General

From Sainthood to Rotary

I would like to continue with a theme of my last letter and discuss some thoughts I have gathered during the recent pilgrimage, with particular reference to the life of the founders of the Society of Jesus.

One main reason why we went on the pilgrimage at this particular time is because it coincides with the celebration in Loiola, Spain of the 450th anniversary of the death of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. The city where the saint was born in 1491 has laid out a series of activities between 29 June and 3 September 2006, including religious, musical and educational programmes, with highlights on the Feast Day of St Ignatius which falls on 31 July. The year 2006 also marks the fifth centenary of the birth of another saint, St Francis Xavier in Navarre and a priest Pedro Fabro in Saboya. The three, together with four others, are the founders of the Society of Jesus. It is interesting that the English translation of the order actually does not quite reflect the exact meaning of the original name in Spanish, which could more appropriately be translated as the Company of Jesus, so that its members would be better known as companions of Jesus.

Very briefly, St Ignatius was born a noble of the Basque province. When he was 30 years old, he was an officer defending the fortress in the town of Pamplona against the French. He was seriously wounded – struck by a cannon ball – and had to be carried back in stretches to his own castle in Loiola, where he recovered, but not completely: he walked with a limp since. More significantly, he read the life of Jesus and was converted to Christianity while recuperating. There is a room called the Conversion Room in the castle in memory of this. The following year, he cast away his status and decided to walk to Jerusalem, passing through Arantzatzu and Montserrat. He was arrested by the Spanish Inquisition and put in jail for teaching people to pray by his special method, known as Spiritual Exercise, but later released. He decided to go back to school to read. He went to Paris where he met St Francis Xavier and others. He studied for 12 years before returning to his home village in Loiola in 1535. Finally, in 1538, at the age of 47, he celebrated his first Mass in Jerusalem, a year after he was ordained priest. In 1540, the then Pope gave approval for the formation of the new order and St Ignatius was elected superior general the following year. He continued his work refining the Constitution of the new order, writing, and directing laymen in their spiritual life. He also opened schools and universities all over Europe and the world, primarily for educating new and young Jesuit recruits. He died on 31 July 1556 at the age of 65. He was beatified in 1609 and canonized in 1622. The Universal Church observed his feast day on 31 July.

I can give you another account of the life of St Francis Xavier which is equally impressive, but I would leave you to read it either from literature or the internet. Suffice it to say that he was born on 7 April 1506, again from a noble family, albeit a declining one in terms of wealth and influence. At 19 years old, he left for Paris to study to become successful in life. He was very good, both in sports and in studies. He met St Ignatius in Paris, became his very good friend and a founder of the new order. Indeed, he was the first missionary of the Society of Jesus – he is the patron saint for missionaries. From 1540 to 1552, he traveled extensively in India, Japan and most of East Asia, ending his life on the Island of Sanchuan in Guangdong, China on 3 December 1552. He was beatified in 1619 and canonized on the same date as St Ignatius, 12 March 1622.

I have shared the account, albeit a rather over-simplified one, of these two saints and founders of the Jesuits to illustrate how one or two persons can make so much difference in so many by simply sharing with others what they believe in, and going back even further, how the mind and events in one’s life, can change the destiny of the individual, which in turn would change the destinies of so many.

Both saints were born to families of nobilities; one as a soldier to defend his family and township and the other to rehabilitate the name of the family. Through fate or divine intervention, both have changed the course of their lives and in turn, of others.

St. Ignatius in particular was converted by circumstances of his own physical conditions. He was taken back home to die, but his will power and his new found faith made him strong enough to carry out what he was destined to carry out. He was ridiculed at the Inquisition as an uneducated and unread man and hence ill qualified to teach others how to pray. After he was released from jail, he went back to study Latin – when he was over 30 – with the school children. He was highly motivated, and through single-minded determination, and the Church would say the guidance of the Holy Ghost, became a well read man and later provided very much needed education to many young people in many countries.

He lived at a time when the Church was not perfect; there were priests and even bishops whose lives and conduct were not beyond suspicion. Many Catholics, clergy and laity, had left the Church out of contempt. Many never returned.

St Ignatius, however, in the course of his reading into the life of Jesus, was firmly convinced that there were sufficient and fundamental elements in the Church that were good such that it would be wrong to condemn or leave the Church altogether. He set out to retain what were good and improved on others by introducing bold and new measures. Thus, in addition to the three traditional vows for priesthood of poverty, chastity and obedience, he introduced a fourth vow for Jesuits requiring them to follow without question any commission of the Pope. In other words, they would go to spread the gospel wherever the Holy Father asks them to go. In addition, in view of the less than perfect practices in the Church hierarchy at the time, St Ignatius and his companions all agreed that members of their order would not take up higher offices in the Church, unless directed by the Pope. All these and other measures were considered to be revolutionary at the time. They are still observed to date, which is why we do not see Jesuits appointed bishops or cardinals.

I pause to look at our Rotary organization. Rotary is the idea and vision of one man. Over the years, a lot of rules and practices have been introduced; one would like to think, all for the better. Alas, the world we live in is far from perfect, and Rotary must have seen good and bad days. We are aware that many people have left Rotary, such that membership development seems to be the single most important task of every RI President.

It does not take a genius to realize that most people have left Rotary for the wrong reasons, the single most significant one being that they had joined for the wrong reason to start with. I suggest that our organization would have been much stronger, in terms of numbers and service being rendered, if those who had left had thought about how they could improve the organization before they actually left. Indeed, chances are that if they had done so, they would not have left in the first place.

I have come across a lot of people who said that they have left Rotary clubs because they don’t like the way their clubs or district were being run, but I have never met anyone who would say how they would like their clubs or district being run.

Humility begins with accepting the limits of individuals, beginning with the limits of oneself. Rotary operates by changing their leaders every year, which implies that no leaders can cause irreparable damage. This should be reassuring. At least I find it so.

I’ll stop here before I become incoherent; and I hope to write to you again shortly. By the way, someone has said that St Francis Xavier had probably influenced and converted more people through his letters, which were circulated and copied manually and sent to other countries and continents, than through meeting people face to face in his 12 years of missionary work. It is a thought that would make me think again every time I want to stop writing.

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