I am glad to see that Greek is alive and well at the College. So much so that the student body has returned to the classical writings of Homer to find a theme for the coming year: Strength in Unity.
It is a motto that has been adopted by a number of nations over the years – mostly those that had forged themselves from a number of Provinces or States. That makes a great deal of sense and a good choice.
In a school like ours, especially a boys’ school, such a rallying cry would seem to have easy application in the various contests that pitch one class or team or school against another. I am sure most of our young men have almost “felt” it when a group welded together is competing at its best, or cheering forcefully in unison from a grandstand, or moving as one, focussed on the task to tackle. Strength in unity.
Almost five centuries ago, our Ignatius was struggling to forge a group of men who would share his bold vision. He knew that their strength could only come from a union of minds and hearts. But he had a number of false starts. Some fellows who pledged their initial unity fell by the wayside. They blew one way, then another. Not a lot of constancy. Some were even a little crazy. One even tried to kill Ignatius in his sleep. Some later became heretics. Thankfully, they left. But departures weakened the team. Those were early days. But by the third attempt, Ignatius knew how to bond them together. About twenty of them finally gathered in Venice in 1541 after being formally created as a new order by the Pope. There they did two things. They elected Ignatius their General. Then they wrote a statement, a prayer, describing who they were and how they found strength in their union.
The declaration was a powerful formulation because it firstly recognised that there were so many factors that worked against their union. These men came from different countries, or regions within countries – France, Savoy, Spain, Portugal. Their origins were different social classes. Their cultures and mother tongues were quite varied. Some of them had old family rivalries and had even waged battles against each other in the past. There was at least one strong and grating personality among them.
The prayer they penned recognised that such differences were challenges to cohesion. Its opening line even began by describing themselves as “weak men”. They acknowledged that these “companions” could only hold together and find their strength if two conditions obtained. Firstly, it had to be God’s will that they thrive. Secondly, in addition to that fundamental condition, they realised that as a team, they needed to work daily at strengthening their bonds by means of mutual understanding, with concern for each other and affirmation. What boys today would call “being there for your mate”, patting him on the back in success, encouraging him in failure or tough times.
A number of years ago, Fr Michael Hansen SJ, a Jesuit chaplain at the College, took that prayer of the Ignatius’ First Companions. He recognised its richness and ongoing relevance, so he rewrote it for this school community today. This is his prayer – for a new community, halfway around the globe, five centuries on. But the same reality. The same aspirations.
I think it is a very appropriate prayer as our College Captain, Bennett Walsh, launched the theme this week. It goes like this:
We know full well
that though we are weak men and women
from city and country,
still the most kind and loving Lord
has brought us together
and made us into one Ignatian family.
Thus called, we find ourselves seeking God’s will
in this day and for this age.
Before us stand river and harbour, bridge and city;
around us the rich and poor of Sydney
behind us mountain and plain,
families working the land and in country towns.
Each calls us to mission,
to teach us, students and families
to be living fires of faith, love and service.
In this way will our culture be renewed,
will the seeds of faith burst open
to bring new growth and life to all Australians.
So we call upon our Lord and companion,
to strengthen the bonds of mutual understanding
and loving concern we share here in this school.
Though we would be frustrated working alone,
surely our shared courage and our united strengths
will grace us with the will, the vision and the desire
to answer this call.
So there we have it. Straight from our half-millennium tradition. The preconditions for our ongoing union of minds and hearts: Recognise the role of God’s place and presence. Then affirm and support each other. Strength in Unity will surely follow.