Friday 20 March 2015

The Greening of the Australian Church

The College grounds have never looked greener. So appropriate as we celebrate our Irish heritage in the month of St Patrick. If I were writing this column forty years ago, I would be doing so from home. Those of an older generation like myself would remember that St Patrick’s Day merited a holiday for all Catholic schools (much to the chagrin of our non-Catholic friends in other school systems). To celebrate the occasion, there was always a St Patrick’s Day march through most of the country’s capitals, led by every imaginable ecclesiastical dignitary and representing as many Catholic organisations as possible that made up the fabric of the Church and nation. A combined schools Sports Carnival and Town Hall concert usually augmented the celebrations. Five of our country’s Cathedrals are named after St Patrick, while the number of individual parishes and schools so named would be legion. The tradition lives on. Two of the eighteen boarders recently confirmed in the Dalton Chapel took the name Patrick.

Catholic education in Australia is enormously indebted to Irish priests and religious missioners who served here, halfway around the world, well into the late twentieth century. It was said until recently that you could tell Catholics from the Protestants by asking people to pronounce the letter ‘h’. Catholics, educated here in an Irish culture, invariably gave the aspirated ‘haitch’ while the Anglicised Protestants said ‘aitch’.

The week began with our Drumline of twenty-five boys in the Sydney St Patrick’s Day Parade – said to be the fourth largest such procession in the world. Our boys had performed so well last year they were invited to offer a pre-march performance before the parade to the Town Hall dignitaries. Then, when the parade began, we were given fourth place behind the Irish pipes, the indigenous dancers and St Patrick himself. Much applause along the way.

Back at ‘View on the feast day itself, the lads cheered a lunchtime game of Gaelic football, sustained by a barbecue and green frosted doughnuts, no less. Our own College history has solid Irish roots and they go back beyond the arrival of any Irish Jesuits at Saint Ignatius’. This year our Jesuit Province is celebrating the sesquicentenary of the arrival of the first Irish Jesuits in Australia in 1865. The Austrian Jesuits had come to South Australia almost two decades earlier, but this time the Irish hit the eastern states with a passion for colleges.

Two came: Fr Joseph Lentaigne SJ and Fr William Kelly SJ. They were fortunate enough to travel on Brunel’s Great Britain, which had almost halved the usual travelling time of one hundred days to Australia. Lentaigne was not slow to comment on Australian society. Catholic boys he described as “affectionate, manly but wild creatures; great liberty has been allowed them by parents”. He was also concerned about much drunkenness and immorality in Melbourne society! Lentaigne’s companion, William Kelly, went straight to St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne (adjacent to the Cathedral) and there taught matriculation students and seminarians in all nine subjects! [Though given to the Society in perpetuity, St Patrick’s College was nonetheless reappropriated by the Archbishop of the time in 1968 and demolished for diocesan offices.] Kelly was a polymath. He later moved to Sydney to teach in what was to become St Aloysius’ College and also lectured at St John’s College at the University of Sydney. He was an outstanding poet, scientist, mathematician, historian, linguist (including Arabic, Syriac and Sanscrit), scripture scholar, controversialist and preacher. Kelly worked with the Royal Astronomical Society, observing the transit of Venus in 1882.

A bookmark was created for the boys, noting this 150th anniversary in the Province. Printed on the reverse were the last two verses of the ancient hymn and prayer, St Patrick’s Breastplate. On the day, strains of a stirring rendition of that prayer could be heard echoing through the classrooms and cloisters.

Our Fr Joseph Dalton SJ was to arrive a year after Lentaigne and Kelly and was quick to establish both parish schools and Colleges – Xavier, St Aloysius’ and Saint Ignatius’ Colleges in three successive years, 1878-80. Being so dear to our hearts, we will celebrate that milestone of his arrival next year.

But back to Patrick. His feast day has been somewhat hijacked by commercialism, just as has Christmas (the spending spree), Easter Sunday (all those chocolates), or St Valentine’s (with the cards and roses). Then there are the myths (there never were any reptiles in Ireland, it was too cold, and then no land bridge by the time it warmed up). We suspect Patrick was Romano-British peasant, kidnapped as a youth and taken as a slave to Ireland. Six years later he escaped and returned home. Thereafter he received a mysterious letter from Ireland and, in reading it, heard Irish voices imploring him, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” So priesthood studies began in France and he returned to the country of his erstwhile servitude. Patrick is a man of faith and zeal, but also a man of gratitude. He reminds me of Ignatius, who once named ingratitude as the greatest sin. Patrick wrote at one point in his Confessio:

“That is why I cannot be silent – nor would it be good to do so – about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.”

What a missioner must have been that Patrick – that former slave who ‘came to walk among’ his former captors. When every step bore gratitude.

Fr Ross Jones SJ