Homily delivered by Fr. Johnny C. Go SJ, School Director, during the annual Xavier School Missioning Mass, June 11, 2010.
As some of you may have heard repeatedly during the parents’ orientations, this year Jesuit institutions all over the world are commemorating the 400th death anniversary of Matteo Ricci. For those of us in Xavier, Ricci is a most significant figure not only because of who he was, but also because of what he stands for today.
Who he was: Ricci was the first Jesuit missionary to actually live and work in the Imperial Palace, inside the Forbidden City. When I visited the Forbidden City some years ago, the place was teeming with tourists from all over the world. To top it all, there was even a Starbucks inside! But back in the 16th Century, the Forbidden City lived up to its name: Access and entry to that residence of the Emperor was highly restricted, especially for Westerners. Ricci was able to penetrate the walls of the Forbidden City and secure the personal approval of the Emperor and his officials only for two reasons: First, through his knowledge of the Chinese language and the Chinese classics. Ricci worked hard to become a respected Mandarin scholar. Secondly, through his expertise in Western science. He was an astromer, a map maker, and even a Euclidean mathematician, among other things. In fact, he collaborated with Paul Xu Guangqi, the Chinese official whose name our school bears, to translate the works of Euclid into several volumes in Chinese.
What he stands for: On the day that Ricci died, on May 11th, 1610, the Jesuits living with him in Beijing gathered around his bed, and one of them remarked that he was about to abandon them when they still needed him. Ricci looked around the room and uttered these words:
‘I leave you at a door open to great merits, yet not without many perils and labors.’
What could this open door mean? Of course Ricci at that time was referring to the emerging mission in China. As we know, our school patron, St. Francis Xavier, died off the coast of Sanchuan Island dreaming of entering this great land. The year Xavier died, Ricci was born, and through the labors of Ricci and his Jesuit companions, the door to China was finally opened. Of course many things have happened since then, almost as predicted by Ricci: A hundred years after his death, the so-called Chinese Rites Controversy exploded in the Church, affecting the Church in China. In their zeal for the Christian faith, missionaries from other religious orders, failing to understand Chinese culture, questioned the Jesuits’ classification of the Chinese ancestor veneration rites as a civil and nonreligious practice. When such practices were eventually condemned as idolatrous, missionary activity in China was eventually banned.
Today for us here in Xavier this symbol of an open door remains significant.
First, Xavier School was founded over fifty years ago to serve precisely as an open door to China. The dream of our founders was to educate and evangelize the local Chinese in the hope that sometime in the future, China will open. That time has come. As we know, China has opened up so much so that a great number of our alumni are today living, studying, and working in the mainland. Some of them are even engaged in direct missionary work. Thanks to our China Overseas programs, a growing number of our students are spending part of their schooling in Guangzhou and Beijing.
And so for us, the open door symbolizes the possibilities—both now and in the future—of continuing the work of Matteo Ricci and fulfilling the dream of Francis Xavier to spread the Good News in China. This is very much part of our mission as educators and formators in Xavier School.
The open door also stands for this new school year, a symbol of all our pioneering efforts and programs that we have discussed and studied for the past years and that we are finally launching this school year:
· The IB Diploma Program
· The 4-Day Cycle in the HS
· The Interactive Boards in our classrooms
· The One2One Learning Efforts of our GS and HS teachers
Just as Matteo Ricci experienced in his life, pioneers have to face perils and dangers, not to mention gray areas and uncertainties. But one of my favorite books on leadership, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, said that one essential ingredient to innovation is experimentation—the willingness and the courage to try out new things as well as the humility to commit mistakes as long as we learn from them.
In Xavier, we’ve seen this in our past efforts at innovation. They were not immediately understood, accepted, or appreciated. I remember when the former GS Principal, Eve Baquirin, and I first talked about a possible Grade 7 Flexible Curriculum about 7 years ago, we met a lot of raised eyebrows. When I first broached the idea of our students spending their 3rd quarter overseas, we were barraged by overly anxious Sikorsky parents. When UbD was first introduced to Xavier School six years ago, long before it became fashionable, we scratched our heads and some of us swore it was just another passing “flavor of the month.”
As we begin this new year, as we brace ourselves for this new school year with all its challenges, ambiguities, and even risks. Reflecting on the story of Ricci and the Church in China and thinking about our own efforts at innovation in Xavier, I think we can draw some lesson from our celebration today: The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. What does it mean, the Sacred Heart?
I found an inspiring piece about the sacred heart in a most unlikely place, a book on leadership I read a number of years ago written by two Harvard Professor, Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky. The book is called Leadership on the Line, and both authors are Jewish. Anyway, one Jewish New Year, Ron and his wife found himself in an Anglican Church. So there he was, a Jew seated before the image of Jesus crucified on the cross–a strange, anachronsitic image. Anyway, he decided to pray to Jesus, his fellow Jew. “Reb Jesus,” he addressed the figure before him, a fellow Jew, using the familiar and intimate term for “rabbi” or teacher. “Teach me about today.” You see, on the Jewish New Year, Jews are invited to contemplate on Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac. And he sat there listening in prayer.
After his prayer, he invited his wife to join me to do something really strange. He invited his wife to lie down in the church yard under a tree with their arms outstreched, as in a cross. Then he asked his wife (after a while) how she felt.
“Very vulnerable,” she said.
And Ron realized, that was the meaning of the Sacred Heart that his rabbi Jesus had taught him To be open to the world, to embrace every possible experience, both the positive and negative, as Jesus did.
In other words, a sacred heart is an open door.
It’s easy for our heart to be an open door if our experience is positive, rewarding, or at least nonthreatening. It’s so much harder to keep our heart open when the experience turns negative, painful, risky. But that’s what having a sacred heart means: To be open, to embrace everything, without yielding to the temptation of FLIGHT or FIGHT. It’s so much easier to run away when things get bad. It’s so much easier to lash back too. But that’s not the invitation to us this school year that is full of challenges and risks.
We are invited to bear the Lord’s sacred heart which means to make our heart an open door. Let us pray that as we venture into this new school year, we are given the grace to bear the Lord’s Sacred Heart for our students and for one another.