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On Thursday evening, before a packed out assembly gathered at Newman College on the Melbourne University campus, visiting Benedictine monk Mark Patrick Hederman delivered the Helder Camara Lecture. Mark Hederman has been a monk of Glenstal Abbey in Limerick for over 40 years, the last eight as Abbot. He has also been headmaster of the school attached to the Abbey.
Organised by the Marist Brothers and hosted by Newman College in Parkville, the annual lecture series commemorates Dom Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, one of the 20th century’s greatest Christians. As Archbishop of Recife, Dom Helder was famous for his tireless work in assisting and defending the rights of the poor in Brazil.
To commemorate his visit in 1985, an annual series of lectures was initiated to continue his message of peace and justice for all.
Father Mark’s lecture was titled ‘The opal and the pearl: Exploring a Christian spirituality for our times.’
The theme developed by Fr Hederman is that we are living, in the 21st century, in what he called a ‘cultural tsunami’, in which much of the ‘worthy architecture’ of our lives has been swept away, leaving us, as Christians, in a vacuum.
As Catholics we are, he compared, like his native Ireland, referred to once as ‘an island of virtue in a sea of vice.’
Developing the maritime theme further, he reflected that, today, it is more as if we were journeying on the Titanic, in which the infrastructure that has, until now, kept us afloat (he was referring to the Church) is no longer useful.
In fact, he warned, we are heading for an iceberg.
Fr Hederman stated that this is an iceberg we could have avoided if we were really in contact with the actual world, as it is around us
, he emphasised, instead of clinging unshakeably to structures that now appear to be failing to represent what we truly are.
God has created us as human flesh, he pointed out, and every one of us aspires, indeed yearns, to live a life that is fully human. This tells us surely, he continued, that God, our loving Creator, must also want us to be fully human.
So our culture is, or should be, said Fr Mark, a co-operative work between ourselves and the Holy Spirit, a creative work, a work that is ‘a procreation of eternity and time.’
Referencing WB Yeats, the Irish poet, he stated that to live a life that is fully human (as God intends for us, having created us as human), the whole person, in the totality of every constituent part, needs to fully act.
Yeats and other great artists of word, art and music, are telling us that any mould whatsoever is too restrictive and limiting.
This, of course, contrasts with the paradigm of perfection proposed by Christianity. That elevated way of being, where the entire focus is, rather than on our humanity, on a transcendent spirituality of perfection that unites the believer to God is, as Fr Hederman defined it, the “pearl” that our Christian history has taught us to aspire to and realise.
The “pearl” is pure beauty, unsullied, perfect, ultimately desirable, and yet, apart from a rare few saints and exceptionally holy people, unattainable. The Church, stated Fr Mark, has asked us to become the opposite of what we actually are.
So, in the 21st century, where can we now find a model that we can all aspire to. As Fr Hederman pointed out, God has created seven billion people. There are seven billion ways of connecting to God, and there are more ways to heaven than one.
The model Fr Mark proposes is that of the opal. An opal, unlike a pearl, is beautiful because of its imperfections. With a pearl, nothing has got in. It’s intact, unblemished, pure. An opal, on the other hand, is flawed, a combination of many, many impurities, yet whose collective qualities are gloriously beautiful!
So Fr Mark proposes an alternative possibility of being human, based on the opal model, a model which does not deny the reality of who we are.
Can the Church provide us with the wherewithal to become these opals, opals that are pleasing to God, in this 21st century?
We are all responsible for ourselves, Fr Hederman reminded his listeners. We must embrace a new vision. In reference particularly to young people, many of whom he sees as vitally full of the Holy Spirit, we should not be imposing on them the culture that was satisfactory for us.
Fr Mark concluded the Helder Camara Lecture with a series of robust questions and answers. A lively discussion ensued.
Abbot Hederman will also be seen on Tuesday 30 May in the Christ Lecture Theatre at Australian Catholic University in the inaugural Marian lecture, ‘Underground Cathedrals, a Spirituality for the 21st Century.’ The evening will run from 6pm to 7pm. Limited free seating is available here
Read the full text of Abbot Hederman’s lecture here
Excerpt of lecture below.