Thank you and Farewell to Rev Dr Michael Smith SJ


“Give it a try and see what happens”

Michael Smith SJ’s Farewell Address, 14th February 2017

At the beginning of 2016 our new Head of College, Deborah Kent, organised a celebration for me during which she presented me with an award which read, “In recognition of Revd Dr Michael Smith, Founder and First Dean, 1999-2015”. I was amazed to see the word “founder” etched in the crystal because it was not, until then, a part of my self-understanding. I see myself as an educational entrepreneur, but the word “founder” was not in my lexicon. However, as I thought about it, I began to see that perhaps the title “founder” was appropriate. Thank you Deb for that insight into my identity, vocation and mission! Of course, I did not found Jesuit College of Spirituality (JCS) on my own. From the start it has been a collaborative effort involving many people.

So, how did this enterprise begin? What was the founding inspiration for our College? In August 1993 I completed the two-year Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University Chicago. The group of 12 students which had been selected for the 1991 intake into program, and which had studied together for two years, was disbanding. We were going our separate ways. The integration of psychology and theology in a supportive faith-learning community had made it the most profound educational experience of my life. It was sad to say goodbye to our group.

In October 1993 I moved to Northern Ireland do make my Tertianship, the final year of a Jesuit’s formation. Tertianship includes making the full Spiritual Exercises—the 30-day silent, individually-direct retreat—which our group of nine Tertians did at Drumalis, a retreat centre owned and managed by the Sisters of the Cross and Passion in Larne, Northern Ireland.

The retreat began on 12th January and finished on 12th February, 1994. On the morning of the repose day between the Third and Fourth Weeks of the Exercises, I was alone in the common area of Drumalis. The Tertian group were due to have a day out at the Giant’s Causeway, a popular tourist site in Northern Ireland. As I was waiting for the group to assemble, I had an inspiration: “When I return to Melbourne I will begin to offer a Masters of Arts in Applied Spirituality.” I was so taken by the idea that I felt impelled to immediately find a telephone and talk to some people about how this might be implemented. I realised that this impulse would not be good to act on as I was in the middle of a silent thirty-day retreat and I wanted to remain true to the Ignatian process. But the urgency I felt to act on this inspiration indicated that it was important and probably from God. I also think I was missing my companions in Chicago and our faith-learning community and I wanted to replicate that experience when I got back to Melbourne.

During the long retreat I made another decision: to pursue doctoral studies. I remember, at the end of the thirty-day retreat asking the Irish Tertian Master, Fr Paddy Doyle, “How do I know if these inspirations really are from God?”  “Ah,” he answered, “Give them a try and see what happens!” It was good advice. Ignatian spirituality involves taking our graces, our inspirations, our holy desires to serve God, and transforming them into action in everyday life. That is what I resolved to do.

When we finished the Thirty-Day retreat the Tertians were given a week off. I found my way over to London where I made an appointment with Fr Brendan Callaghan SJ at the Jesuit-run Heythrop College, which is part of the University of London. Brendan was at that time the coordinator of the Masters in Christian Spirituality at Heythrop. We spent an afternoon discussing the Masters curriculum and he gave me a copy. The process of transforming my inspiration into action was under way. I was determined to give this dream a try and see what happened.

Soon after I returned to Melbourne in mid-1994 I wrote up a proposal for a “Masters in Applied Spirituality”. I showed it to various people but there was not much interest. However, Revd Dr Andrew Hamilton SJ helpfully suggested that I begin by teaching one unit, which I did through the United Faculty of Theology. In 1996 I first offered Ignatian Discernment and Christian Decision-making and the unit is still being taught 22 years later.

Five years passed and the “Masters in Applied Spirituality” proposal languished in my filing cabinet until a crucial “sliding door moment” occurred. A sliding door moment occurs when you make a decision that changes everything. And when you look back on it you wonder, “What would my life have been like if I had decided not to do to that?” My “sliding door moment” occurred in 1999 in what is now the Office of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Divinity. I attended a meeting chaired by the then Dean of the Melbourne College of Divinity, the Revd Dr Harold Pidwell. The group was charged exploring the possibility of setting up a Christian Spirituality Centre to foster the academic study of spirituality. The Revd Dr Paul Chandler O. Carm, was there, and so was Prof. Maryanne Confoy RSC, Prof. Austin Cooper OMI, Prof. Brendan Byrne SJ, the late Fr Ross Collings OCD and others.

As I listened to the conversation, I had my “sliding door moment”. I remember nervously asking myself, “Will I or won’t I? Will I or won’t I?” I decided, “Yes, I will.” But I was very anxious because I intuited that what I was going to ask might change the course of my life. I tentatively raised my hand and asked, “What about the study of spiritual direction? Could that be offered through the Christian Spirituality Centre?” The group seemed to spin around as one and fix their collective gaze on me. Clearly the possibility of studying spiritual direction hadn’t been considered. It was Harold who said, “Well, why don’t you write up a proposal?” I did. In fact I had prepared it five years earlier. Now was the kairos. Now was the right time to retrieve it from my filing cabinet.

Maryanne Confoy, the Revd Dr Peter Cantwell OFM and I then met over a number of months and we fleshed out the curriculum for the Master of Arts in Spiritual Direction. In 2000 the University of Divinity became the first tertiary institution in the country to offer the MA(SD) when we enrolled our first cohort of eight students. In our faith-learning community we integrated rigorous academic learning with personal formation and supervised practice.  We “gave it a try” and waited to see what would happen.

Another “sliding door moment” occurred in 2006 when, at the recommendation of the Revd Dr Charles Sherlock, who at that time was the Registrar of the MCD, we became a Recognised Teaching Institution (RTI) of the Melbourne College of Divinity and later a college of the University of Divinity. Charles assured me that becoming an RTI would not involve much more administrative and compliance work than I was already doing. Actually, there was considerably more compliance involved in becoming a college of the University, but I saw the value in it.  Again we “gave it a try” and waited to see what would happen.

What happened was that the Master of Arts in Spiritual Direction course flourished and the numbers of students grew. The University of Divinity now offers formation courses for spiritual directors in three of its eleven colleges — JCS, Whitley Theological College and the Yarra Theological Union. The University of Divinity is now the leading higher education provider in Australia of graduate courses for the formation of spiritual directors. JCS has also pioneered the provision of graduate awards in leadership and supervision at the University.

Having helped to found Jesuit College of Spirituality, and having been closely involved in the design and implementation of the awards and the units of study that JCS offers, I feel deeply attached to the College and its ministry of formation and higher education. It has been important but hard for me to let go and trust others to take the vision forward. It is critical for the College to be governed and managed well so that it can flourish and be taken in new directions. Here I would like to publically thank Deborah Kent in her role as Head of College and CEO. I am amazed at what she has been able to achieve in just one year. I am also grateful to Peter Johnstone OAM, the Chair of the JCS Council, for the expertise in governance that he has brought to the College.

The teaching, leadership, administrative and supervision roles that I have accumulated over my 17 years as Academic Dean and Head of College are being taken up by others, which is a good sign for the future of JCS. Today we welcome Dr Maggie Kappelhoff, our new Academic Dean, who brings expertise, particularly in online education, that will be vital to our future. I also thank Anne Pate, our Coursework Coordinator, whose attention to detail and deep learning in Ignatian spirituality I value deeply. I also thank our Registrar, Katica Buccheri who, with Deborah, makes a formidable team and keeps the College ticking over. With these talented people in place, and with our new home in Parkville up and running, I find myself free to move to the next stage of my life.

On 9th December 2016 I got a phone call from our Provincial, Fr Brian McCoy, informing me of his decision to mission me to the International Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Office in Rome where I will take up the role of International Educational Coordinator. I am pleased to have this opportunity as I believe it is one that will utilise the best of who I am and my gifts. I see providing quality education to refugees as a key means of promoting social justice. JRS currently has 140,000 pupils in its primary and secondary schools in refugee camps and plans to increase the number to 240,000 by 2020.  Part of my role will be directing the implementation of the recently designed Teaching Training Program. I will also oversee the JRS higher education program, which I am passionate about having helped to initiate the first program of online tertiary education for refugees on the Thai-Burma border through Australian Catholic University in 2003. Again, I am going to give it a try and I’ll see what happens.

Finally, I want to thank the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Peter Sherlock, for his leadership and vision. Over the last 40 years we have become used to talking in theology about social sin. That is, sin that extends beyond the personal to human-made structures that cause people to suffer. We are also talking now about social or corporate grace. I see the University of Divinity as a corporate grace that leads to human flourishing. My hope and prayer is that the University of Divinity will continue to grow and develop. I also hope that what I have learned at the University in my 21 years will help me to better serve refugees. My desire is that when my time as International Education Coordinator for JRS is over, that I might come back and continue teaching with JCS. Thank you.