Building Community is the Daring Task of Leadership

On 25 October Xavier College's 2022 student leaders were commissioned. College Rector, Fr Chris Middleton SJ suggested that the urgent and daring task of leadership is to build community. Fr Middleton's words have a resonance beyond the Xavier College community as we emerge from a period of widespread dislocation.

As an educational community, Xavier College is tasked with the formation of our students. This is our core business. Such a task goes to our very identity as a school and the relationships formed within it. The College has a responsibility to prepare you for the world, equipping you with the competencies that will allow you to succeed in this world. But we also seek to form young people of conscience and genuine values, who will not simply fit into, or conform to the world around them, but who will seek to make a genuine difference to it by the choices you make and the quality of the lives you lead.

As well as nourishing your intellectual, physical and creative lives, we seek thus to form character and nourish your spiritual lives. Schooling in our Jesuit tradition is about the whole person. In all this, striking that good balance, whether as a school or as individuals, is an ongoing challenge.

An education that is formative in its intent needs a safe and nurturing environment, as well as one that is competitive and successful, so that we can form strong yet gentle, centred but generous young people, ready for the world around them. A few years ago, I came across this observation by the novelist, Kurt Vonnegut. It is an ideal that appeals greatly to me:

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured”.

I’m not sure that many of us would associate building community with doing the most daring thing, but however we look at the world, whether from the point of the environment or economics, from the viewpoint of justice, or the wellbeing of relationships and mental health, the experience of loneliness takes many forms and the case for prioritizing community is a compelling one. And the experience of living in covid times has surely shown us the importance of connections, of family and friends, of community, and how destructive isolation and separation can be. Certainly, a challenge for us in 2022 is to reset and reconnect after the losses, disruptions, disappointments, and absences of the past couple of years.

In this context of building community, the College puts before you the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the model of authentic leadership. He reached out and included, he healed and lifted up, he challenges and inspired. He simply loved.

That is the high call that each of you shares.

Fr Chris Gleeson, an old Xaverian, past Principal, and staff chaplain observed once that:

“ not all leadership is about spotlights and microphones. Most leadership is covert and unassuming. It is to be found in a gentle word of encouragement, in the helping of another, the steering of a conversation, a suggestion, a small service. These are tasks we can all fulfil, resulting in all of us being commissioned as leaders from time to time.”

Formal structures such as the Prefects are undoubtedly an important part of student leadership here at Xavier. Equally important is the leadership which can be shown by every member of the community. Every person of integrity, every person who contributes positively to the community, can inspire others and lead them towards the good. 

Our incoming Prefects are drawn from the Class of 2022 and are called upon to represent the College, its values and traditions. You are invited to be of service to their own year level, and you are asked to provide leadership for the whole student body. The key to successful leadership is influence, not power and authority. And you are charged to generous service.

There are those too, who missed selection who would have served well as Prefects, and they have a right to be disappointed, but I ask them to continue to be who they are, and to use their gifts generously, including their leadership gifts, in building up this school community

Finally, just pause for a moment and recall the words that you have heard here in this Great Hall or in the Voluntary Masses or in the House Masses, or perhaps simply words in your tutor group, or on the sporting field or on stage, from the members of the Class of 2021 – words of belonging and community, words of inspiration and challenge, words of trust about wounds and struggles, words of leadership. They have left a distinctive mark that they, and we, can be proud of. We look forward to formally farewelling them in December with a note of sadness, certainly, and in their navigating this Covid space, celebrating them with respect and affection and high expectations. And our prayers are with them as they commence the VCE examinations on Wednesday.