Last week’s AMDG Express anticipated a visit to Belvedere by the Chinese Ambassador, to celebrate a student exchange programme with Jesuit schools in China. Why China? There are three major Province priorities following the 35th General Congregation: to find a language for faith in dialogue with secularism; to help young people find God in their lives; and to make the Gospel message credible through our action for justice. Essentially we are called to go and spread the good news of the Gospel. Given the college involvement in the frontiers in its local community through the Vincent de Paul, Boys and Girls’ Youth Club and the Belvedere Social Services with Fr. Peter Mc Verry SJ, in Calcutta and in Africa, one might wonder why China featured as the next frontier. There are good reasons – read them below.
Why the Chinese Exchange Programme?
Gerard Foley, Headmaster of Belvedere College
China is of enormous importance in the history and tradition of the Jesuits. Though St. Francis Xavier died before reaching that vast country, in his mind it was an essential part of his mission. This thought was never far from our minds when we began to set up our exchange programme. A meeting between myself, Fr. Cassidy SJ and Mr. Donald Chang, who is the Chief Administrator in Hong Kong and a past pupil of Wah Yan, played a key part in choosing to develop the link between the two schools. The interconnectedness of our world is clearly evident in the global financial crisis, and to ignore the emergence of China as an economic and cultural frontier would be a great pity. The opening extract from the General Congregation 35 simply confirmed that we were in keeping with the thinking of the Society in exploring our links with China.
After several years of planning, discussion and networking, Chinese Studies was introduced to Transition Year as a Tuesday afternoon activity in the September of 2007. It was part of our developing programme for the Exchange with students in Wah Yan. This initiative was undertaken with a view to developing a deeper understanding of Chinese people and their culture, and exploring the issues facing the growing Chinese community in Ireland. Part of this programme would be facilitated by forging links with Wah Yan, a Jesuit school in Hong Kong. Reaching out to mainland China, following the lead of St. Francis Xavier, was always part of the planned programme. This would not have been possible without the generous help of our fellow Jesuit college in Hong Kong. Mr. George Tam, Principal of Wah Yan, helped ensure that the difficult process of developing a link with a school in mainland China was well organised. Mr. and Mrs Zshu, parents in Wah Yan, helped build the school and organised our visit there.
Fr. Derek Cassidy, Rector of Belvedere, Mr. Barry O’Leary, Careers and Guidance Counsellor, and myself visited Hong Kong and mainland China in September 2008 and embarked on what was a very exciting adventure. The welcome they received in Hong Kong and in Jiaying University in Meizhou City and in Youbang Primary school, where our students will teach English, was amazing. The Provincial, Fr. Stephen Chow SJ, was trained in Ireland and was very keen to develop the links with the Irish Province. Mr. Harry O’Neill, Honorary Irish Consul, took time to meet us and offered his full support to the exchange and to any past pupils moving there as part of their studies and work. Part of the original thinking was the hope of establishing connections that would help past pupils seeking experience in the emerging market of China. Again the welcome and hospitality shown to us was spectacular. Immediately after lunch we were picked up and set off for mainland China.
The warmth of that welcome and the enthusiasm for the Exchange was matched by the welcome for the Chinese students when they came to Belvedere College SJ in January 2009. Their host families have given them a wonderful experience of Irish culture. One of the highlights was our visit to Colaiste Ignaid where Fr. Farren SJ met with students from Belvedere College SJ and his former school Wah Yan. The reception by the students from Colaiste was wonderful and all thoroughly enjoyed the traditional music followed by a walking tour of Galway, in bright sunshine in January!
The teachers Mr. Augustine Chan and Mr. Mark Lou were delighted that their students had formed friendships with students in an Irish Jesuit school. On Sunday 18th January, the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China, Liu Biwei, attended a reception in Belvedere House. He and the Department of Education and Science spoke of the importance of developing links between the two countries and in building relationships based on mutual understanding and respect. It was a wonderful evening and it was a great honour for the students to meet and chat with the Ambassador.
The programme is rooted in the mission of the college to be at the frontiers, to enable our students to grow in their understanding of their huge potential to make a very real contribution to the lives of those most vulnerable in their own society and in the world. It will evolve and develop, guided by our faith and belief that it is an experience intended to sow the seeds of desire for social justice. While a Pauline conversion on the road to Damascus can never be ruled out, it is more likely that reflecting on their experience will help those involved find where God speaks to them in their own life. Hopefully it will also lead those they encounter on their journey to reflect on their faith and their experience as well.
The second leg of the exchange will see eighteen Belvedere students visit Hong Kong and China later this year. They will teach English to primary school pupils in the Chinese countryside. We are preparing for our journey there in March. Our teachers Barry O’Leary, Marie Louise Bowe and Liam Kelly will lead them, and it will undoubtedly be a very significant experience for all involved.