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Bishop Elliot addresses final graduating class of John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family

Friday 12 April 2019

Bishop Peter J. Elliott

At Pontifical Vespers, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, Most Rev. Peter J. Elliott, MA (Oxon), MA (Melb), STD (John Paul II, Rome) Titular Bishop of Manaccenser. Auxiliary Bishop, Melbourne, and Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne. 
Presided over by Most Rev. Peter Comensoli, Archbishop of Melbourne and President of the Institute. Memorial of St Stanislaus of Krakow, Thursday, April 11th, 2019.

As we gather for the final Graduation of the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family, Melbourne Associated Session, I first wish to thank you, Archbishop Peter, for presiding over Lenten Vespers this evening. Your presence as the last President of the Institute is most encouraging, especially as you are about to confer the degrees of the Institute on our last group of happy Graduates.

It is a time to look back and to celebrate what this unique Institute has achieved over eighteen years. But I will commence with recent events during the past year.

Staff Movements

As signalled at last year’s graduation ceremony, faculty member, Dr. Owen Vyner, took up an appointment in June at Christendom College, Virginia, USA. Associate Professor Adam Cooper, and Rev. Dr. Paschal Corby concluded their employment with the Institute at the end of 2018, and are now on the faculty of Catholic Theological College, Melbourne. At that time, too, Mrs. Anna Krohn, our Academic Skills Counsellor, who worked on a sessional basis, finished her work with the Institute. She has continued to offer the remaining staff valuable support and companionship.

This year the Institute has operated with a skeleton staff of Dr. Colin Patterson, as Dean, Dr. Conor Sweeney, and Lt. Col. Toby Hunter, as Registrar. Former sessional faculty member, Dr. Anna Silvas, has been very generous with her time, visiting from time to time and offering her own inimitable and much-appreciated collegial support and spiritual fellowship.

Scholarly Activity

In April last year, Dr. Sweeney published his book, Abiding the Long Defeat: How to Evangelize Like a Hobbit in a Disenchanted Age, a book which attracted considerable interest both in Australia and internationally. His latest work, The Politics of Conjugal Love, co-authored with Dr. Brian Trainor, will be published in June this year. It explores the relationship between husbands and wives, challenging secular distortions, and offering an authentically Christian alternative.

The rest of the faculty maintained their high level of academic productivity this past year with the publication of a number of peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and encyclopedia entries. Keynote addresses and the presentation of papers at Australian and overseas conferences filled out this aspect of the Institute’s work.

Finally, I would note the numerous public lectures delivered and the consultancy work carried out over the year. Both these activities have served to bring the expertise of the Institute to a wider audience.

Teaching and supervisory activity of the Institute

Teaching activity continued during the first semester of 2018, and concluded with the winter intensive unit, “Contemporary Issues in Marriage and Family”, a fitting subject to bring the educational work of the Institute to a close.

Supervision of students completing research degrees continued throughout the year, and concluded only last week with the Academic Board approving the graduation of our final doctoral student from Uganda, Fr. Emmanuel Lubega. Not only doctoral theses but also master’s dissertations require examination by external scholars, one of which is to be international. The Institute is proud of the high grades achieved this past year by our masters’ students, and we believe that this reflects the consistently rigorous standards set by faculty over the years, standards recognized both by our mother Institute in Rome and by the Australian civil authorities in tertiary education.

Annual Meeting of the International Council of the John Paul II Institute

In June last year, the annual gathering of the leadership from the various sessions and associated centres of the Institute was held in Rome, at the mother Institute, Lateran University. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, however, my candid report on the Melbourne Associated Session and the story of its closure was presented by our Dean. It was well received by those present, and was taken as a warning to other centres about the risks of being too financially dependent upon the local Church. On a positive note, the work of the Institute is being extended into more nations, with new projects conducted in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Kenya.

The Students’ Association Farewell Evening

In November last year, the Students’ Association sponsored a Farewell Evening to acknowledge the closure of the Institute and to celebrate its work. It was a wonderful occasion, at which a number of past students were able to join with those still enrolled and with staff in reflecting on the life of the Institute, and pondering the future. Although our Institute’s founder, Cardinal George Pell, was unable to be with us for the occasion, we were very pleased and moved to have read out to us a lengthy and encouraging letter from him. We continue to pray for him in these present difficult circumstances.

Administration

With the decision to close the Institute, taken in November, 2016, a heavy burden fell on the shoulders of our Registrar, Lt. Col. Toby Hunter, to work through the organizational complexities required of such a task. As we have come to expect, he has carried out this work with incredible efficiency, competence, and patience. For fifteen years he has been the backbone of the Institute and during the past two years his knowledge and skills have been more than ever been relied upon by the rest of us. His communications with students leave absolutely nothing unclear; his memory of past students is formidable; his understanding of the intricacies of Institute is profound, and yet so, too, is his humility in the face of the haughty and the proud. We who have benefitted from all this are deeply indebted to him.

Some Recollections

Now I wish to look back to our beginnings, first to the memorable opening of the Institute by His Eminence Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, in 2001. Until his death in 2008, he was the President of the Vatican’s P0ntifical Council for the Family, where I had served from 1987 to 1997. It was during those years that Dr Joseph Santamaria visited our offices and put to me the urgent need for a John Paul II Institute in Melbourne. As I made clear to him, with pained regret, such a project was impossible at that time due to contrary ecclesiastical and ideological currents.

However, that all changed in 1996 when Saint John Paul II appointed Most Rev. George Pell as Archbishop of Melbourne. A Member of the central committee of the P0ntifical Council for the Family and well-informed about the mother Institute in Rome, he was determined that an Australian Session would be established in Melbourne, and so it came to be in 2001. Soon after the opening, I gave the first lecture, in a small room, to four students.

We should not forget the previous year of preparation, when we were visited and guided by the Director of the Mother Institute, Bishop Angelo Scola, now the retired Cardinal Archbishop of Milan. When I defended by own doctoral thesis at the Institute in Rome in 1986, he was the assistant Director, under Msgr Carlo Caffarra, later Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna until his retirement in 2015. He died in 2017, remembered as a courageous and outspoken leader in these uncertain and conflicted times.

Our first Director was a happy choice, the noted Dominican, Fr. Anthony Fisher, now the Archbishop of Sydney. With youthful enthusiasm, he immediately set about planning courses, seeking students and gathering a faculty, where two bright stars shone in the years of our flourishing, Prof. Tracey Rowland, the Dean from 2001 to 2017 and the great bioethicist, Prof. Nicholas Tonti Filippini. His untimely death in 2014 was a blow not only to the Institute but to the Church and society in Australia.

Our academic tradition was largely shaped, on the one hand by Oxford (Anthony Fisher and myself), and on the other, by Cambridge (Tracey Rowland). The British academic tradition was not always understood in Rome, but it resonated and was appreciated at another Anglophone Institute in Washington DC. A series of remarkable visiting lecturers from both Rome and Washington ensured that our students from every continent could share the best that the Institutes can offer. Msgr Livio Melina is a notable example of scholars who provided a feast of wisdom and insight in Melbourne.

In the early years, some mistakes were made, mainly relating to governance, ecclesiastical academic requirements and relations with Catholic Theological College and the Australian Catholic University. Governance was resolved by establishing a Council for the Institute and its Members served us well. Members of faculty gained ecclesiastical doctorates in view of raising the Melbourne Institute from associate status to that of a full Session. Relations with CTC and ACU rapidly improved when we were perceived, no longer as competition in the theological marketplace, but as a unique Institute which welcomed faculty members from CTC and ACU onto our Council and Academic Board.

In 2004, I became acting Director and soon after that, the Director. My role changed three years later when I was ordained a bishop, apparently an occupational hazard for faculty members in the Institutes. Teaching, which I enjoy, was set aside and I was restricted to involvement in Council meetings and chairing the meetings of the Academic Board. Yet I tried to promote the Institute at a national level at the Bishops’ Conference and beyond, in Oceania and South East Asia. Alas, most Australian bishops were not responsive, unlike their brethren beyond our shores.

More seriously, I soon became aware of an undertow that would eventually bring about our closure. The Institute was regarded only as an agency of the local Church and a drain on money, which is apparently wasted if spent on promoting Christian marriage, the family as the domestic church, relevant bioethics and sound religious education of the young. These are four areas where in eighteen years, this Institute has given so much to the Church and society. And now we cease to be, or so it seems at present.

Graduation

Through you and in you, dear Graduates, the Institute lives on. You enjoyed your time with us, and faculty and staff enjoyed your dedication, your diligence and your friendship. As visitors often remarked, we were a happy community, a family serving families.

In congratulating you, dear Graduates, I know that you will bring others what you have received from this academic community, the light of the risen Christ, taking us into the Life of the Triune God, reflected in the love of a little family in Nazareth that continues to change the families of this world.

Finally, let us never forget that so much of what this Institute has achieved has been inspired and guided by one towering figure, the great Pope, Saint John Paul II. In his biblical anthropology, his theology of the body his, understanding love as self-gift and in his deep Marian devotion, we are able to draw from wells of mercy, grace and consolation in confusing times.

In his devoted friend and successor, Pope Benedict XVI, we also found a vindication of the “resourcement” school of theology that was a major influence in our Institute. This authentic renewal of theology in light of the Second Vatican Council shapes a warm and creative orthodoxy.

To conclude, dear friends, I can only return to Saint John Paul’s familiar words, just a few words yet they say so much: ‘The future of humanity passes by way of the family.” The “future of humanity”, but what does that ultimately mean? For Christians, this is nothing less than the coming of the Kingdom, when we shall all come home to those furnished and garnished chambers which await us in our Father’s House.
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