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"Variations - Making A Difference in Life Beyond Santa Maria"

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO

Presentation of Awards
Santamaria College
Perth Concert Hall
28 October 2002

Women and Girls of Mercy, Friends and Members of the Santa Maria Family:

Thank you for the honour and pleasure of being invited to share the annual celebration of your school's achievements here in the Perth Concert Hall. I am delighted to come from the east and to witness the "Variations" of talent - both those being displayed here on stage tonight and those being acknowledged by the presentation of awards. Your gracious principal, Mrs Anne Pitos, has asked me specifically to address the Year 12 graduates indicating ways that you can make a difference in life beyond Santa Maria as young Mercy women.

Though we are in celebration mode tonight, we all carry the fresh memories and hurtful insecurity of the Bali bombing, sustained by the service of commemoration held in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra, just last Thursday. Prime Minister John Howard described the memorial service as "more representative of the strands of Australian life and the responsibilities held in Australian life than I think any gathering held in this building since it was opened in 1988." It was one of those precious national moments when we realised that we are not a completely secular society. Despite our usual public silence about God and our spiritual beliefs, there are times when we reveal to ourselves our spiritual depths.

At lunchtime last Thursday I happened to be flying out of Canberra on one of those small propeller planes. Most of the passengers seemed to be recognisable. They were scurrying back to other parts of Australia after the service. One of them was Major General Cosgrove. We all recognised him because he was trying to find somewhere to place his big army hat without crushing it. The hostess was having some difficulty but ultimately found a place. I had last seen Cosgrove in the Cathedral in Dili, East Timor. I was privileged to be a concelebrant at a mass being celebrated by Bishop Belo in thanks for Australia's contribution to the liberation of East Timor. At the end of the mass, Major General Cosgrove spoke. This big Australian army officer in military dress was accompanied by a translator who was a petite Timorese Canossian sister in her pure white habit replete with veil. He recalled his first visit to the cathedral three months earlier when he was so moved by the singing that he realised two things: first, the people of East Timor had not abandoned their God despite everything that had happened. Second, God had not abandoned the people of East Timor. As he spoke, I was certain that despite the presence of the usual media scrum, not one word of this speech would be reported back in Australia. It was unimaginable that an Australian soldier would give such a speech in Australia. If he were an American general, we would expect it. Here in Australia, the public silence about things spiritual does not mean that spirituality is not present animating and inspiring us. But it is only events like the aftermath of Bali that bring our transcendent faith and hope into the public gaze.

As women of mercy, you have much to share and much to give our hungry world. The weekend before last, I had the joy of celebrating the nuptial mass for the marriage of my eldest niece in the chapel of a Mercy school in the east of Australia - a school which has educated three generations of women in my family. Like all weddings, it was a great family event. But tonight we can reflect that it was also a Mercy family event. The bride, Shannon, like many of the performers on stage here tonight, is a very talented musician, having received the benefit of a Mercy education. She has dedicated her life to the new discipline of music therapy, using music to help those in need. Through her persistence, she has even convinced the Mercy hospital in that city that they need to provide music therapy for their patients. Another niece Kateena, one of the bridesmaids, has just become the first woman in the State to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship. She will return to work with the Australian Sister of Mercy, Sister Denise, in Cambodia before taking up her human rights studies at Oxford. My sister Anne, mother of four, aunt of the bride, has just completed her psychiatry exams and will be working with school counsellors to assist students in need.

My chief source of information and guidance for tonight's address came from Angela who is also completing year 12 at that Mercy school. She was an usher for her cousin's wedding. She wondered if I would speak about anything more meaningful than how many days of school remained before Schoolies Week and the rest of life's parties. But in her more reflective mode as a Mercy graduate, she was grateful that her school always encouraged her to discuss the issues, no matter how controversial they might be; to understand the issues, especially form the perspective of those who are different; and always to do something practical. She had profited from the extensive social exposure programs even though "they bring it all home to you and make you feel bad". Angela told me, "We want to help but we don't know how to go about it."

Angela's search for hope, energy, direction and perspective found resonance for me when I heard Mark Waugh (of all people!) on the radio today. Given the high number of academic prizes and the few sports prizes here at this Western Australian girls' school, I know there might not be heightened interest in the fortunes of a cricketer from New South Wales who has played 128 tests for Australia. But today when he was dropped without any show of sentiment by the Australian selectors, he said, "There are a lot of people worse off than me at the moment. There are a lot of worse things happening in the world." I think Mark Waugh is on to something here. When we focus on the needs of others, our own burdens actually become lighter rather than heavier. Our perspective sharpens and our fulfilment increases. Life for ourselves becomes more livable when we live it for others and with others. Our course in life appears clearer when we have an eye for the Other in our midst.

Those of you who graduate tonight are on the brink of a whole new world with unknown possibilities. On the plane on the way across the Nullabor, I was reading Alex Miller's latest novel Conditions of Faith which is set in the 1920's. The central character in the book, Emily Stanton, is at her local Melbourne beach with her parents and being courted by a visiting English engineer tendering for the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Emily's father is perplexed about her future. Let me quote a scene from the book:

At school Emily had excelled at French and Latin. After two or three worrying changes of direction at the university - her wasted years, he called them - she had at last graduated the previous year with a first in the history of classical civilizations. But instead of applying for a scholarship to one of the women's colleges at Cambridge, as he and her university tutors had advised her to, Emily postponed a decision. 'I'm not ready to decide anything yet,' she told him. Almost a year had gone by since then and still she had not resolved her situation. She had stayed in bed until lunchtime and read novels and taken long walks and gone to stay with friends. 'You're becoming intellectually lazy ,' he accused her. 'You're wasting the best opportunity life is ever to offer you." He was angry and disappointed with her. 'If you were my son, I'd compel you!' he said bitterly to her one day. She had laughed at him. 'But I'm not your son and you can't compel me.' He lost his temper and said something to her that he had wished every day since then that he could unsay. 'You're weak!' he had accused her venomously. He shifted uneasily now in his deck chair at the memory of it. 'What is it that you want?' he demanded. And she told him calmly, 'I want you to allow me to not know what I want. That's all. To take my own risks and not to do as you've done.'

Those of you graduating tonight are allowed not to know what you want. You are allowed to take your own risks. You will not necessarily do what your parents and your teachers have done. But we hope you will always be women of mercy. Being the token white male cleric in your midst, I took the liberty of also asking a couple of Sisters of Mercy what I should say tonight. Sister Barbara has lived and worked with Aboriginal people in the Kimberley for many years. She told me that the key to Catherine McAuley's door is "living compassion". You must not go with the status quo. You must always ask questions. And the first question you must ask in any social situation is so simple: "Is the voice of the little people being heard?" Sister Adele is developing the new communication technologies for Mercy education. She made that great video on Ursula Frayne - A Woman of Mercy. She reminded me that Ursula sailed up the Swan River here in 1846 bringing the Mercy story first to the west and then to the east of Australia. Like her, you are now ready to step into territory which is unknown and uncomfortable. We hope you too are game enough to be the bridge between those like you and those who are so Other.

Since I returned from East Timor early this year, I have been occupied with our government's policy on refugees and asylum seekers. Just as past generations of Australians got it so wrong with Aborigines, so now the present generation of decision makers (including the vast mass of voters) have got it so wrong with refugees and asylum seekers. The outstanding Catholic layman, Sir William Deane recently said, "As a nation we seem to be losing our way. Pejorative labelling and calculated demonisation, even of genuine refugees including children, seem to enjoy a disturbing degree of public acceptance." Our bishops have called for an abandonment of the Pacific Solution labelling it an unconscionable practice. Recently I was in the United Kingdom seeing how other wealthy, peaceful countries deal with asylum seekers. As only the British can, they looked at me askance and said, "Of course, we used to do that sort of thing 200 years ago but we had to give it up. We could not possibly do it today. We are very surprised that you of all people should now be exporting your unwanted people to other islands." Our moral consciousness has been dulled. I visited a man from Burundi in a German jail. He was horrified to learn that we keep children in detention. Back home, even parents with children at Catholic schools do not flinch when they hear the Minister admit that there is a 12 year old child living in the Australian community who spent 5.4 years in detention before the family was granted their visa. Expressions of regret have to suffice. Our Navy has been asked to do very unAustralian things, shooting 50 feet in front of overloaded wooden boats at 3 o'clock in the morning when they know many of the passengers are women and children wanting to join their husbands and fathers on the Australian mainland. Our government has asked the Indonesian authorities to do things which we would rather not know about. They call it "upstream disruption". We are pleased to be seen to be less decent than other first world countries because that is the best way to solve our problem.

The good news is that when I visit the Port Hedland Detention Centre here in Western Australia, I meet a woman of Mercy, Sister Mary, who goes into that centre every day showing the face of mercy to those in despair. Now that our government is constructing a $200 million detention facility on Christmas Island, another woman of Mercy, Sister Joan is there as a gentle presence in the small local community. Here in Perth there are women of Mercy helping refugees with temporary visas to learn English, to find their way in a new society, and to trace their families who are still in danger. The practical face of Mercy is responding to persons in need when the politics is complex and the policy unfair. Meeting the refugees, women of mercy are able to see popular government policy in a new light. They act, speak, react and even pray differently.

Might I be so bold as to speak for the Women of Mercy who have gone before the Santamaria graduation class of 2002. We now allow you to not know what you want, to take your own risks, and not necessarily to do as we have done. Afterall not even Perth is heaven on earth. Like Catherine McAuley, we urge you "to be good today but better tomorrow. Thus we hope to get on, taking short, careful steps" which in hindsight will be seen to be great strides for Mercy in this land.