The Jesuits: 150 years of ministry in Australia

The Jesuits: 150 years of ministry in Australia

Elizabeth Ledlin

The motto and motivation of the Jesuits down the centuries have been aptly encapsulated in the words "For the greater glory of God". Their founder, Ignatius Loyola, was born in the same year (1491) as Henry VIII of England. The following year, Christopher Columbus embarked for the New World.

The Society of Jesus would spearhead the fight against the fierce anti-Catholic forces in Britain and Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Church history is adorned with a host of Jesuit saints and martyrs from this theatre alone. In Asia, too, and in North and South America, every Jesuit mission field has been watered with the blood of its martyrs.

Though no strangers to controversy and periodic persecution, the Society of Jesus has, for over 450 years, manifested a purity and zeal unsurpassed by any other religious order. Their influence in Catholic thought and education has been unparalled.

In 1848, the first Jesuits arrived in Australia. Heirs of the 16th century Jesuit giant, Peter Canisius, they came from the Austro-Hungarian Province to the newly constituted Crown Colony of South Australia to minister to the German-speaking migrants who had settled there.

As much a reflection of the talents and drive of these Jesuits as of the acute needs of the early Australian Church was the rapid deployment of their skills into the wider areas of pastoral care, education, diocesan as well as Jesuit priestly training, and retreats for the clergy. They even planted a vineyard that is famous to this day for its wines. Sevenhills, north of Adelaide, became their base.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian Mission undertook a heroic, if relatively short-lived mission to the Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Australian-born, Donald MacKillop SJ, brother of Blessed Mary MacKillop, played a prominent role in this ground-breaking and, for the missionaries, disappointingly brief enterprise. Today's Jesuit centre for social justice, based in Sydney and named "Uniya" after one of those early mission stations, draws its inspiration from those hope-filled and courageous efforts of more than a century ago.

Meanwhile, Bishop Goold had invited Irish Jesuits to Melbourne in 1865, primarily to provide education - a day school for the city boys and a boarding school for those from the country districts. They were required, too, to assist the secular clergy in the spiritual care of the Catholic community as a whole. The Bishop also looked to the Jesuits to establish a seminary for the training of diocesan priests.

Reflective of their Irish roots, these Jesuits brought with them a fervent espousal of devotion to the Sacred Heart and to the Blessed Virgin. They fostered the formation of sodalities and urged frequent reception of the Sacraments. To this end, they made extensive use of the Catholic press, with important contributions to the work of the Australian Catholic Truth Society and the publication of their own popular periodicals, The Messenger and The Madonna. In their schools, Jesuits have traditionally promoted membership of boys' branches of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

Jesuits in Sydney

The Jesuits came to Sydney from Melbourne in 1878 at the invitation of Archhishop Vaughan, quickly establishing day and boarding schools and accepting responsibility for the parish of the North Shore. Retreats for diocesan clergy were given over to their charge, while they were called upon to address Catholic groups to bolster the stand against the secular attitudes of the day.

Later still, in 1915, they established a Queensland presence, with a foundation at Toowong.

It was Melbourne, though, that was to become the hub of Jesuit activity and influence, notably in their advocacy of Catholic social principles and zeal for social justice, where the Jesuits promoted an active lay involvement in the community. This was a fairly radical concept in Australia at the time, although Archbishop Mannix both applauded and encouraged the initiative. The Order was conscious, too, of the need for an intellectual movement to provide future leaders for the Church, and Newman College was staffed by Jesuits when it opened in 1918.

Australia would become a fully constituted Province of the Society of Jesus in 1950 and, half a century on, at the end of the second millennium, in a spiritually and morally challenged world, Ignatius' "soldiers for God" continue in the front line.

In Australia, today, Jesuits are involved in a diversity of ministries, including work in parishes, schools and universities, retreat houses and diocesan seminaries. There are Jesuit chaplains in our hospitals and in our prisons. Jesuits are engaged in work with the homeless and the drug dependent. They host a refugee service and an apostolate to the Aborigines.

A princely contribution to Australia's Catholic heritage, these undertakings reflect in a remarkable way the force of Ignatian spirituality and commitment. However, the jewel in a lustrous crown has been the Australian Jesuit Mission to India.

In 1951, the first of the new Province's finest set sail for Hazaribagh in Bihar State. In less than 50 years, by the grace of God, the fruits of their efforts have been many and marvellous. Following in the footsteps of Francis Xavier SJ, missionary extraordinaire and Australia's patron Saint, these Jesuits have quite exceptionally mirrored the motto of their Order's St Aloysius' College, Sydney, which prompts each one of us to recognise that we were "Born for greater things."

Elizabeth Ledlin is a Sydney-based Catholic writer.

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