Francis Xavier dialogues with Buddhists in Fukushoji Temple, Kagoshima.
This week, the Hot Potato Shop invited journalist, historian, former Rugby international and current head of the Australian Republican Movement, Peter FitzSimons, to its forum. The Hot Potato Shop has a long history in the College, engaging figures whose personal, political or worldviews may not necessarily sit entirely or even comfortably within our Ignatian “way of proceeding”, or our ethos. But these are opportunities for our young men to hear them out, ask clarifying questions, and assess our guests’ positions in relation to their own emerging moral or social frameworks. FitzSimons began by sharing his own experience of schooling and of experiencing, after a long period of intellectual disengagement, something of a “eureka moment” when a passion for intellectual curiosity, a sense of wonder, was cultivated. He encouraged this in our boys and then went on to caution his audience against sliding into careers of mindless routine, of being time-servers, with no sense of joy, deep satisfaction, or achievement. Valuable advice. He applauded the work of ATTAG, our human rights advocacy group in the past, for their stance on asylum-seekers. And of course, he spoke with great energy and enthusiasm about the republican movement with the political and symbolic importance of having an Australian head of state.
In the course of his reflections on life, FitzSimons declared that, unlike his time as a schoolboy at Knox Grammar School, he now held not a skerrick of religious belief. All very fine – in our tradition, we respect that position and are happy to explore it. In the more recent history of the Society of Jesus, Pope Paul VI made a rare call upon the fourth vow of the Jesuits concerned with taking up missions given us specifically by the Pope. On this occasion, the Holy Father did not ask for Jesuits to be sent to any physical mission territory. Instead, he asked Father General Arrupe to mission men into an engagement with the current reality of atheism. What are its causes? Where do we find it expressed? How do we respectfully engage with such a culture to respond to it? In our own way here at Riverview, such an engagement forms part of a young man’s formation, especially as he approaches an intellectual maturity. They might encounter such experiences as much in a history or English literature class as in a conversation within a Religion class. But our speaker was rather unnuanced. He simply made his case: “I don’t believe any virgin could give birth!” “I don’t believe that a man could die and rise again after three days!” And that was that. But with the greatest respect, I must say that given where he was, the lack of sensitivity was surprising. No intellectual or philosophical engagement or exploration. No respectfully establishing of a position. Merely a slight directed at a very Catholic tradition, and then a casual dismissal of the central Christian dogma. Given also that he was within a school community with a long tradition of scholarship the declaration was rather undeveloped.
The night before, Xavier House had celebrated its Patron with a Mass and supper. Xavier began his Jesuit life with a somewhat narrow worldview. He was, of course, the product of a Catholic European formation which had little understanding or appreciation of other cultures and faith traditions. After being suddenly missioned by his closest friend, Ignatius, to the Far East, he suddenly found himself teaching in a diocesan school in Goa, India. This first experience of schooling by Jesuits, in about 1543, was a part-influence in the establishment of our first College in Messina, Sicily, four years later. Xavier wrote to Ignatius very enthusiastically of this ministry. Goa, on a major trade route, was very multicultural and (as Xavier saw it) a field ripe for the harvest in terms of conversions. But Xavier had little time or respect for “pagan” traditions. He proudly wrote to Ignatius that he even encouraged his students to go about smashing Hindu images or “idols” in their after-school hours. There was no meeting of minds here. But the longer Xavier stayed, and the further east he travelled, the more he increasingly began to engage with priests and scholars in Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Zen Buddhist traditions. Though he stood his ground on theological principles, he still looked for understanding, for common positions, and for respect. He became perhaps the first person in the Church to seriously engage in inter-religious dialogue.
When Ignatius sent his men into foreign cultures, especially to his north, to those countries seething with the acrimony of the Reformation, he gave them sage advice. He asked that they respect the other’s position, listen much before offering an opinion, not simply “seek the upper hand”, and look for common ground as the starting point of any conversation. Ignatius called these engagements “holy conversations” because they were grounded in a respect for the other and a search for the truth. Such engagements can only be nourishing for both parties.