SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD
The Maytime fair, an extraordinary commitment over the last 72 years, and now a part of our Xavier story, has its origin in the idealism of the first four groups of Australian Jesuits who left for India in the 1950s. Their stories are rich in adventure and achievements as well as in failures and disappointments. What drew them on as missionaries, committing their lives to a foreign land with, at that time, no expectation of ever returning home even for visits?
It was the ideal of making a difference that motivated them, in the conviction that preaching the gospel of Christ was indeed good news that could transform the lives of individuals and communities. They saw it as part of their vocation and so they involved themselves with the poor, trying to increase their standard of living and free them from the oppression of the caste system. They became advocates for tribal peoples on the margins of Indian society. In their schools they taught children of all faiths, they trained teachers, and taught at universities.
Seven among these first groups of Australian Jesuit missionaries were Xaverians: among them, in the prime of his life, Fr Lou Lachal, Hugh’s great uncle, who set up parishes, schools and health care centres, as well as creating development projects for the poor in Hazaribagh region. He died in India in 1991. Fr John Moore, another Old Xaverian, opened two Xavier Colleges, one in Hazaribagh, and then another in Bokaro Steel City, creating a lasting educational legacy in that part of India. He died in India in 1988.
Today, a couple of hundred Indian Jesuits work in the Hazaribagh province, with just a few elderly Australian Jesuits still among them.
While we still have missionaries, most Australian Jesuits then and now work here in Australia – in schools and parishes, university colleges and retreat centres – broadly across two areas, pastoral and educational.
It is worth noting, though, that there have always been individual paths for Jesuits to do a wide range of work.
Peter Steele was a poet and university lecturer who served as Chair of the English department at Melbourne university. Ron Anderson was a nuclear physicist who taught in a number of American universities, including MIT in Boston. John May, a Jesuit brother, was sent to our winery in the Clare Valley, eventually becoming the winemaker at Sevenhill and one of Australia’s top wine experts, while David Holdcroft has spent most of his working life with Jesuit Refugee Services in Asia and Africa, and now helps run it from Rome. Frank Brennan, a lawyer and now Rector of Newman College, has been one of Australia’s best known activists in the area of Indigenous rights, and is an important figure in the present referendum on the Voice. Some of you are familiar with Richard Leonard, the author of ‘Where the hell is God’. Richard is a graduate from the London Film School, has been a film critic, serving on the jury at the Cannes Film festival, among others, and is currently parish priest at North Sydney. And Hoa Dinh is a medical doctor who has delivered babies as a Jesuit.
The individual career paths of these Australian Jesuits, like those who went to India, and those working in education and in pastoral work, reflect both the emphasis on using our human talents well, and a conviction that God can truly be found in all things.
But what is the common ground between a winemaker and a university lecturer, between a Jesuit working in a parish and one working in a school?
Let me suggest three things. The first is very personal to each Jesuit, namely, an individual sense that this is where God wants me to be – some have had significant moments or experiences where they have felt the call of Christ, sometimes turning their whole lives upside down, while for others of us it has been an ongoing, persistent underlying call that is responded to. There are some analogies to the mystery of falling in love with a particular person.
Secondly, there is a sense of mission, of the call to be of service to the Church and the world, of making a difference by the lives we lead, and the particular availability to go wherever we are sent. The Australian Jesuit missionaries in India were a terrific example of this as they ministered to both spiritual needs and contributed so richly to the development of local communities in Hazaribagh. All of us, like many people in all types of work, want to make a difference.
Thirdly, I think a distinctive feature of Jesuits today is that we seek to promote an intelligent faith in a fast-changing world, one that is unafraid of questions being asked, and that is convinced that there is no necessary conflict between faith and reason. It finds expression in our Jesuit schools and Jesuit universities around the world, in the Jesuit engagement in the contest of ideas in our modern societies, and sometimes even in the battle for culture. We know that often things are not simplistically black and white, that we live complicated and sometimes messy lives. Nor do we see things as simply what feels good or simply follow the heart, but rather the head needs to be involved also – our intelligence and the heart both need to be involved.
A sense of God’s desire for me, a commitment to trying to make a difference, and an articulation of a faith that respects and seeks understanding would seem to me to be hallmarks of the Jesuit vocation, and I hope, in some ways, characteristic of a Jesuit school.
Fr Chris Middleton SJ
This address was given in a Xavier College school assembly at the start of May 2023.