Student with progressive MS awarded masters degree at special ceremony

A Brisbane-based postgraduate student who has been battling Multiple Sclerosis for the past decade has been awarded a masters degree from ACU in a special ceremony.

Thomas Cullen, 58, was presented with the award of Master of Theological Studies (Liturgy) at a Thanksgiving Mass at ACU Banyo’s Holy Spirit Chapel on September 15.

More than 100 people, including family and friends from Queensland, New South Wales and New Zealand, and fellow students, attended in support of Mr Cullen’s achievements.

Mr Cullen was diagnosed with progressive Multiple Sclerosis in 2012. It is a chronic disease that attacks the nervous system, disrupting the communication between the body and brain. Mr Cullen’s diagnosis took two years, resulting in doctors locating “innumerable” lesions on his brain.

At the time of his diagnosis, Mr Cullen was studying ACU’s Graduate Diploma in Theological Studies. He said his academic milestone was due in part to receiving the ACU Centre for Liturgy’s Postgraduate Scholarship in 2020. Mr Cullen said the Centre’s Director, Professor Clare Johnson, inspired him to pursue a masters degree in spite of his MS diagnosis.

“She got me through my postgraduate diploma studies in liturgy and inspired me to go on,” Mr Cullen said.

“I never thought I would be in this position to receive this wonderful award of the masters.

“So many people have contributed to this journey. I have been carried by prayer and I have reached, finally, this moment.”

ACU Chancellor, the Honourable Martin Daubney AM KC, awarded Mr Cullen his masters degree during the ceremony, saying he reached the milestone achievement “through his faith and trust in God”.

As well as the award of a masters degree, the university also gifted Mr Cullen with a plaque of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, the patron saint of ACU.

“I have meditated a lot in front of this plaque of Mary MacKillop as I come here to church,” Mr Cullen said.

“My heart is filled with grace and gratitude ‘for the Lord has done great things for me’.”

Mr Cullen has spent most of his life as a chorister in both cathedral and parish settings, including at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, as a young boy, and with the ACU Brisbane Choir. Before being diagnosed with MS, he was discerning a call to the priesthood.

His love of music and the liturgy was central to the research project associated with his masters. Mr Cullen’s research essay focused on whether Cathedral choirs today fostered the active participation of the gathered assembly as per the instructions of the Second Vatican Council.

Due to a loss of dexterity in his hands, Mr Cullen said he was not certain he would be able to pursue further study. However, his strong Catholic faith has given him hope.

“I think the MS is a gift because ultimately, it means you have to give everything to God,” Mr Cullen said.


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