Friday 12 May 2017

Eloquentia Perfecta

That was how the Jesuits in our first schools, in the Humanistic tradition, described one of the goals for their graduates: cultivating eloquentia perfecta, ‘flawless eloquence’. Mastery of the word (written or spoken) was seen as the foundation not only of one’s career, but more importantly, the bedrock of what it was to be a leader and a good citizen – that is, a person of integrity, moral probity and justice. Just as it is now, the word was the way to influence others for the greater good.

Complementing this approach in the educational world, Ignatius always encouraged what he called “holy conversations”. ‘Holy’ because they took as their starting point a respect for the other, one also made in the image and likeness of God. Today we might call them “respectful conversations”. Conversations always seeking the greater good, seeking truth, in the meeting of minds and the engagement of ideas. Conversations that explore ‘the big questions of life’, something more than the marginal and mundane. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and letters abound with such encouragement. “Always put the best interpretation on what someone says”, and “never simply try to gain the upper hand” he writes. The parliamentary-debate model was furthest from Ignatius’ mind. In those early and threatening days of the Reformation, Ignatius sent Jesuits as advisors to the Council of Trent where the debates could be at fever pitch. He urged his men to learn the surpassing worth of conversation and be slow of speech, to be free of attachments, to consider reasons on both sides, to respect the other, to realise, as we would say today, “it’s not all about me.” To two other Jesuits being sent to Protestant Ireland, he cautioned them to say little, to let everyone have their say, and to win someone over “by going in their door and leading them out your own.”

That pet phrase of Ignatius, ‘to go in by the other’s door and lead them out your own’, was the basis of his approach to ministry, evangelisation, education and mission. It presupposed an understanding of the person with whom one was engaged – their context, their experiences, their culture, their dreams and desires. That is the place you first meet them. The starting point for dialogue and perhaps consensus.

In this tradition of the world of words, last Friday night we competed once again in the Lawrence Campbell Oratory Competition. This is a joint GPS and CAS competition named after Lawrence Campbell who taught public speaking at both St Ignatius’ and St Aloysius’ Colleges. Campbell was regarded as “the doyen of elocutionists” in Australia. The competition began in his honour in 1935 and, of all the competing schools, Riverview has won it the most number of times. This year, the College was ably represented by Charlie Hoffman (Year 12), whose topic (chosen fifteen minutes before the event) was Tennyson’s quote: “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”. Within a field of extremely gifted wordsmiths and orators, Charlie achieved an admirable third place.

Another Charles, Fr Charles McDonald SJ, arrived as a teacher at Riverview in 1962 and remained here for eighteen years. In that time, he taught and coached the GPS debating teams and prepared boys for the Lawrence Campbell Competition. During those years, Riverview won the Lawrence Campbell eleven times and the GPS Firsts Debating premiership fourteen times. Some Old Boys from the era, with whom I have spoken, shared with me something of Fr McDonald’s debating style. They recalled that when a Riverview speaker began, he would start with reiterating the main points made by the opposing speaker and praise their merit or underscore their strengths. This they would follow with respectfully teasing out the limitations of the opponents’ proposals and marshalling their own case. Conciliatory yet convincing. It was a strategy that was very new – and clearly very effective. More importantly, it was a way of proceeding clearly drawn from our Ignatian tradition.

There are many wars being waged in the world today. Apart from the military and the physical, there are being played out many great battles of ideas. Many of the old sureties have dissolved – and some for good reason. Fresh perspectives, propositions and philosophies abound. Those formed here must be equipped to meet such challenges. They must learn to cultivate a reflective attitude to allow ideas to be tested or to grow. Among our many tasks is to have them shape their faith and its expression, given the signs of the times, without abandoning the core truths.

A school in the Ignatian tradition is a privileged place to train the youthful and the idealistic for such engagements.

Fr Ross Jones SJ