Building culture and spirituality

Culture at Xavier College is shaped by tradition, but also by Jesuit identity.
In a healthy environment, differences are valued
and the wellbeing of mates is promoted.


By Fr Chris Middleton SJ, Rector, Xavier College

One of the fundamental truths we come to realise is that everyone has a story. And many carry within them various hurts, challenges, anxieties and histories that are not fully known to those around them, yet they can have an ongoing, if at times hidden, influence. Anyone involved in a school, and indeed all who are involved with the young, whether in families or in the community, acknowledge that there are many challenges in the wellbeing space.

It is important that boys are able to talk openly and honestly about wellbeing, in effect, to tell their story. Why do I place such an emphasis on boys talking about personal and often confronting and challenging things? Because, as Dr Paul Hine, the Principal of Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview, has noted, “research has shown that silence and withdrawal during adolescence can be synonymous with poor mental health, discordant behaviour and self-harm”. There is no magic bullet around wellbeing, but silence is to my mind a critical negative factor in this space. It is important that we build a school culture that encourages talking and listening, as both are such powerful factors in wellbeing.

And there is good news here, as, in my experience, the young men of Xavier are better at talking about mental health and wellbeing than previous generations. At an assembly earlier this year, Danny Cash, the Captain of Melbourne Grammar; Tom Scalzo, our Prefect for Student Wellbeing; and Kane Emery, our Prefect for Reconciliation, spoke so movingly around themes of love, culture and reconciliation, reminding us how good this generation can be. It is also worth noting how often such conversations here at Xavier occur within the context of faith-based activities, such as student reflections at Voluntary Masses and on retreats. Indeed, many of our students would acknowledge these as signature experiences of their time at Xavier.

A recent study by the Harvard Human Flourishing Program highlighted one finding:

‘There is one social factor that is remarkably effective in decreasing suicidality, depression, anxiety and substance abuse among young people’. What is it? ‘Active participation in a religious community. People who are actively involved in a religious community experience a fivefold decrease in suicide risk. They also experience modest improvements in all-cause mortality; depression; substance abuse; anxiety; and life satisfaction.

(Surveys show that this is the group most disconnected from faith and from religious communities such as church.)

The findings of the Harvard study mesh well with the view that a healthy spirituality and, in particular, the Ignatian insight of looking to the good first, in self and in others, can influence our personal wellbeing, as well as how we are with others. A real link can be drawn between good spirituality and good psychology.

And so, in ways perhaps not fully imagined previously, student wellbeing has become integral to our understanding of a school culture. Culture is always a key to understanding any human society or community. It can reflect and shape our identity, our way of doing things, and the ideals we live by.

Our choices to do, or not to do, exercise an influence on the community we live in. Presuming, as I do, that overwhelmingly people are good, it is often the silence, or inaction, or going along with a crowd, that is most damaging to the creation of an environment in which virtue flourishes. A school’s ability to communicate this goes to the heart of the formative role of a school and to the health of its culture. It is both about personal character and responsibility, and about community, about how we get along with each other. It is about developing our sensitivity to the rights, needs and wellbeing of others through the experience of living and working with them, in community.

Fr Chris Middleton SJ at the Xavier College chapel. Photo courtesy of Xavier College, Kew.

One focus on culture centres around a congruence, or not, between what we say and what we do as a school. It can align closely with a school’s official ideals and values, or it can grow quite separately, and even stand in opposition to them. School culture then can be influenced by school tradition and mission statements, but it is also shaped by what the school actually does, and by what staff do, and by the expectations of parents. Students, too, bear a big responsibility for forming any school community.

A number of things contribute to creating our culture at Xavier. Tradition, and our Jesuit identity play a role, one that is lived out by students embracing distinctive features of the school such as Ignatian Service, voluntary student Masses and retreats. At another level, Christian themes such as the possibility of redemption, the need for empathy and compassion, and the importance of cultivating gratitude should run strongly through our culture.

There is also in a school an educational culture shaped by curriculum and the relationship between students and staff. It should nourish a respect for the intellectual endeavour, and value learning and questioning.

There is the co-curricular life of the school, reflecting our commitment to a holistic education, as well as the wide and varied offerings in this space by the school, and student engagement in areas like music and sport. These build community, engagement and a sense of belonging, as well as going to the ideal of developing all our gifts as human beings.

Importantly, there is a culture around student wellbeing, in its broadest sense, and this is a space where student contribution is critical. Our students, themselves, play an important role in forming a community that can be inclusive, respectful, and positive. They decide this by setting a tone in which bullying or prejudice in all its forms finds a home here, or not. They can create a school in which their peers can speak up and be listened to, where difference is valued, and where the health and wellbeing of mates is promoted.

Underpinning this building of culture is the realisation that each and all have a story. Such stories often have hidden elements and carry their share of vulnerabilities and anxieties. And often it is awareness of the story that can build a nurturing and positive culture, one that is both strong and gentle. Culture and story walk together.

At a recent Rector’s assembly, I encouraged the boys to “savour the word ‘respect’, cultivate understanding, appreciate diversity and difference as enriching of our lives, be gentle with yourself and with others, act with love, and remember we all have a story, and the culture of Xavier will be the stronger for it”.

This column by Fr Chris Middleton SJ was originally published in Xavier News