Friday 3 November 2017

Father General and Formation in Schools

The Principal and Rector at the impressive ruins and sacred site of the College of St Paul in Macau.

I was once at a talk given by my predecessor here, Fr Andy Bullen SJ, where he posed the question, “What do you think is the most beautiful human creation or artefact?” An interesting question, and we all pondered. I think he replied that for him it was the painting Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock, now escalating in value in the National Gallery. For me, it is the remaining façade of the Church of St Paul’s Jesuit College in Macau. Built in the early 17th century, it was the first ‘European’ university in Asia. Alas, it was destroyed by a fire following a typhoon in 1835 and never restored. Those of you who are familiar with it know that it sits atop a rise of grand stairs so that, on approaching from below, you look through open door frames and empty window spaces into nothing but the heavens. It is as majestic as it is fragile. It is sacred and secular. It is East and West. A meeting of cultures. And there is something very bold in the masonry of that remaining wall. Those early Jesuits have incorporated into that front elevation Chinese characters and other secular elements unfamiliar to European architects of the time, such as representations of dragons and lotus flowers. A bold move. It is an early and very fine example of our Jesuit way of accommodation or adaptation when moving into a new culture. Yesterday I was once again standing on those steps with Dr Hine during our promotion of the College in Singapore and China, meeting future and current families, past parents and Old Ignatians.

Those Portuguese Jesuits who arrived in Macau would have been armed with a brand-new model for organising and administering schools, the Ratio Studiorum (‘plan of studies’), the definitive edition being published in 1599. The ink would have hardly been dry on the pages. Those early educators were listening and learning, and then respectfully sharing a new faith, a new spirituality. Discovering the meeting points of cultures. Only a couple of weeks ago, the latest International Congress for Jesuit Education was held in Rio di Janeiro. The current expression of our near five century mission in schools and universities was being explored. Our new Fr General, Arturo Sosa SJ, attended and addressed the gathering of one hundred Jesuits and lay partners from around the world. Fr General began by reminding us of our roots. In speaking of those first Jesuit educators, like the ones in Macau, he observed,

When they realized how education could touch the hearts of individuals, they transformed the cura personalis into the defining characteristic of their educational model. The spirituality that emanated from the Spiritual Exercises then became the spirit driving perception of the world, human beings and destiny.

Pastoral care as “the defining characteristic” of our model is a very bold and interesting take on our educational ministry. Cura personalis is the care of each individual in every dimension of the person, seeking their total formation. So much more than the prescriptions of a narrow curriculum.

Commenting on our focus on full flourishing through the so-called 4 Cs of Jesuit education (competence, conscience, compassion and commitment) the General went on to remark that

academic excellence, a fundamental dimension in Jesuit schools, was placed within the context of training for integral human excellence. It is this integrated human excellence that gives purpose to academic excellence.

So academic excellence is not an end in itself, but a means to an end – albeit a very important means. Fr Sosa is speaking here of a Christian humanism, a formation that will render a student more truly human, enriching him or her to realise all the potentialities within them – creativity, reason, working for the good, liberating themselves and others, seeking the transcendent. He went on to say

We want to understand human beings and the world in all their complexity, so that human beings can configure the world in a way that is more compassionate, and therefore more divine.

Fr Sosa then enumerated a number realities of the world today which called for a response by our school ministries, responses born of the imperatives of the Gospel. As a consequence, he presented six challenges for our schools. Allow me to quote him:

First, it is important for our institutions to be spaces for educational investigation, true laboratories in innovation in teaching, from which we can draw new teaching methods or models.

Second, without excluding any social class from our educational offering, we need to continue to make progress in educating for justice, with three elements in mind. First, the importance of reaching out to the poorest and most marginalized. Second, the need to train a critical and intelligent conscience when faced with unequal social processes, without participation, that are focused on consumption, the accumulation of wealth, and the exploitation of the environment. And third, a constructive attitude open to dialogue that can help us to find solutions. This should be reflected in our admission policies, our training programs, in the vision of science we transmit and in agreements with other schools and social institutions.

Third, respect and care for our “common home” demands that our institutions train our students in the environmental dimension of reconciliation. All human beings share responsibility for our planet, for its future viability, beyond our national, local or generational interests. It is important that we join in the efforts of many to create a sustainable society and economy, so that human beings and the environment are both protected. Our institutions should reflect this attitude in their actions and their physical structure.

Fourth, the development of a culture to protect minors and vulnerable individuals. Like the Church and society, the Society of Jesus participates in collective efforts to raise awareness and take the necessary measures to ensure that the children and young people families entrust us with have the protection they need. … This is an essential commitment from the Society, and is vital to the credibility of our schools.

Fifth, the offering of religious training that opens students up to the transcendental dimension of life and that cultivates an experience of Christian faith that can transform personal and social life. Pope Francis told participants in [in our recent General Congregation] that true faith always involves a profound desire to change the world. Our challenge is to know how to communicate Ignatian spirituality so that younger generations want to love and serve in all things, and so that they seek the greater glory of God, in addition to belonging to the Church. [There is a] “mark” that we expect those that have passed through our educational institutions will have: that they live in tension between the earth and heaven. This means tension between the faith they express in God … with what is going on today in the world.

Sixth, although the concept of the “global citizen” is still under construction, our education should be a creative actor in this. Our presence in so many places and cultures around the world allows us to create and offer educational proposals for an intercultural view of the world, in which all human beings and their peoples possess a “global citizenship”, where rights and duties are connected. This is beyond culture itself, nationalism or political or cultural fanaticism, which prevent the recognition of our radical brother/sisterhood.

Some of those are big challenges. But so were the challenges for a band of Portuguese Jesuits, those centuries ago, seeking to establish schools in the Macau colony on the other side of the known world. The same passion and spirit, but with new strategies to meet changing times. Fr General reminded us of what St Ignatius wrote to King Philip II of Spain in 1556: “All good in Christendom and throughout the world depends on the proper education of youth.”

We continue to engage in the schools’ ministry because we still believe that.

Fr Ross Jones SJ