JOURNEYING WITH YOUTH
Fr Ross Jones SJ, Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, gave this speech at the recent Annual Distribution of Prizes at the International Convention Centre in Sydney
When St Ignatius gave the nod to begin the schools’ ministry, he described it as “joining virtue with letters”. Today he might have called it “shaping character with the curriculum”.
Surprisingly, perhaps, his epithet did not mention Catholicism or Faith. One supposes that was presumed. Then, and now, our schools are, first and foremost, a mission of the Church. All else follows.
So, nearly five hundred years after the Jesuits’ first school venture – and nearly a century and a half after the humble beginnings of this school – it causes me to think of how we communicate and express that Faith. How we offer it to the generation entrusted to us. Necessarily, we do it now in different modes and manner.
I started teaching at Aloys fifty years ago as a beginning teacher. The Faith context then was very different. Looking back over that span, I would suggest (in something of a generalisation) that the current generation of Aloysians are more spiritual, but are less formally religious, than in the past. As one commentator put it, “they believe, but don’t necessarily belong”. That is, they may not regularly belong to a parish community, but God is still a part of their world view. Without wishing to claim too much, I would further suggest that for many boys and their families, Aloys is their faith community and the main source of their faith nourishment.
I recently shared my understanding of Aloys’ Faith mission with some of our senior boys. I suggested that the Faith we offer them here today is in three pairings: Faith and Reason; Faith and Justice; Faith and Conscience.
Pope John Paul II once chose Faith and Reason as the title of one his encyclicals or teachings. There, he said, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Exactly!
Not long ago, I spoke to the incoming Year 12s, some of whom have attended, or will be attending, HSC study camps run by a very evangelical Sydney church group. This organisation offers fine tutorials. But break times are filled with a fundamentalist onslaught. For the camp leaders, the Bible is literally true. Yet reason makes it amply clear that the scriptures are not without error, otherwise we would be teaching our boys that we evolved from clay figurines, or that the sun orbits the earth, or that you would punish a disobedient son by having him stoned to death by the elders at the city gates – all of which the Bible asserts. No. Reason must interpret Scripture.
Here, we accept how Faith and Reason must complement each other. Together they should present a holistic view of our reality. They must have points of intersection which enhance meaning – and which, in simple terms, “make sense”. Any alternative scenario presents insurmountable problems. Faith and Reason are both gifts from God. If they should contradict each other and are irreconcilable, then God is simply playing games with us.
So we try to cultivate an intelligent, robust faith. A faith confident enough to respectfully test all the propositions, the matters of held belief, and the ethical positions. We explore how these might be assessed differently or freshly as times, circumstances, perspectives, knowledge and cultures evolve and change.
Now this is not relativism. Not a breeding of “doubting Thomases” or unrelenting skeptics and cynics. It is an attitude of integrity which trusts that God’s Spirit stays active today in shaping understanding in minds and hearts.
It was St John Henry Cardinal Newman who said, around the time that Aloys began, that “Mere inherited faith, in those who can’t have an intelligent faith, is dangerous and inconsistent.”
Here Faith is always an invitation, never an indoctrination.
Faith has a second partner: Justice. In 1971, a Synod of Bishops, gathered in Rome, issued a bold challenge. They said, “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.”
Working for justice is an essential ingredient of living out the Gospel, they said. It sounded radical, but it was not new. In the Jewish Bible, God (through the prophets) constantly told the people that he wanted justice and care for the marginalised, more than relentless burnt offerings at the altar. Jesus’ parable about paying the workers in the vineyard the same amount was about a just wage. The author of the Letter of James in the New Testament could not be clearer. He wrote: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. … You see, a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”
Aloys is a faith community, of course. So our Faith brings with it an expectation. A call to action:
“The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.”
That is the collective mission statement of the Jesuits. “Absolute requirement” it says. So, it is our mission at Aloys together. At the individual level, Pedro Arrupe made the expectation quite explicit. Our graduates were to be “men for others”.
This is how we build God’s kingdom in the here and now. Not sitting back and waiting for some Promised Land. We try to realise the promise where we can, and where we are. Service programmes, Arrupe Outreach, immersions (at home and abroad), The Benenson Society, Batyr, The Binsey Group, and liaising with The Cardoner Network post-school are all lived expressions of this faith-in-action. This is not simply school-based social work. These are ways of faith doing justice.
The final pairing is Faith and Conscience. Conscience, of course, is one of the four Cs espoused in Jesuit education. The primacy of conscience is a long-held principle of Catholic theology.
We are speaking here of a properly formed conscience which listens to authorities first, then gathers the necessary data, and finally reflects, prays and discerns. But as Pope Francis cautions: “This does not mean we ought to follow our ego, … do whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. … Conscience is the interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth … the voice of God … who speaks to our heart and helps us to discern, … and once the decision is made, to move forward, to remain faithful.”
Note what Francis says: “to remain faithful” – even when one dissents.
In Australia, we know of positions taken in conscience against laws of legitimately elected governments: conscientious objectors to conscription in the ‘60s and ‘70s; to children’s and COVID vaccinations in more recent times. Within the Church, many good Catholics – and not only lay Catholics – have made considered decisions in conscience contra Church teachings. Frequently these are in the area of sexual ethics, such as artificial birth control, IVF and same-sex relationships. But also concerning communion for the divorced and remarried, or the ordination of women. Good Catholics deferring to informed consciences. And staying faithful.
In faith formation at Aloys, we can discuss such issues. Sometimes boys might in principle “beg to differ” with a teaching. Always cultivating a respect for a conscience which is properly formed. One which itself is also respectful of other differing, discerned positions.
So, Faith is our core business. And it comes with those three twinnings: Faith with Reason, with Justice and with Conscience.
A leading American Jewish theologian of last century, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, once suggested that “Faith is not the clinging to a shrine, but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”
That is the faith journey we invite your sons along at St Aloysius’.