A homily given by Fr. Andy Bullen to Catholic high school students in Melbourne a few years ago….
“What happened on your first day at school?” For some of you the event is so recent, just a week or so ago, that you could say “Lots of things” and tells us them in detail. Others might scratch their heads and then say perhaps “The school was so big, and noisy”. Others might recall that it was exciting and scary at the same time. Others, after reflecting a bit, “It was the first time I spent a full day away from home and mum and dad; it was the beginning of something huge in my life, it set a pattern that I am still living in years later”.
The Year 12s might say “The beginning of this year makes me realize that I am moving towards the next big change in my life; this time next year I will be getting ready for tertiary education maybe far from home”, and some might even be abroad on a Gap year. Those of us for whom recalling the first day of school is digging up ancient history, what do we have to say?
My first day at school was in early 1952, in South Wales UK, in our parish primary school. I can recall my mother standing somewhere near, and Miss Whoever the headmistress – Miss Joyce was our teacher, I know - stood near at the top of some steps, and there was a group of boys marching around in a circle singing “We won the War in 1944”, because we had, recently.
When my family migrated to Sydney in 1964, I went straight to St Aloysius College. On the first day I met a guy called John Knight, who said “I live in Beverley Hills”; my father had warned me about Aussies like him, that they would try you out and to act cool. John was trying me out, so I acted cool and we became friends.
When you get to school, life comes at you as never before. There is so much of it: so many new people, your own age and much older, and maybe of different races, and you must work with so many adults, who change almost on the hour to teach you yet another subject, or coach you, or address you in assemblies or invite you to pick up some paper you have just discarded. Schools are rich in drama: you laugh, you cry, you roar with support of your team as they win or lose, you wrestle with theorems, French verbs, English essays, piano scales, footy practice. You get used to it and call it ordinary life, but every now and then it gets hard, or sad and tense; sometimes you just know that what has happened is serious and revealing about life, about others and about yourself. The fullness of life that school offers has to do with your growing into all your talents and strengths, with your discovering and deepening your character, so you ask “Who am I?” and work on the answer. But of course there is more to the fullness of life even than this working on oneself.
In a Catholic school, you are invited to do what the school believes is the most important thing it has to offer you: Mass is an example of it. You are invited, very strongly, to ask yourself, “What is life all about, and what has Jesus to do with it?” In the gospel Jesus asks his disciples the same question, “Who do you think I am?” Peter, the leader, though not necessarily the brightest in the class, gives his famous and right answer, before he gets it all wrong again. But listening to his heart, Peter knows who Jesus is and calls him “the Christ”, the one all humanity yearns for, to heal us, to show us the way to the fullness of God, who is the fullest fullness of life.
In all the energy and activity that makes up your life at school, you are also asked, indeed challenged, to , maybe in a quick prayer before a class begins, sometimes in your chapel, sometimes away for a day or so on retreat. To to however deep your heart can get, with its questions and answers and questions again, to befriend silence, or let the silence befriend you. To familiar with Jesus’ question and sound out the answers; to give him the time of day for a minute or two.
That done – we can call it praying - we come to see or feel the importance of the ordinary details of our lives. Remembering a detail of the first day of school can lead to the recognition that it was a moment when your mother had to let you go, or that you had been befriended in a new country, that the world can be friendly and playful, and that’s how God’s world is too.