Recalling our patrimony, embracing our commission

‘Grounded in the ideal of the relationship between director and retreatant, Ignatius sought only to facilitate exchanges, not to lecture or be didactic.’ Fr Ross Jones SJ reflects during the inaugural Province Communications Conference.

When I moved to Mount Druitt almost 30 years ago to set up the Jesuit community and begin planning for the new school, I was advised to create the community bank account with the St George Building Society and register our community as a club and society account and so avoid a number of service fees.

So I approached a young lady at the branch who gave me a club and society application form, and asked me to return it with a copy of my club or society’s constitutions. I dutifully returned the next day with the completed documents and then produced a 400 page tome of the Jesuit Constitutions.

She looked a little flummoxed at this, wondering how it might fit into her slim manila folder. So she asked me to wait, and brought in the manager. He weighed up the problem, literally and metaphorically, and then told her just to photocopy the front page. And we were registered.

Ignatius was certainly a wordsmith. We know from others’ accounts, and from that small slice of his Spiritual Diary that remains, how he laboured over the Constitutions for 15 years until his death. To ensure the Society had properly grasped his intent, he sent Gerónimo Nadal across Europe to communicate the detail to all Jesuit communities.

As well as that, we have extant some 7000 letters of Ignatius to all manner of personages — the largest collection of anyone of his era. Ignatius’ secretary, Juan Polanco, once remarked that though Ignatius wrote or dictated 30 letters a day, there was not one that he did not read twice over. Our founder, Ignatius, was nothing if not an intentional communicator.

The Society was, of course, founded on the crest of the wave of Renaissance humanism. In contradistinction to the medieval universities (which focused upon analysis, argument, dialectics and debate), the humanist schools were concerned with character and values, the betterment of society, human engagement and consensus.

Those early Jesuit educators communicated this through the class texts they chose — even ‘pagan’ texts. There were some eyebrows raised in adopting such works but the Jesuit schoolmen appreciated that these were rich resources with which to communicate their message. Those stories wrestled with the big questions of life: good and evil, choices, duty, what was the nature of ‘a good life’.

This humanistic mindset shaped the way Jesuits engaged in the Reformation to the north and also in England. There persists a sort of Jesuit myth that we were the ‘Papal Stormtroopers’ with the advent of the Protestant Reformation. But Ignatius’ intentions were clear. Grounded in the ideal of the relationship between director and retreatant in the Exercises, Ignatius sought only to facilitate exchanges, not to lecture or be didactic.

The letters he wrote to two Jesuits missioned to Protestant Ireland, to three others missioned to Lutheran Germany and to the four attending the delicate discussions at the Council of Trent were very clear in the communicative style he expected: Listen a lot, be adaptive to the culture, respond to different dispositions of people, enter through the other’s door and lead them out your own, remember that everything you say may (or will) become public, understand before you speak, give opinions with humility and sincerity, love the truth, don’t be self-seeking, and offer no hasty opinions.

In another letter to scholastics studying in a secular university at Alcalá, Ignatius expected that they neither bicker stubbornly, nor try to gain the upper hand in exchanges. Ignatius’ communicative mode is quite clear. It is not disputatious — certainly not our parliamentary model, nor the way of much of our current aggressive media. Ignatius seeks a union of minds and hearts. Not finding fault, but common ground. Not digging trenches but building bridges. Two-way communication.

When the Society seriously took up what we would now call an international apostolate, the style of our cultural and evangelical communication was both sensitive and quite novel.

The hero in the story was an Italian Jesuit, Alessandro Valignano. In 1573, aged 34, he was appointed Father General’s Vicar in charge of all missions from Mozambique in the West to Japan in the East.

Valignano operated on the basis of six principles for engagement with, and accommodation to, new cultures. I will mention just two: Firstly, a perfect command of the language, the idiom, in which that civilisation or culture was incarnated. Secondly, a long-term endeavour of serious writing and personal dialogue.

Such 16th-century attitudes could have been penned for our own times. ‘We are ambassadors for Christ’, are the words from St Paul (2 Corinthians 5:20) which Valignano points to in the image. A maxim for any Jesuit mission. An axiom for Jesuit communications.

Not surprising, then, that Jesuit missionaries were among the very first to produce dictionaries and grammar books (and even a script, as in Vietnam) in those new cultural encounters.

Our Austrian Jesuits here did the same in the Northern Territory with Indigenous Australians. Engagement. Beginning to communicate. Bridging cultures. Respecting language and tradition.

Ignatius bequeathed to us an appreciation of the power of the imagination. Possibly it began during convalescence, and flourished later in the imaginative contemplations of the Exercises. From the beginning, Jesuits were unstinting in using the arts for persuasion. Images and design in churches and colleges communicated beauty, represented scripture, or taught Church history. Rubens, for example, was a devout member of a Jesuit sodality and received many commissions.

Alas, Ruben’s and Vann Dyck’s 39 ceiling panels in the Jesuit church in Antwerp were destroyed by fire in 1718. These and similar initiatives were the PowerPoint presentations of their day.

The link between art and ministry was seized upon by Gerónimo Nadal, Ignatius’ closest collaborator. Towards the end of the 16th century, Nadal commissioned three volumes of Annotations and Meditations on the Gospels. They contained images of the Gospels from the Church liturgical year. Each scene represented the unfolding of a narrative, or a miracle, or a parable. Significant points in the image were marked by footnotes to be expounded upon.

Nadal chose only the premier Flemish engravers of the day to produce these finely-worked pieces. Finding their way beyond Europe to the Americas, to Africa and Asia, they were state-of-the-art visual aids for evangelising and for prayer. Cutting-edge communication technology.

I have already adverted to Ignatius’ letter-writing. Regular communication was an expectation he also placed upon superiors and heads of ministries. Each year, ex officio letters were to be sent by these men to Fr General. They reported on the state of the community and the work, the strengths and weaknesses, the needs and successes. Many such missives came to Rome from the farthest corners of the globe. These letters contained descriptions of the most exotic places and peoples. Often duplicates were circulated around Europe to engender vocations or seek funds from benefactors.

A certain French Jesuit, Fr Nicholas Bonvalot, collected copies of these letters from missionaries abroad, detailing cultures, beliefs, customs, landforms, climates, foods, strange creatures, forms of government and so on. He quickly saw the value of these communications and, whilst teaching at the Jesuit College in Avignon in 1611, he produced a 94 page book, creating the subject we now call ‘geography’.

The evolution of the schools and colleges, of course, generated a network of communicators. For example, Peter Canisius, saint and Doctor of the Church, wrote the first Catechism: three volumes, 12 languages, 200 editions — lots of royalties!

In his time, he established or was Rector of a number of university colleges. Canisius was a devout man, but knew the power of the word in communicating God’s word. But he once remarked, ‘Better a college without a chapel than a college without a library.’ Now that’s a big call!

The education ministry produced a legion of Jesuit authors — textbook writers. Br Andrea Pozzo’s Perspective in Architecture and Painting has been in print since the 1693 edition, wherein you will find a commendation by Sir Christopher Wren. This standard work was used by Hollywood set designers up until mid-last century. From earliest times, Jesuits wrote copiously on astronomy, geophysical sciences, botany, palaeontology, magnetism, optics, mathematics and atomic theory.

In our own time, Fr Roberto Busa (who only died in 2011) opened up the world of digital access to texts, and has been called the ‘Father of Hypertexting’. In 1949, in partnership with IBM, he began digitalising the complete works of Thomas Aquinas, the Index Thomisticus — 56 printed volumes, a 30-year project! If your starting point as a Jesuit, or in a Jesuit ministry, is ‘finding God in all things’, then the scope of communication is boundless.

Well, where is all this going, you might ask? Where is the homily? A good question!

Maybe this. To remember the breadth of our mission. In our work, we often share many ‘small caps’ good news stories. But we are also commissioned to share ‘large caps’ Good News stories. The roots are in tonight’s Gospel. We are wordsmiths for that primordial Word. A Word which gives life and light. Sometimes in the face of forces that try to quench that light, or demean that life, we are called to respond.

Often we are like Jeremiah asking, “Who am I for such a task?” But we are commissioned and we are consoled by something beyond our little field of endeavours. Sometimes our words, our challenge, our ideals are unwelcome, out of favour. They run counter to prevailing moods. Then, like the visionary author of Revelations, our words may have the first sweetness of truth, but then, as the prophet knows, there can be a knot in the belly. What will be the cost? Is there no one else to speak? But speak we do. And write we must.

Why relive this history tonight? Because it is a rich heritage and a patrimony. It reminds us what has shaped us, what holds us together in varied ministries — both Jesuits and those who work shoulder-to-shoulder with us. And it makes us confident enough to echo, and believe in, those words of Pope Paul III in first affirming Ignatius’ mission and, hence, our ministry — ‘Digitus Dei hic est.’ The finger of God is here.

Fr Ross Jones SJ is Rector of St Aloysius’ College Milsons Point. The above text is from his homily at the inaugural Communications Conference of the Australian Jesuit Province, hosted at St Aloysius’ College in October 2019.

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