in the Shakespearean play by the same name: “ ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange.”

Your Grace, Brother Provincial, Distinguished Guests, Men and Women of Aquinas.

I’m also led to ask what our Marist founder, Saint Marcellin Champagnat, might make of it all. He was such a grounded man, someone who shunned any hint of pretence, or show, or hubris.  Those things were to have no place in a Marist institution.  Rather, he extolled the virtue of simplicity, of genuineness and transparency, of what we Australians might call ‘being fair dinkum’.  What would this nineteenth century rural Frenchman say about all our dressing up?

Let me return to Marcellin in a minute.  But first allow me to take you back to a book to which Bishop Greg O’Kelly referred last Sunday at our Mass up at Prospect Church.   Do you remember the title?  It was Schindler’s Ark by Australian novelist and historian Thomas Keneally, a book that was made into a 12-time Oscar-nominated film directed by Steven Spielberg, and re-named Schindler’s List.  Treat yourself to it on Netflix if you haven’t seen it.

There’s a scene in the film where Jews are being rounded up by Nazi soldiers, and lined up for assessing for their usefulness, the degree to which they were “essential”. They have been told to take a suitcase but not told where they are going.  They are understandably anxious, frightened.  Among them is an older, dignified man, who, in contrast to the others, remains relatively calm and unfazed.  Someone quizzes him, ‘Aren’t you scared?’  ‘No,’ he says, ‘I don’t need to worry. I’m a professor of history and literature.  I’ll be too essential to them for anything to happen to me.’  The sad irony, of course, is that he is curtly dismissed by the soldier processing the lines, and publicly humiliated. The Nazis have no use for learned man such as he.

Indeed, that brutal regime had no place for any anyone who was a genuine scholar, a truth-seeker, a critical thinker – only for people who swallowed the party-propaganda and had skills and functional talents that could be used to further its insidious grip.  And they loved dressing up. Really sharp uniforms.  The more vacuous and pompous among them seemed to love the most pretentious military outfits.  Look up some pictures of Goëring, founder of the Gestapo.

This is not unusual, as we know, for authoritarian, self-righteous regimes.  Lots of symbols and pageantry, splash and colour, but the rhetoric is empty, and people of learning and critical enquiry are seen as a threat.  It continues today, including among supposedly quite civilised and advanced nations.  Closed-mindedness, simplistic and uncritical solutions, jingoism, exclusion of those who don’t fit the mould, arrogance.

The tradition of academic dress grew out of a quite different mindset, one where scholarship was valued and prized. It was in the first universities of late medieval Europe.  Up until that time, tertiary education had been largely in the hands of the grand old abbeys and monasteries, and the students were monks and clergy.  They had their religious habits and clerical dress.  With the establishment of universities and the emergence of new scholars who were not priests or bishops, there was a demand that they also have their distinctive symbols and dress, something that marked their place in society, that said who they were.  At a time when just a tiny fraction of the populace could read, when most were imprisoned in ignorance and the small worldviews that come from ignorance, these university students and professors were special indeed.

They were people of learning, and that mattered.  So, it developed: gowns for students and masters, colours to signify the disciplines and the different institutions. This is the tradition that you and I have inherited.   We are here – all of us, students of the College, staff, governors and friends of Aquinas – because we share the view that higher learning matters, and it matters a lot.

We want to open and develop our minds, and also, as Bishop O’Kelly said last week, to open and develop our hearts and souls.  Mind, heart, and soul.  That’s why Aquinas is here, that’s why we are here, and that’s what we signify in our dress.

Let me return to Marcellin Champagnat and to the question of what he would think of all of this.  We may be able get a clue to an answer to that question by something that happened thirteen years after he started the Marist Brothers.  The year was 1830, and France was once again in the throes of a fractious revolution.  It was one that was aggressively anti-religious, anti-church.  The younger Brothers were concerned that they might come under attack from the revolutionaries if they continued to wear their religious habit, which was the same as you see the Brothers wearing here this evening except that it was black, and it had a white linen strip at the collar such you may have seen barristers and judges wear.  The French call this piece of linen a rabat (r-a-b-a-t). It was a sign of learning.  The black soutane with its crucifix was a sign of religious commitment.  So, the Brothers came to Marcellin and entreated him, ‘Father, please give us permission to wear normal dress, so we don’t stand out and attract attention. It’s dangerous for us to dress as Brothers.’  In fact, many other religious groups were doing just that.  Marcellin told them no.  ‘No,’ he said. ‘This habit says who we are.  We don’t shrink from that, and we don’t hide from that. We’ll continue to wear our soutanes.’

So, what might he say to us?  I imagine that it could be something like this: ‘Wear your academic dress, by all means.  It is good that you do; it signifies something important that you share.  But let it be a sign of what is real for you, not some empty gesture.  Allow it to say to you, each of you, that you are a person who is ready to grow in your mind, grow in your heart, and grow in your soul.’

We have honoured quite a number of people tonight.  I add my own congratulations to each of you.  In presenting these certificates, scholarships and awards – and so many of them – we have honoured achievement, excellence and effort. We have said to ourselves that such things matter to us. Let’s now continue as we have started.  Tomorrow it begins.  This past week, as enjoyable and engaging as it has been in a range of ways, and as well as it has gone, has also had a certain degree of unreality about it, or ‘surreality’ perhaps. This next week it gets real.  Tomorrow it gets real.   Let’s begin as we mean to proceed, with purpose and resolve.

Lucere et ardere.




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