At the St Mary's University graduation ceremony at Westminster Cathedral yesterday, Cardinal Vincent presented the Benedict Medal, the university's highest honour, to Sr Berchmans in recognition of a lifetime's teaching and promoting interfaith relations.
Sr Berchmans joined the Convent of Jesus and Mary in 1951 in Willesden and has spent over 65 years teaching, mostly in Pakistan, where she taught students of different faiths at the Convents of Jesus and Mary in Lahore, Murree and Karachi.
Among her pupils were Benazir Bhutto, the first female Muslim Prime in the world, and MIT astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala.
Calling Sr Berchmans a "constant inspiration to many generations of teachers and student', the Cardinal said in his homily that she 'is a shining example of all that is to be found at the heart of Catholic education: not a narrow self-interest but a radical openness to our human family".
He added: "Our desire is always to offer all that is best to whoever will come, contribute and receive, wherever there is space and opportunity, which is not easy to achieve in some present circumstances. This, of course, is the vision of Catholic education that shapes St Mary's University: committed to the common good of society, open to other faiths in dialogue and respect, firm in its foundations of service and truth, generous in the personal effort invested in the work."
Indeed Sr Berchmans was awarded the Sitara-i-Quaid-i-Azam, one of the highest civil honours by the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, in 2012, for the 'great contribution she has made to the well-being of that country,' as the Cardinal explained.
Many of her pupils in Karachi, where Sr Berchmans currently teaches, and their parents wrote to the Cardinal 'asking that St Mary's recognise Sister's dedication and achievements with a great award'.
Sr Berchmans is only the fifth recipient of the award, named in honour of Pope-Emeritus Benedict.
Also present at the ceremony were two important guests with links to Sr Berchmans' life. Representing the Republic of Ireland, where Sr Berchmans was born in 1930, was Ambassador Adrian O'Neill. Representing Pakistan was High Commissioner, Mohammad Nafees Zakaria. They are pictured in the photo with Sr Berchmans and the Cardinal.
The full homily text follows:
It is my pleasure and delight to be here today to congratulate all who have received their Graduation this morning. Well done indeed!
This also gives me a chance to encourage you all to continue to make the best use of the gifts that you have been given by God and that you have used to arrive at this mark of achievement, so far. By reminding you that gifts are something that we receive, I also want to remind you that your achievements, too, are something of a gift, something to which many people have contributed. I know you understand this. Gaining your Award today is not something you have achieved on your own: your parents, your family - many of whom are here today and so proud of you - have all played their part. So too have your friends. And this pattern of working together, giving support to others, receiving encouragement and inspiration from others, will continue. We are not stand alone individuals, making or remaking ourselves as we wish. We are bound to each other. And our Christian faith makes that so clear, showing that a radical individualism, popular among so many today, is a distortion of our true humanity.
Think back to Sunday. What a day of sporting achievement! I watched the cricket on my ipad and the tennis on the TV. Think of some of those involved, especially in the cricket. Think of Eoin Morgan, growing up in the small town of Ross, in Ireland, nurtured by his local cricket club, his family and friends. Now a World Cup winning captain. Think of Jofra Archer, who learned, at the beginning of the tournament, that his cousin, with whom he grew up, had been shot dead, in Barbados. He relied on the support of his family and kept this tragic news from his team mates so as not to distract them from the challenge of the competition. Sport is a team game. So is life. So, in whatever you do in the future, stay a team player and have a look out, always, for those who need special encouragement.
Today we have with us someone who can inspire and encourage us all, especially those of you who are planning to be teachers, or work in education in any capacity. Here, today, with us, is Sister Berchmans. It will be my pleasure, shortly, to present to her the University's highest award: the Benedict Medal, named after Pope Benedict. Let me tell you about her.
Sister Berchmans has taught for over 65 years. She has been a constant inspiration to many generations of teachers and students. You would do well to imitate her. So let me tell you a little more.
Some of what I say I have learned from a most perceptive source: her pupils. They have been writing to me, as have some of their parents, asking that St Mary's recognise Sister's dedication and achievements with a great award. So we shall.
The letters I have received have come from Pakistan, from the city of Karachi, where Sister Berchmans has taught for most of her life, in the Convent School of Jesus and Mary. The letters are lovely, addressing me as 'Mr Cardinal', a title unfamiliar to children who are Muslims. Indeed Sister Berchmans taught the world's first female Muslim Prime Minister, Benazhir Bhutto and many other leaders in Pakistan. Some are here today precisely to honour her for the great contribution she has made to the well-being of that country in which she has already been awarded the country's highest civilian honour.
So what can St Mary's add? We want to make this award to Sister Berchmans because she stands, so clearly, for all that St Mary's stands for too. She is a shining example of all that is to be found at the heart of Catholic education: not a narrow self-interest but a radical openness to our human family. Catholic education is not denominational, not just interested in 'our own'. Our desire is always to offer all that is best to whoever will come, contribute and receive wherever there is space and opportunity, which is not easy to achieve in some present circumstances. This, of course, is the vision of Catholic Education that shapes St Mary's University: committed to the common good of society, open to other faiths in dialogue and respect; firm in its foundations of service and truth; generous in the personal effort invested in the work. For these reasons, we speak always of teaching, at every level, as a vocation: a vocation in the service of our Heavenly Father, in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, our Way, Truth and Life, and in service of our shared humanity.
Sister Berchmans, thank you so much for your outstanding witness in this vocation. You may not have won a World Cup, but at 65 not out you are an inspiration! So it gives me great pleasure to play my part in giving you, on behalf of St Mary's University, this Benedict Medal and of assuring you of our love and prayers always.
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