Image: A grainy picture of Pedro Arrupe SJ, ‘the second founder of the Society of Jesus’, at the time of the Vatican Council.
Almost fifty years ago now, the General of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe, wrote to all his Jesuits in South America. Arrupe was the great renovator of the Society, the co-called “second Ignatius”, taking us back to our roots and core values. This was in response to the rallying cry from Pope John XXIII in the Second Vatican Council for aggiornamento in the Church – a combination of a renaissance and moving with the present times. In that letter, Pedro called for what he described as “a preferential love of the poor” in discerning and living out all our Jesuit works and ministries, be they school, parish, media, retreat work, missions – whatever and wherever.
Initially, it was something of an awkward phrase to unpack, though people had a ‘gut feeling’ about what it meant. Others, who came later, nuanced it and spoke of a “preferential care of the poor” or “preferential love of the poor”. It soon became part of the language of the liberation theology movement, beginning in South America. That was a theology, an understanding and application of the Gospels, which took seriously the situation of the economically poor and exploited. Liberation theology sought to build the Kingdom of God in this world and not be content with a ‘grin and bear it’ attitude now with the hope of a long-term reward in the hereafter. Understandably, those who were protective of their power and influence labelled this as Marxism in the guise of religion. Rome was suspicious for a while, but around thirty years later, even Pope John Paul II was using the phrase in one of his encyclicals. Pope Benedict, who was very critical of liberation theology when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, even embraced it as Pope.
Some would puzzle over this concept of “a preferential love”. If God loves us all unconditionally and equally, and if we don’t earn, merit or deserve God’s love, then how can the poor have a preferential share? I think like this: All good parents love their children equally. But if one of them is going through a tough patch, is very ill or has a serious disability, or has been dumped by a girlfriend and is down, or excluded from a friendship group for some reason, then the parents’ love goes out to that son or daughter preferentially. Of course, you can’t measure love like kilowatt-hours, or petrol or rainfall. But doesn’t that one in need have a greater share of parental love and care? In the same way, God has such a preferential love.
So, Pedro would argue, those who are forgotten, disenfranchised or on the fringes have the greater claim on our time, our talent, and even our treasure. Here at Riverview, this theology underpins our priority for bursaries. Scholarships window-dress a school; but bursaries reach out to a boy. The Ignatian Service and Immersion programmes here are characterised by living with, serving and learning from materially poor communities – a decidedly ‘preferential option’. It is even reflected in the refocusing of values in senior Rugby which began last season, where 1sts and 2nds players spend Saturday morning supporting and serving boys in the lower grade teams.
Last week the point came home to me again at the Laureate Assembly. There we saw a record number of achievements in high ATARs and the number of Band 6 results. We were justifiably proud of those boys’ achievements, and also acknowledged the work of teachers and mentors, as well as the support of parents in that celebration. Realising potential and academic excellence are both Jesuit values, a core part of our tradition. But it is a very unidimensional school which only invests in, and celebrates, its top-enders. However, there was something happening here that I suspect Pedro would be proud to see. The numbers of boys’ results in the lowest bands were reduced. They were drawn higher. Fewer at those lower margins. Clearly, there must been a supportive investment by teachers and perhaps peers, to achieve this. A preferential option. A preferential love. A preferential commitment. A reminder that the battlers, those who struggle more with the academic life, the ones whose many gifts may not include those measured by a narrow educational tool, have a special claim on our care. To fail them would be to fail in our charism and in our calling.