It is with the deepest sadness that I had learned of the passing of Professor Patrick Johnston; President and Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast. In the coming days I am certain there will be many tributes paid to this quietly heroic man who worked tirelessly in cancer treatment and care. There will also be much said about Professor Johnston’s contribution to Queen’s University.
I wish to express my deep sadness at Professor Johnston’s passing. Many will know that Professor Johnston was one of the contributor’s to my book Space for Grace. When I initially made contact with his office regarding the possibility of an interview I did so in full knowledge that I was a novice as far as journalism goes. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Professor Johnston had politely declined to take part in the book. I was absolutely delighted that he did in fact agree to take part.
When I met with Professor Johnston to conduct the interview I could not have been received in a more welcoming and open way. We chatted for over an hour about university life, the nature and need of faith in a university setting, living in a diverse society, the treatment of cancer, and more. I could not get over how candid Professor Johnston was. More than that in my own questions and responses to his words Professor Johnston was incredibly engaging and gave me the impression that my own contributions were genuinely meaningful. At the opening Mass for the Academic Year 2016/17 I couldn’t have been happier to be able to present Professor Johnston with a copy of the book itself and was delighted to see how happy he seemed to be to receive this.
There can be no mistake, through his openness and the kindness extended to me my own sense of purpose in this life has been vastly improved. I shall be forever grateful for his life and for his work. I shall remember him in my prayers as I shall remember his family and extended family. Some of the words he offered in his reflection seem to have a greater poignancy for me tonight. In our time together Professor Johnston reminded me (and all who have read the work):
“I continue to be delighted, surprised and re-energised by what individuals can do when they all work together for a common good; whether it’s health, education, social justice or innovation and enterprise. The impact of individuals working together, creating an energy and a path for good is really what faith and religion are about, though often it is not perceived in that way.
You have to accept and be pragmatic about what you can achieve within certain environments but it doesn’t mean you have to accept the here and now. It’s about creating hope and creating ambition which is also where religion is very important because it is partly the unknown. You’ve got to believe in something to aspire to and part of that is faith. This is one of the lessons I learnt in my early medical career in dealing with cancer patients, that the most important thing for a cancer patient wasn’t the treatment; it was that someone cared for them and was listening to them, that they had hope.
I’m very enthusiastic about the importance of faith in shaping people. Our faith shapes how we interact with each other and how we deal with suffering and the daily challenges that make up living. That’s where you see the richness of what priests and the Chaplaincy do day-to-day. We don’t hear enough about what priests and volunteers in faith based organisations do for society. Those people who are quietly working away day to day consoling families, helping the poor in society, supporting individuals with terminal disease, staying up at night, providing selfless care to individuals when they are at their most vulnerable. These are the people who are helping to nurture educate and shape society. They’re not looking for accolades, they’re not looking for badges of distinction; they’re just doing it because they’re passionate about it, they care and they believe it’s the right thing to do. Those are the sorts of acts and the type of leadership and commitment we need to both herald and value more as a society. If it wasn’t for those people and their commitment, society would be in real trouble. It’s amazing what hope and faith can achieve.”
Thank you Professor Patrick Johnston for your life, your faith and hope. May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem. May choirs of angels welcome you and lead you to the bosom of Abraham; and where Lazarus is poor no longer may you find eternal rest.
Professor Patrick Johnston rest in peace. God bless you.