Education and Arts

Feast of our Faculty Patron, St Albert the Great

In 2011, the Faculty chose St Albert the Great as its Patron Saint to help inspire its work and teaching. He is the Patron Saint of the natural sciences and his feast is 15 November.

Duncan MacLaren was invited to give the homily about St Albert at a special mass on his feast day.

I have to admit that I am a fan of saints, not just because of their holiness but because they were mostly very flawed people, just like ourselves, which shows we can be holy too.  Saints are not sugar-coated puppets who are nice. They are saints - at least the genuine ones are who haven't paid to be canonised - because they are just and try to follow Jesus' teaching to put others before ourselves. In St Paul's Letter to the Hebrews (12:1), they are called 'a great cloud of witnesses' - witnesses to a different reality beyond egotism, selfishness and greed.

The man whose life we celebrate today as patron of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, St Albert the Great, was another witness to that different reality. He was born at the end of the 12th century in Germany and became a member of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans after their founder, St Dominic. It was, and is, an Order which values study as a way of discerning how God acts in our world, how we should act as human beings towards one another, and how we discover truth.

Albert was an academic par excellence. He was the pupil of St Thomas Aquinas, another Dominican, who basically invented the Catholic theology that is happily still with us and both of them have titles of Doctors of the Church.  Whereas Thomas formulated a humanistic theology based on Aristotelian thought - one where the human person took centre stage in the cosmic drama - Albert's passion was science. It is thought he knew everything about science that was possible in his day. He was a botanist, a chemist, a zoologist, an early physicist and was supposed to have even made a kind of robot which makes him a cyberneticist. He was even asked about the design of the new cathedral in Cologne - the one that is still standing today. This was in addition to his knowledge of what used to be called the 'Queen of Sciences', theology. He was a Renaissance man before the term was coined.

He was known to his mates as 'Boots' because he walked everywhere - not just to the equivalent of Mount Street but all over Europe. As a bishop, he could have ridden a horse - forbidden in his day to the friars - but he preferred to walk as a sign of humility and to experience nature in all its glory so that he could better understand what was going on, seeing in the 'wildness and wet' of Manley Hopkins God's hand in creation.

He gave up being a bishop after three years and died in his eighties in 1280. He comes down to us through the centuries as a modern saint linking science with theology as some scientists champion nowadays, even claiming that at the heart of Creation is a mystery which the God particle, the Higgs Boson, seems to point to. Albert, whether he was preaching about science or design or theology, used God-talk but he talked of a God who wasn't the stern judge of our phobias but the God of love who accompanies us, who urges us to be kind towards one another and to use words that are rooted in life and are words of resurrection, not crucifixion.

St Albert the Great, pray for our Faculty and all who work and study in it. May we be faithful to the search for the truth, whether in the humanities or science, and glorify you in this university by educating students who are fully alive to the beauty and brokenness of our world. St Albert the Great, pray for us.

Duncan MacLaren, Feast of St Albert the Great 15th November 2012, MacKillop Campus.