JOURNEYING WITH YOUTH
By Fr Ross Jones SJ, Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point
I have a theory that if anyone wants to know what a school values, they simply attend an assembly or a speech day and quietly observe what is rewarded. In some schools, that is only academic prowess. In others, it is little more than successes in sporting ventures. Those are important achievements, of course, but we recently gathered in The Boys’ Chapel to give expression to what we value and believe in at St Aloysius’ College. Core values – generosity, service, large-heartedness.
Given that the day was also the celebration of St Aloysius’ Feast, it was an even more significant opportunity. Aloysius Gonzaga’s life was searching for the magis, a desire to do something more, not to simply be a sympathetic spectator of life. His vocation, his calling, was to service – of God and of the least, and of everyone in between. Whatever the cost. And at this gathering we proclaimed how our ideals can be translated into reality.
In the 1980s, Richard Walker-Powell was a young man at Aloys. He and his brother, James, had a great love for this school, as most boys do. Everyone who taught Richard knew him as a young man of great spirit, innate goodness and transparency.
However, Richard struggled enormously academically and left here at the end of Year 9, moving to boarding school, where it was felt the learning structures might be more helpful. That was not to be, and he left school. But in his twenties, by virtue of an heroic effort, he managed to gain mature entry to the Australian National University and through sheer guts and determination, graduated in political science.
His role model was Nelson Mandela – his room was full of books and images of the man who went from a prison cell to the highest office in the land. So Richard straightaway took off to Africa, where he worked with the housing sector in Nelson Mandela’s new South Africa. He then made his way up to Kenya where he was engaged as a volunteer by the United Nations World Food Program. It was here that Richard found his niche and went on to hold a senior position with the World Food Programme.
Richard worked in places such as Somalia (where he was shot at more than once), Southern Sudan, and finally, Kosovo. Sadly, at the age of only thirty in 1999, Richard was tragically killed on his way to Kosovo in a light plane crash over Pristina.
His life is recorded in Obituaries Australia – lives that shaped Australia’s history. There, it describes Richard: “On paper, Richard’s time at the ANU would appear to be unremarkable, for he had no honours degree, no prizes, no string of High Distinctions. Instead, he had a mastery of setting goals and of self-motivation based on impulses of the heart: curiosity, a concern to develop his talents, and a strong desire to be of service. He was a rare student and a graduate of whom the University can be very proud.”
And how proud are we as brother Aloysians of this young man motivated by “impulses of the heart”.
When we come together annually with the senior boys of the College to present the Richard Walker-Powell Award, it is to show our young men that generosity and service are not beyond either their dreams, or their reach.
This year’s recipient, Paddy Jenkins (SAC 2013), is another Aloysian who has taken that challenge to heart. Paddy began here in Year 4. By Year 12 he had been made a Prefect and College Vice-Captain. At the end of Year 10, Paddy had joined the Philippines Immersion Program. This may well have sown the seeds for a future commitment to those on the edge.
Come 2014, Paddy travelled to Thailand through The Cardoner Project (now known as The Cardoner Network) with five others from his year. There, Paddy was known as the participant who never shied from work and commitment, choosing to teach in the village which was the furthest away, staying back at night for extra tuition of students, thereby often missing meals at home because of this. Magis is just a word until you choose to live it out like this.
Later, back in Sydney, before COVID struck, Paddy set up a welcome page on YouTube for Thai migrants and refugees arriving in Australia. He helped them out and assisted with connections for their settling into a new country. This platform met a critical need at this time, offering important support for newcomers with language difficulties and proved to be enormously popular. The support site is still active today.
Paddy is also an active member of the Jesuit parish, St Mary’s North Sydney, where he helps with the Youth Masses, along with his brother, Tom. Present-day Aloysians know Paddy as the stirring singer-guitarist in the College’s annual ANZAC Day commemoration in our Chapel, a service he has offered for seven years.
After James Walker-Powell presented the Award to Paddy, our recipient shared some reflections on his journey. He began by saying most emphatically that The Cardoner Project experience “was the best life decision I would ever make”.
He went on to reflect, “When I look back on 2014, it was a year defined by learning, growth, crazy experiences, friendship and amazingly generous people. The Cardoner Project had called it a “service year”, but as is often the case with these types of experiences, you tend to receive more than you ever could possibly give. The Aloysius diary was never short of a few prayers, but one of the lines that always stood out to me was “To give and not to count the cost, to labour and not to ask for reward”. When I lived in Huay Tong, I felt like I experienced that attitude every day from the Karen people – generosity, absolute selflessness and hard work, free of any ulterior motive or expectation of financial gain.”
Paddy left his audience of Aloysians three pieces of advice to consider:
- If you have the opportunity, learn a foreign language – it may just change your life, and the lives of others as well. … Nelson Mandela once famously said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart” and I couldn’t agree more. Learning Thai was the best skill I ever devoted time to. It taught me patience, empathy and what it feels like to be ‘the alien’ in a situation … and, on the flip side, it showed me what it feels like when someone goes out of their way to help you and give you their time. It allowed me to befriend people whom I never could have imagined I would be friends with and completely changed the way I view the world and the multicultural Australian society we live in. It may change your life, and as a result change other people’s lives too, in ways you never could imagine.
- The conventional path is not always the most correct one. … For a lot of you, the next few years may consist of some relatively important career and life decisions. At the same time as you adventure, laugh lots and surround yourself with good mates, discern and think about what skills you might have to offer. And, if you have a desire to pursue ideas and paths that may be perceived as unconventional by the mainstream or require boldness and courage, that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite the opposite.
- The greatest gift you can give someone is your time. … I feel like one of the most common and overused answers in response is “I’m busy”. And, I get it, life can be tough and commitments can be hard to manage. But I honestly think that giving someone else your undivided attention, listening to them, being hospitable and giving them your time is the simplest and most effective way to do good in this world.
Paddy then concluded with a very insightful summary of how he valued a Jesuit education at Aloys. He shared, “I am forever grateful for my time at St Aloysius. The Jesuit education and values of service, critical thought and finding God in all things, as well as the appreciation for the liberal arts, culture and a hint of larrikinism have undoubtedly shaped the way I continue to live my life. I wish everyone the best of luck over the next few years with your Senior School experiences, HSC exams and life beyond these four walls. … Ad Majora Natus, you are born for greater things.
Three young men – Aloysius, Richard and Paddy – each moved from a familiar and comfortable centre to the margins. All felt those “impulses of the heart”. Not to flee life, but to find life and goodness, to make a tangible difference.
To be, as they were, “directed for the best.”
This article was originally published in a recent edition of ‘The Gonzagan’ newsletter for St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point.