26 October 2016 : A newsletter of the Australian Jesuits

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The school of how


The following is a transcript of Fr General Adolfo Nicolás’ address to companions of the Australian Jesuit Province, St Ignatius’ College Riverview, 25 January 2012.


Good afternoon. I have to confess that before coming here I was scared. One of the members of our audience is almost a hundred years old, and she has met a lot of good Jesuits all her life, so the fear to disappoint her was my biggest preoccupation. But I had the chance to greet her and she was so kind and so gentle that the fear disappeared. Thank you very much.


I think the prayer we had a while ago sets the context for our reflections this afternoon in the reading of the letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, where he speaks of different talents to different people for the building of the same - of the one - body of Christ. I think in my mind maybe one of the most important changes in the awareness of the church, the awareness of the religions, is that we don't have different missions. We don't have a Jesuit mission, a Dominican mission, a Franciscan mission, et cetera, but we are all partners in the one vision of God.


Now people speak of - they use the Latin, it's still a remnant of the past - they speak of the missio dei, the mission of God. That's the one mission in which we are all involved. Even the Pope is using these terms, so I can quote Benedict XVI as using this term, and theologians and general superiors of religions, they use this term as a matter of fact, and I think the consequences are enormous, and the fruits also are enormous. The first one we can see, I can see here. We are all involved in the one mission that matters, and I can say with greatest gratitude, that in my visits to different provinces, different countries, different conferences of provincials, I always have a chance to meet our lay collaborators, religious priests et cetera who work with us, and this is a most encouraging experience.


I see great depth of dedication, very professional preparation, a great desire to serve, to be part of God's mission, and a lot of enthusiasm that I am sure is helping our men very much in their work and gives us hope that we don't have to start counting heads and houses, but we can continue creating and starting new things. This is because there are many workers, there are many people with - with the same heart and with the same dedication, and even more. So there is much that we can learn, and hopefully we are learning. So finally we are centred now, more than probably we could be before when theology was not so explicitly like the theology of the Corinthians. Finally we can be centred on the mission we are concerned with, the mission for all. We want people who can grow, transform and contribute to our society. If it's pastoral we want people to grow and to be transformed. St Ignatius thought that the purpose of life is to be transformed so that at the end God can be in all things.


Our task is to discern who has the same heart, who are the ones who have the same vision, the same dedication, so that we can join forces and work together and discern our responsibilities. Then our concern therefore is to keep the vision clear, to keep the direction clear, and to go deepening this direction as we move. I saw in the pictures that we were presented with during the prayer that very much in the horizon of the Australian ministry and work there is this sense of going beyond Australia, and I think this is a very, very good thing, if we want to work with what we call Ignatian spirit, and Ignatian vision. The mission of God has no limits, it's God's mission, so the whole world is a beneficiary of that mission. We try to go beyond Australia, beyond Asia and the Pacific, beyond whatever limitations we might see in our concerns or in our possibilities. Australia has been helping very much in a number of missions and projects all over the region and the whole world.


I think the universal gift that we are asking for is that this mission is universal. At the surface there are differences. At the surface there are different seas and different boats and different faces and different landscapes and different languages, but if we go deep enough in our mission we find the same humanity, the same heart of God working in each one of the human persons we encounter.


One of the concerns that I'm sure you will have, and certainly we have, is youth. How can we continue building our world? And that certainly passes through youth. We cannot build our societies unless we respect, we honour and we serve the young people in our midst, and when I say ‘young people’ it begins quite early and keeps growing until you decide that you're not young any more. So youth is the concern in which we all come together. Education is always work with youth, and it's interesting to see that when people speak about new concerns and often local concerns, after trying two or three different projects they say, ‘It's clear that we have to start with the young.’ They are the ones with the imagination, with the energy, with desire to change things, and they are the ones who are going to be our best partners.


I think I am not imagining things when I say that in this gathering there is a strong concern for helping the youth, through education and through many other projects. We need them. They are not only our future; without youth we would not go very far. Our journey would be finished very soon. They are our future and we need to invest in them, and they are very good for us, for the Society and for society in general. They are not so sophisticated and therefore they are not so hypocritical as we grown-ups can be. They look at things in a direct way. They are honest, direct, imaginative, and very undiplomatic, which is very good for us. We don't like it when we hear a question from a young man or woman because we are a bit shocked. We could deny the question, which would be more comfortable, but these are very direct, honest questions and we need them.


Only young people can challenge us with the depth that they do. We can rationalise with more sophisticated people but not with youth, because they tell us, ‘Why do you have to make your answer so complicated?’ And that's what we do when we are rationalising, we have to complicate things to make them bearable. So we need them, at the same time as we try to help and contribute to their growth and transformation. This is our present concern in the Society of Jesus, and all the Jesuits have been thinking in recent months about this question of youth, and we have been receiving in Rome letters from the whole world about this topic, and so I can give in a nutshell, in a very quick way, what are the concerns of the Jesuits regarding youth.


The first concern is to be in touch with them, to be near: presence. One of the things that sometimes young people resent from society is that they are put on a way, on a channel of education and then they are left there. To feel that the grown-ups, at home first, then in the schools, are concerned with their growth, their transformation, and accompany them, is a very important thing. As I was sharing with the Jesuits this morning, this presence is a presence that is an accompaniment, and we discern with them, we don't decide for them what we would like them to be. They have to decide, they have to make their choices. But we want to be next to them and accompany them as they grow through life and they make the difficult decisions they have to make.


I was telling the Jesuits that it was easier for people of my generation to go through youth, we had the channels much more clear. Now they are swimming in troubled waters. But still they like to swim. They don't like it if we keep them on dry land telling them, ‘Now move your right hand, and now your left hand, and now you breathe.’ That cannot happen, but that's what sometimes we try to do with them. We say, ‘Before you swim let me teach you how to swim,’ and they say, ‘No, let me swim.’ They jump. But they want to have someone swimming around with them and telling them where they are wasting their energy, where they can breathe better, where they can have more speed, etc. So I think these are concerns that we all have. It's no use knowing too much for the youth, that's the temptation of people like myself, as if we know the future.


I've been in Japan a long time and in Japan they say, ‘We can see the future, that's bad, that's bad’. It is not wisdom to say we have reached the future, so there is no more imagination. I don't think this is what we want to communicate to the youth. We want to go along with them and let them discover a new world, like we tried to discover our world in our own time. They can hear us best when we swim along with them. They have very good hearing in the water, not on dry land, I don't know why.


Then also, and I'm sure that you have had the experience yourselves, we have to think a little more about how to accompany our young men and women after they graduate. We have a good attention in the family when they are small and then we accompany them in school, but then they graduate and they move into the troubled waters of our societies, and sometimes they have to make very important decisions, and they find it hard to talk with someone. I think this is an area where we have room for reflection and maybe structuring something that is going to help them know how to make decisions, how to live in a society that doesn't make it easy at all. Somebody asserted Christianity is very strong on the what - what to believe, what to do, what values, etc. - but very weak on the how. How do you grow? How do you discover? How do you overcome? How do you recuperate maybe lost time or lost energy, etc. So maybe we have to pay more attention.


You are lucky that you have your neighbours at the north, it is the whole of Asia. Asia has a very strong ‘how’: how to meditate, how to concentrate, how to go into yourself, how to discover new things, how to reach decisions. On the other hand, we have St Ignatius, and St Ignatius is all about ‘how’. He didn't have much concern for theology. He said any theology is good, the theology of St Thomas seems to be the last one so maybe this is the best. So we have the theology of St Thomas, but what is important is to accompany people so that they learn how to discern, how to decide and how to act. Everything in St Ignatius is living, so it's a school of how, and the spiritual exercises would be a school of how to feel the leadership of the Spirit; how to feel, how to go along with God's will. This is an invitation to be attuned, like an instrument can be attuned, but attuned to God.


Again, somebody else said God speaks in such a low voice that it requires our whole attention so that we can hear. God doesn't make much noise. So therefore the question of the youth I think gives a context to our service, but knowing that this is a long journey. With the youth we cannot think in limited terms, and that's why the great educators have always accompanied their graduates even later, and many priests have been the presiders in the marriage of many of their students, because they have kept in touch and accompanied them in their decisions and so forth. Now, this is more needed today I guess than ever before, because decisions have become very difficult, and many young people find it very hard to make decisions, especially decisions for life, decisions where their future is concerned.


Another accent of Ignatian organisation, which I’m sure you are very familiar with, would be transformation. I think the whole work of St Ignatius is geared to transformation in everyone, and here it includes children, youth and all people as well. The aim of St Ignatius was that we would be continually transforming, that we become a new person, transform, and I think that's why Jesuits got so involved with education, because education is a privileged place where transformation takes place, people grow, and not only learn things for their personal baggage, intellectual baggage, but they learn how to relate, how to play, how to laugh, how to enjoy themselves. This is learning that includes a process of transformation, and if our education does not continue the transformation, something very important is missing in our schools, and I think we would not be shy about saying that.


For Ignatius, spirituality is transformation, education is transformation, and I would say if he would have reflected about pastoral work, pastoral work in a parish is transformation, and the disappointment or frustration of many laypeople that go to the parish is that they don't find the channels of transformation. This is a good frustration to ask the bishop or the priest about, because the word of God is a word that, like Isaiah tells us, never goes back empty. He comes and he brings water and he makes crops grow and he never goes back empty-handed. Isaiah says this of the word of God, and I would say that the same goes for anything that we do in terms of education, pastoral or whatever other work.


As we have seen in the pictures presented before about the Australian Province, the poor and marginalised, those who have been put in difficult positions in society, are our guarantee that we are on the right track. The poor have a dignity and an importance in themselves, there is no doubt about that; but for us, for our work, they are also a guarantee that our work goes in the right direction. That it is God's work, God's mission, as we said at the beginning. We are at their service. They speak to us of a presence of Christ that is not the pleasant presence of a sunset or a sunrise. They present to us the presence of Christ with suffering, who is wanting, who is ignored, etc, and I think the Australian Province and all their collaborators are very much aware of that, and this is one of the strong points that I have always seen in my contact with the Australian Province.


As you know, we have gone recently through a process of finding out, trying to obey and follow the request of the Pope when he met us during the last General Congregation. The Pope said that we have to go to the frontiers. So what are the frontiers? What are the difficult places where we are supposed to be present, to be working? A whole effort has been put forward all over the world, and every conference of provincials has indicated some frontiers. Frontiers like secularism in some countries, migration in others, how to communicate our faith to lay in others, reconciliation, war, violence, etc, depending on the different parts of the world, or education. Education has been highlighted also in many parts of the world, education of the marginalised, of the poor, of those who have no chances.


So we now have the maps, and the maps are impressive, because it's the whole world and these are issues that are far beyond what the Society of Jesus can do, and that's where we are very encouraged by finding people like you who have the same heart, who want to contribute to the same difficult frontiers, and with whom we can work and on whom we can count from now on. So we are aware of the difficulties, but we are also aware of the help and the support that we have in all of you, and for this we thank you very much, and we hope that as the world becomes more and more pluralistic, and as we have more and more Asians coming in the direction of Australia or going to Europe or going to America, and uniform societies are disappearing, giving room to pluralistic societies, that we can go also beyond our past fears and we can cooperate with whoever has the heart of God, be they Christian or non-Christian.


One of the things that we learn through life, and I’m sure at 99 more than at 75, is that God is free and continues to be free, and God works in the heart of people, and he works as he likes. There are a lot of people out there who are working and very sensitive to the heart of God, and with whom we could cooperate and we can work. So as I look at the world I look with great hope. We might see at the surface that things are not going so well, and sometimes we wring our hands, but at the bottom God continues to work, and people continue to search. We saw the Pope inviting even agnostics to Assisi, and in the preparation talks for Assisi he said that sometimes it's better - the Pope, not me - he said it's better an agnostic who is searching than a Christian, a believer, who is not searching anymore, who thinks he has God in his hand. This obviously is not God. But the agnostic who is searching, he has a chance, he is in the process of finding God, and this has been repeated by Cardinal Ravasi, and I am very glad that this is becoming a new common sense in the Church.


God continues free and he works in the heart of people, and that's why we can continue collaborating not only among ourselves but also among those who are coming from other cultures and other countries and other traditions and want to work with us. This is an expression of what also I hope, but also gratitude for the tremendous generosity and the difference that it makes for our concerns for our planning, for our future, for our hope, to know that we can count on all of you.


Thank you very much.


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