Occasional

Opening of School Year – Loreto College Normanhurst

Each year the Macquarie Dictionary selects a word of the year.  The word (or words) for 2019 were ‘cancel culture’ which is the online phenomenon of boycotting public figures who say or do the wrong thing. The year before that it was ‘Me too’ – the drive of women to stand up against abusive behaviour of those in power. However, given that the theme for Loreto College this year is Verity, I want to come back to the word that emerged as the one for 2016, four years ago. That word was ‘fake news.’ And of course, it has lost none of its currency since. As the committee of academics, writers and journalists which selected the choice of the word four years ago said, “There has come a point with fake news where people are beginning to believe what they want to believe, whether or not the news story is actually true.”[1]  We live in a world now, it seems, where facts and ‘alternative facts’ co-exist with seemingly equal veracity. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know what to believe, who to believe. News agencies in the past prided themselves on accuracy, on objectivity. Now news agencies are judged on their popularity, and people turn to the banality of social media in order simply to reinforce their prejudice, which also has become confused with truth. Of course, this dilemma becomes of deep concern to a society, because when fact and fiction become blurred the familiar systems of accountability and scrutiny begin to melt away.

What is true? This was the question at the very heart of the drama of the passion of Jesus. The Roman governor says to him, “Truth. What is that?” It is not only the question of Pontius Pilate. It is the question that we all carry within our hearts. How do we know something is true? One of the difficulties for us is the way that we can limit truth to that which is factual, what is empirical, what is measurable.  Then, when we declare something to be true, we are thinking of it as factual. But truth is not simply that which is factual. We can read a great legend or a great poem. We can read the great narratives of Scripture. Are they factual? Perhaps not. Are they true? Absolutely! This is because truth is not simply about what we know empirically. It is also about what we understand and what we love. And often poetry and story are the best ways we can share the truth. They speak to us of reality that cannot simply be reduced to literal fact.

And so, if we wish to live our lives with truthfulness, then we must raise our minds and focus on what bears truth for us. And most significantly it will be a work of art, a painting, a sculpture, a story. If we stay with the last means by which we encounter what is truly true, we can ask by what story do we live? What is the story that captivates our minds, our hearts, our imaginations?  What does this story reveal to us about ourselves?

Pope Francis recently recounted our natural instinct for stories. “From childhood we hunger for stories just as we hunger for food. Stories influence our lives, whether in the form of fairy tales, novels, films, songs, news, even if we do not always realise it . . . Stories leave their mark on us; they shape our convictions and our behaviours. They can help us understand and communicate who we are.”  We delight in weaving stories. For this reason, there is a link, as Francis identifies, between the words, ‘textile’ and ‘text’. Both come from the Latin word, ‘to weave’ (texere). Yet we know the capacity we have to weave both stories of good and stories of evil. And so, the Pope goes on to say, “. . . we need wisdom to be able to welcome and create beautiful, true and good stories. We need courage to reject false and evil stories. We need patience and discernment to rediscover stories that help us not to lose the thread amid today’s many troubles. We need stories that reveal who we truly are, also in the untold heroism of everyday life.”

The late English writer, Daniel O’Leary underscored this when he remarked, “Hope or despair can spring from the stories we choose to tell. Stories can be told that pander to the weakness in us, or we can reach for stories that will empower us to imagine and create a better world . . . Despair creeps in when we forget the story; hope grows in our memory of it.”[2]  

As the same writer observes “January is ordinarily a month for courageous beginnings.” Yet, of course, this year has started with a great deal of anxiety for us particularly in the face of the challenges of the bushfire crisis in which we discover ourselves with all its many implications, and now with the emergence of the new coronavirus.

It is a time, therefore, to bring back to our memory and hearts the stories that give us meaning, that hold what is true for us. We will know them to be true by the outcomes of the story. Does the story that conveys what is true for us give sight to the blindness of prejudice? Does it restore hearing to the deafness of selfishness? Does the story cure the disease of souls?  Does the story open new possibility even in the paralysis of fear and disillusionment? We will know its veracity when we see its beauty and promise lived out in a countless community of people across time and culture and circumstance. When the power of this story brings what is dead back to life, then we know it to be true. This is why we declare the Story of Scripture to be true. This is why we proclaim Jesus, the Story of God, to the One who is the Truth, our Way, and our Life.

“We tell stories to help man endure by lifting his heart,” remarked William Faulkner, the American writer in his acceptance speech of the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Now more than ever we need to hear the stories that have kept us steady for such a long time, to be uplifted by them, and to be challenged by them. Let them “[awaken] the memories and stories of our goodness and beauty so as to open the doors of hope.”[3] And in all the uncertainty and confusion of this year’s beginning, do we not need hope more than ever?


[1] See Arielle De Bono “’Fake news’ selected as Macquarie Dictionary’s Word of The Year,”

 http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/news-and-views/fake-news-selected-as-macquarie-dictionarys-word-of-the-year-20170124-gty5xx.html, accessed 26 January 2017.

[2] Daniel O’Leary, “Beginning with our Hearts,” The Tablet (7 January 2017), 16.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, cited in O’Leary, “Beginning with our Hearts.”

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