Photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

Convocation Address: Keep Right on to the End of the Road

On November 6, 2017, Director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute Moira McQueen, LL.B, M.Div., Ph.D, delivered the following Convocation Address to St. Augustine’s Seminary: 

Your Eminence, Cardinal Collins, Bishop Kirkpatrick,  Rector Fr Gonsalves,  Dean Fr. Melo,  Professor Wong representing the President of  the University of Toronto, distinguished members of the Toronto School of Theology,  Faculty, Staff and Board of Governors of St. Augustine’s Seminary, graduands, parents, families and friends: good evening, and thank you for the honour of addressing this Convocation.

May I first offer sincere congratulations to you, the graduands, on your achievements?  I expect you are experiencing some feelings of excitement and euphoria at reaching your goal, not to mention relief after all the hard work of the past three years or longer!

I wondered what advice I could give you.  What can I offer you as you move ahead?  I asked myself what pearls of wisdom I heard myself at my own graduations, but, truth to tell, I don’t remember!  Perhaps I, too, was so caught up in those feelings of excitement and relief that I did not pay enough attention.

I decided to talk about the Cardinal Virtues: Prudence/Justice/Fortitude/ Temperance.

I think I can hear you murmur to yourself, sardonically:  how exciting!  It DOES sound rather boring, especially couched in that language.  Yet, isn’t there a certain appeal to being wise, being just, being strong and being balanced?

I find that a simple but effective way of discussing the cardinal virtues can be found in a famous song by a Scotsman, Harry Lauder. It’s called: “Keep right on to the end of the road.”

Harry Lauder was a world famous vaudeville singer who,  during the First World War, organized and sang in concerts in London for the war effort.  In 1916 his only son, John, was killed in action in France.  Three days later, Harry recommenced his concerts, and went on to tour battle fields in France to encourage the soldiers.

He wrote at the time of his son’s death:  “Everything has come to an end…” and “The board of life is black and blank.”  Naturally, he was in deep mourning for his only child. Yet a few years later, in 1926,  he wrote a song which is still sung today and which demonstrates his personal faith and trust, no matter what…and it has inspired people in and far beyond Scotland ever since.

The chorus to the song is:

Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end,
Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend.
Tho’ you’re tired and weary still journey on,
Till you come to your happy abode,
Where all the love you’ve been dreaming of
Will be there at the end of the road.

I acknowledge the words could sound sentimental, emotive, and, when sung, a bit ‘rumpty-tumpty,’ but I find it highly effective, memorable, and, in the end, emotional in a good way. I think that’s because, like all expressions of the truth about human nature, it expresses more than a hint of a deep universal knowledge that points to the best in the human spirit. That knowledge encourages us and sustains us on the journey, and especially those of us who profess our faith in God and who trust God’s plan for us.

After all, to ‘keep right on’ or to persevere:

Takes someone who is wise about reality… I call that Prudence

Takes someone who is open to God’s plan for reality…Justice

Takes someone strong in his or her convictions about being faithful in the world…Fortitude

Takes someone balanced about living in the world while looking towards the end…Temperance

I want to tell you a little anecdote.  When I was in Newfoundland recently, a religious sister told me she had been talking and praying with a priest friend who was struggling with cancer and needed sympathy and encouragement.  She remembered a song from her childhood that her parents had taught her. She sang it to him and she thought it had helped him. The song was “Keep right on to the End of the Road,” and the coincidence of her telling me about this just a few weeks ago confirmed for me that choosing the title for this address at a theological graduation wasn’t too ‘zany!’

What will people be looking to you for, on the road you will travel as theologians, as priests, as lay ministers, as educators, or on whatever path you find yourself?

  • People might expect some theological knowledge, a thirst for justice,  commitment and  strength in your faith
  • They might expect you to be someone who is reasonable, balanced,  temperate in his or her life style
  • They will hope you will have insights, be able to explain the faith when they have questions or doubts
  • They will look for some enthusiasm for evangelization, so badly needed today

But they are not looking for only theological knowledge, or even witness! People will always need understanding, compassion, help with their problems, acceptance, encouragement: the pastoral side of  ministry is demanding in a very different way, and no doubt you will be very good at it and you will help a lot of people along their road, which is the point, after all, of pastoral ministry. But for the ministers themselves, that road can also be difficult. This reminds me of a famous poem by the English poet, Christina Rossetti, which appeared in the Oxford Book of English Verse in 1919.   It’s called “Uphill.”

UPHILL  

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?

Yes, to the very end.

Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?

From morn to night, my friend.

 

But is there for the night a resting-place?

A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.

May not the darkness hide it from my face?

You cannot miss that inn.

 

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?

Those who have gone before.

Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?

They will not keep you standing at that door.

 

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?

Of labour you shall find the sum.

Will there be beds for me and all who seek?

Yea, beds for all who come.

 

Rossetti reminds us that some roads are bound to be long and difficult, and we know we all get lost on many roads, literally and figuratively.  To what or to whom will you turn on that uphill road?   I suggest turning to prayer, grace, the Sacraments, the power of the Spirit to help us exercise the virtues, and, most likely, to other people who will carry us when we need them…and we will!…as we, in turn, will carry them. Within the Body of Christ there is always help, for the ministers to and of that Body as well.

I think we can learn many lessons about the uphill road from paying attention to our present Pope’s emphasis on mercy.  The need for forgiveness and mercy has always been at the heart of the Christian mission, and there are countless examples of the need for being merciful and the need to receive mercy, forgiveness and love in the Pope’s many writings. To take just one example, in his 2015 message for the World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis spoke of Sapientia Cordis, the Wisdom of the Heart, a way of seeing things infused by the Holy Spirit in the minds and hearts of those who are sensitive to the sufferings of their brothers and sisters and who can see in them the image of God. Wisdom of the Heart means going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters, by not judging them, by showing solidarity, by forgiving, by taking time to be with them. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis sees going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters as one of the two great commandments which ground every moral norm and also as the clearest sign for discerning spiritual growth in response to God’s completely free gift. So, here we have some food for the journey on the spiritual road…

In the moral and spiritual life, I believe we can  learn valuable lessons from what we tend to call the secular world, since the cardinal virtues are not reserved to religious people.  For example, if you saw the movie “Dunkirk,” you would have become aware of many incidents of bravery, self-sacrifice, altruism and heroism.  To take just one example: one of the main characters is one of the many small boat owners who sailed across the Channel to rescue stranded soldiers in danger, literally against all odds. He exhibits quiet and dogged courage and inspires others with his sense of mission: he is prudent  (for example  his knowledge of the sounds of different aircraft helps his crew to avoid aircraft fire by his capacity for precise timing. “NOW!” he cries, and the boat shifts directions just in time);  he shows a keen sense of justice (accepting it as his duty to help and to rescue the endangered  soldiers and risking his own life); he shows  fortitude (in the face of  both air attack and the risk of torpedoes,  even although the boat is tiny); he is measured and balanced ( he is compassionate towards a soldier with shell shock whom they rescue,  a man who turns out to be volatile and dangerous, and whom the others fear and reject).  Here we see all the cardinal virtues, present and enacted in one character! Granted, I’m talking about a movie, but it is based on a true story.  In this month of November, and especially so close to Remembrance Day,  we hear many of these true stories and accounts of virtuous heroism and altruism, memorialized by Winston Churchill in his famous speech rallying the United Kingdom before the expected German invasion:  “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed, by so many, to so few.”

(Side note: I do wonder, though, if anyone else go to the movies identifying the cardinal virtues or the lack of them in the plot? It’s an interesting activity!)

So, I’ve referred to a song, a poem and a movie. You’re possibly wondering why I would choose such examples at a graduation of theology students to illustrate the cardinal virtues!  I think many real life stories or artistic forms of all kinds are valuable. If they possess some deeper meaning and touch our spirit, they can ‘speak’ to us.   Second, real life experiences, as well as the power of imagination and the impact they can make on our consciousness, can take us into the realm of the transcendent,  where we are close to God. This is the realm in which our deepest religious and existential questions arise, where we ask ultimate questions, the ones which factual knowledge alone cannot resolve for us.  What is our vocation? What form should it or will it take? What is our duty, our response to God’s call, our mission?  What will be the road, or roads, for us?  What will we meet on that road? What will be there at the end of the road for us? And does the road wind uphill all the way? Rossetti answers: yes, to the very end!

It will be challenging for you when church teaching and popular views do not square.  It will be challenging to maintain your beliefs despite social trends. It will be challenging to be labelled as old fashioned and to have your moral views dismissed because they are ‘religious.’  Certain individuals and groups are downright hostile to anyone who speaks or acts from a religious stance. That can make it hard to say what your conscience tells you, to say what YOU truly believe!  Perhaps, like St Thomas More, although hopefully not with the same results, you might be the only one espousing a certain viewpoint in a specific situation, and then you will have to call upon the power of the Spirit to help you. That’s when your practice of prayer and practice of the theological and cardinal virtues will help. You could find yourself alone on the road, but you will not give up! You will pray for courage and perseverance: “… let your heart be strong, keep right on round the bend…”

When you have doubts, when your ministry hits a major bump, when things seem too much, as indeed they do for every one of us, at some or many points:  “Keep right on to the end.”

And, of course, this is fundamental Pauline theology, c.f., Hebrews 12: 1-2:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The throne of God is undoubtedly Sir Harry Lauder’s ‘happy abode,’ Christina Rossetti’s ‘beds for all’ and the salvation of bodies and souls portrayed in “Dunkirk.”  There are many roads to the same abode, and I wish all of you, graduands and your families, joy, mercy, forgiveness, grace, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance on those roads as you begin the next part of your journey, in fact, to the very end.