Family. We use that word often to describe ourselves here. And right that we do. Good that we do. Marcellin Champagnat would delight that we do; he hoped it would be a characteristic quality that would define every Marist educational community.
It is a deeply layered word, family, but one that we all understand intuitively. We use it in our brochures and publications, we use it readily and easily when describing the special spirit of Aquinas to others, and we’ll do it again, I’m sure when we open the doors of the College this weekend for the University Open Days.
But more than a metaphor to describe who we are already, we can also deploy it usefully as one to call us to become what we can be, what we can be at our best. Family can be a light on the hill for us.
The ways to unpack that challenge are many. Let me name just three.
First, family means you belong. There is a place for everyone in a family. It is not just a place or space where you find a measure of security and tolerance, a kind of live-and-let-live mindset. No, belonging means more than that. It implies relationship, and all that goes with healthy personal relationships: the give and take, the ups and downs, the looking out for the other, the loyalty, the forgiving and starting again, the mutual respect, the calling the best out of each other, the letting the other be ‘other’, and being part of it all as yourself and not some pretend version of yourself. It’s being able to see things in terms of “we” and “us”, rather than just “I” and “me”. At base level it means that everyone can say, I’m part of this mob. I’m known and I’m appreciated and I belong. I matter. Others matter to me. I don’t have to pretend to be someone or something that I’m not to gain that welcome and inclusion; no, I belong as me. It doesn’t count a jot what my ethnicity is or isn’t, or where I come from, or what I’m studying or how well, or whether I’m into sport or not, or my taste in music, or how well off my family might be, what I drive or wear, or whether or not my physical appearance fits someone’s narrow view of ‘cool’. I’m not included or excluded because of my religious faith, or my sexual orientation, or my gender. People understand that I make mistakes, that I’m confused about some things, that I get tired and angry and down at times, that I need carrying sometimes. People know that I’ve had things go wrong along the way, and that I hide some wounds. They don’t judge me because of that. They say, you’re one of us. We believe in you. We’re in this together. We’re Aquinians together. To be put out of a family is a huge thing. It does happen from time to time, but it is, or should be, a major turn of events.
Second, families live in homes, not houses or hostels or anonymous apartment blocks. Home, what a powerful concept. Home is more than a place to live and be fed, much more. We all know that. Home is where I can be safe, where I can take off any masks I might have to wear elsewhere, where I can put aside my defences and pretences. Home is where the special people in my life live. Yes, Aquinas has great facilities, it delivers academically. Our results show that. But that doesn’t make it home. Home is built by people, and how those people relate with one another.
Which brings us the third essential characteristic of families, and their most essential. Families are built and bound by love. I don’t mean something sloppy, sentimental or shallow. When I speak of love, I mean selflessness and empathy and service of one another. I mean the ways that St Paul defines it: patience and kindness, a readiness to understand and forgive, not to keep grudges or be envious, to seek to unify rather than create divisions, to believe in the basic goodness of one another, to hope for the best in them, and believe in the goodness of them. It means friendship. A love that has the confidence to challenge when necessary, because friends rightly have expectations of one another. They want each other to be the best person they can be.
Of course, families can also become unhealthy or even dysfunctional. They can become toxic. When they do, their negative impact on their members can be devastating. Unhealthy families are ones that have lost their sense of belonging, where homes have diminished to become little more than a shared roof, where love is scarce or fractured, or where people have stopped investing in it. They are places where people have stopped listening to one another, stopped caring, stopped giving; where people build walls and shut doors. Some unhealthy families are ones that have cut themselves off from the outside world, turning in on themselves. I think some university residential colleges can get like that if they are not careful. Any closed system, one that is suspicious of outsiders, that is secretive or exclusive or pretentious, is never healthy. Whether it’s a family or an institution, a club, a church or even a country, exclusion and insularity are bad things. We know that Aquinas is so different from that, really the antithesis of that. We value our hospitality, the warmth of welcome we offer people, our openness. We have a unity that it not cultish or judgemental. But it is well for us to always to be alert to any signs of the opposite.
Family. That’s at the heart of Aquinas. Let us always be able to say to one another: you belong here, you’re at home here, we love you here. All we ask is that is that you take on those same attitudes, that you help to maintain Aquinas a genuine family.
A final comment and it’s something that a good family does, without any hint of envy. We genuinely rejoice in the success of one another. And you know that we do that well at Aquinas. I add my own warmest congratulations to those students who have excelled in the past semester. Really well done! At the same time, I’d like to congratulate everyone who has met his or her goals for the semester, or exceeded them. It is worth pausing for a moment on just how strong our results were. I highlight just a couple of things. Our average pass rate is over 95%; we have a credit average higher than 70%; and a distinction or high distinction average above 35%. They are global averages, sure, and hide a lot of individual stories, but they do tell a loud and unambiguous collective story of which we should be enormously proud. They are well ahead of the bell curve for each of the three universities. Enormously so. That says so much for the academic advantage that college life can bring. There is no academic selection test to get in here that’s any different from getting into uni, but our results are qualitatively different. Well done.
My appreciation to all who have made that possible – first to Dr Sarah Moller, Assistant Dean of Academics and her dynamic leadership of our academic life, to the senior academic tutors, to all who have made themselves available as tutors, and to everyone who has helped fellow Aquinians in a myriad of ways, week in, week out, through simple and ready advice and support. Together we are strong.
And to each of you for the decisions you have made and the habits you have formed that give you the best chance in your studies. Study hall for freshers was introduced last semester and has established itself as a weekly hub of productive activity, with most tutorials now taking that Monday night timeslot. This term, as you know, we have agreed to a request from the senior academic tutors to run a voluntary silent two-hour supervised study session on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. My congratulations to those who are taking advantage of that self-imposed discipline. Over the upcoming weeks we have academic review panels for seniors and freshers – another discipline that helps each member of College to bring focus to what’s going well, where some changes may need to be made, and how support for you can be put in place.
Enjoy the semester. Lucere et Ardere.