Friday 6 November 2015

Not a School of Privilege, but a School of Obligation

The Mass and Reception for Benefactors of the College Bursary Programme was held this week.  This is the homily given at the Mass.

At the last General Congregation of Jesuits held in Rome, Pope Benedict addressed the delegates.  Benedict knew the universal, inclusive mind of Ignatius.  He knew Ignatius’ particular concern for those on the margins, those who had no one to defend their rights or advance their cause.  So the Holy Father affirmed the special mission of the Society of Jesus in the Church today to be “at the frontiers,” as he said.  He charged us to reach “those geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach, or find it difficult to reach.”

I think all of you here know how Riverview through its curriculum, its exhortations, its outreach and immersions – that is, in all its words and all its deeds – challenges the boys entrusted to our care to move beyond this cozy peninsula to those borders, those frontiers, to the ones on the edge.  Such an orientation is part of the boys’ language.  Part of their community culture.  They would see it as simply “who we are”.

But when I look again at those words of Benedict, that commission, if you like, to the Society, I see how proper a response is our Bursary Programme to it.  To reach “those geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach, or find it difficult to reach.”

I would never want to claim we have a monopoly on such an approach.  Nor ought we boast of any good works.  Jesus is clear on this – “when you give to the needy, your left hand should not know what your right is doing”.  But it is worth reminding ourselves that these bursaries do take us to frontiers, to “places where others do not reach, or find it difficult to reach”.  It is so easy for a school to offer an academic scholarship.  Performance in the HSC league tables is enhanced, so enrolment applications are boosted.  It is tempting to give a music scholarship.  Public performances, concerts, Open Days and Speech Days would wow the audience.  And sports scholarships will have the trophy cabinets groaning with gilt, the Old Boys reminiscing on their glory days, all the nostalgia buttons pressed, keen then in the afterglow to make generous bequests.

But means-tested Bursaries take us to a different mindset.  Scholarships are ultimately all about the school, about self-promotion.  But a Bursary – ah, that’s about the boy, a largely anonymous boy, and his full-flourishing.  The bursary programme grows out of a sense of justice.  A programme that takes seriously the Gospel imperatives and Gospel values.  As Jesus expected, it is about serving “the least of my brothers and sisters”.  It is about building God’s kingdom, here and now, a kingdom of justice and equity, a kingdom where all find a home.  It is not building anyone else’s or any other kingdom.

Ignatius knew how indebted the Society was to so many good and generous people who helped establish, and then support, the ministries of his time:  The various homes and refuges in Rome, especially for reformed prostitutes.  The food given to feed the poor in the time of the great famine in Rome.  But especially the Colleges, established mostly by nobles and well-to-do civic leaders.

The Jesuits have always assisted families in our schools.  But the formalizing of Bursaries in our Australian Jesuit schools began about fifteen years ago.  At the time, the Provincial, Fr Daven Day SJ, challenged our schools to aim ultimately for twenty per cent of our students to be on means-tested bursaries.  A bold vision.  Yes, we still have a way to go, but as the poet Browning said, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  Ignatius would call it the magis.

Such Bursaries are consonant with our Jesuit mission statement of living a “faith that does justice”.  It reflects the current theological understanding of what we call God’s “preferential love of the poor”.  For us especially, it responds to the Gospel challenge that from those to whom much is given, much more will be expected.

In the words of the first reading tonight from our General Congregation, yours is a partnership for which we are “humbled and grateful” and which is indeed a “mutual responsibility”.  In the words from the Book of Sirach, the second reading, ensuring we “do not keep needy eyes waiting”.  And in the Gospel narrative, God goes on to promise that no goodness ever goes unnoted.  Remember always, too, that God will never be outdone in generosity.  And you know what kind of reward that is already.  Not the nonsense of that “prosperity theology” preached by some emerging Born Again churches who promise jackpots to the generous.  No, not at all.  It is the reward of knowing of, or seeing, a young man growing in faith and in human excellence where that never would have been at all possible before.

And how blessed, too, is the community of this College to welcome these fellows.  They bring a tangible richness to the school community.  They guard us from becoming blandly monocultural.  They take us out of ourselves, take us to the frontiers even.  They help shape our values.  They remind us we are family.  They can challenge our way of thinking, our world-view, even prick our consciences.  For indigenous boys and refugees, they stretch our perspective enormously.  They educate us.  And you make that possible.  Make it a reality.

Were Ignatius here tonight, he would say to you, our benefactors, yet again, “The school is more yours than it is ours”.  We would say, in turn, thank you for such trust in us, for your affection for the College, and for faith in those whom you support in this way.  And together, let us continue to place ourselves unhesitatingly at those frontiers where others do not go.

Fr Ross Jones, SJ