St Ignatius’ Church, Norwood, and Weikert Cottage, Sevenhill – places of refuge for St Mary MacKillop (whose feast we celebrate next week)
Anyone who has been part of the family of a Jesuit school or a parish will have encountered and absorbed many of the characteristics of what Ignatius referred to as “our way of proceeding”. That is, elements of our culture, our style, the way we approach issues, the way we act. High on the profile would be qualities, for example, like ‘finding God in all things’, the magis, discernment or reflection.
One of these features, perhaps less known, is ‘Ignatian accommodation’. A colleague was recently wanting to explore this more and, as is the way these days, did a search on Google, only to turn up details of the daily rates for staying at Peter Canisius House in Pymble for a retreat or a conference! But that is only one limited understanding of what it means to be accommodating.
For Ignatius and his followers, accommodation means adaptability and flexibility. It means enculturation and responsiveness. Sometimes it has a lot to do with balancing ‘the law’ against ‘the spirit of the law’. It always involves reflection and often is a matter of conscience.
When Jesus and his disciples once walked through a field and picked some heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath, they were criticised by the Pharisees. They had broken the law by working on the Sabbath. In his defence, Jesus’ response was to cite the great King David putting the law aside for a greater value. Ignatius follows in that tradition.
Towards the end of his life, Ignatius laboured for years over the Constitutions of his Society. They are immensely detailed and specific. At first glance, they seem to offer little ‘wriggle room’ as we say today. But if one looks closely a recurring feature is seen. He would typically begin with a very black and white ruling. A clear absolute. But so often would follow a footnote, allowing exceptions. This moderation or flexibility would allow the local superior to adapt the rules “according to times places and circumstances”. Ignatian accommodation. There are more than fifty of these concessions in his Constitutions. This is not ‘anything goes’, not relativism or disrespect. It is a discerned response to weighing up a number of goods or values to decide which is the better.
This approach was soon evident on the mission. Francis Xavier was possibly the first case in point. He came out of a European universal Church model and found himself in the Far East, beginning in Goa. For him, at first, there was no salvation outside the Church and other foreign religions and faith traditions were deserving of little respect. He would write back to Ignatius, proudly, that he asked his students for homework to run at the [Hindu] idols, upset them, dash them down, break them to pieces, spit on them, trample on them, kick them about, and in short heap on them every possible outrage.
But after not too many years, Francis is to be found dialoguing with the Brahmins, with Muslim clerics and Buddhist monks, trying to find common ground and expressions of the divine in these new cultures. He adapted. So many of the missionaries who followed him threw off their simple black religious garb (which they were obliged to wear in Europe) and put on expensive silks and local dress in order to enter the new culture as a teacher or scholar worthy of being listened to.
In India, not too long after, such enculturation brought the Jesuit missioners on the Malabar coast into some conflict. The local Hindus were very interested in this new faith. But they baulked at Baptism. In those times (and indeed up to the Vatican II reforms), the Baptism ceremony required the priest to put spittle on the eyelids of the baby (imitating Jesus’ actions in one of his miracles) and then breathe on the child (as Jesus did, imparting the Holy Spirit on his disciples). But these two gestures were the most offensive one might do to another in the Hindu tradition. So the Jesuits conferred and discerned, deciding that these elements were not essential for baptism. The mission flourished. However, an itinerant Bishop (from another order) visited the mission and declared the Jesuits’ adaptation invalid and instructed them to return to the orthodox form. The superior went to Rome to explain and plead for the exemption. But to no avail. The sacraments had to be administered identically universally. The mission was lost.
More recently, in our Australian Jesuit story, the care by the Society of Mary MacKillop is another example. The ineffectual Bishop of Adelaide, Laurence Sheil, had at one time excommunicated Mary for insubordination. This meant she was forbidden to have any contact with anyone in the Church and, of course, forbidden the sacraments. Mary had two brothers and a cousin in the Jesuits. They were aware of this unjust treatment of her. The Jesuits in the parish at Norwood allowed her to hear Sunday Mass and receive communion secretly. She was also allowed to stay in Weikert Cottage in the Jesuit College and winery at Sevenhill. Again, the spirit came before the law. Five months later, the excommunication was lifted.
Here at the College, we are accommodating in many ways. The process begins by cultivating an understanding of, and exercise in, discernment. Twinned with that is an intelligently formed conscience. It means healthy questioning of positions, of propositions and assertions, of public opinion and of ignorant fundamentalism. Testing different frames of reference. It means searching for the Spirit behind the law. It is not threatened by the countercultural. In Chapel, it knows the distinction between good liturgy and wooden rubrics. In pastoral situations it can balance law, justice and mercy. In guiding the growth of a boy, it sets boundaries at the periphery protecting freedoms, not at the centre limiting them. Our tradition has always been a liberal education – ultimately liberating. As Ignatius is quoted in the Scintillae Ignatianae:
To seek to bring all men to salvation by one road is very dangerous. He who does so, fails to understand how many and various are the gifts of the Holy Spirit.