Fr. Kevin Spinale, S.J.: Xavier is None Other Than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven

January 27, 2018

Fr. Kevin Spinale, S.J. is a professor of English and philosophy at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

A scene seared into my memory from my time in Micronesia unfolded on the lone runway at the Chuuk International Airport.  It was a warm Saturday afternoon, and Fr. Dennis Baker, S.J. and I had exited the stifling one-room terminal to watch United Flight 154 land.  The flight had originated in Honolulu and ferried passengers westward to Majuro, then Kwajalein, Kosrae, and Pohnpei.  We were flying north to Guam, the flight’s final leg, to arrive at sunset.  I had never seen a Boeing 737 land.  It descended steadily toward us and hit the runway backing up its jets in a thunderous mechanical din only about a hundred yards away from us.  It motored past us to slow down and reappeared a few minutes later to let its Chuuk-bound passengers disembark.

As the plane emptied, it became clear to me that the majority of the passengers exiting were kids.  In fact, they were Xavier students returning from Christmas vacation—dozens of them.  They seemed to land with the same burst of energy and din as the jet hitting the runway.  And Dennis was excited.  The students were returning from hundreds of miles across the expanse of the Pacific—thousands of miles for some.  They were wheeling their heavy bags—perhaps filled with the spoils from Christmas with their families whom they had not seen for months.

As they streamed into the terminal on the other side of the arrival fence not far away, Dennis began standing on his toes and waving, squinting into the sun, trying to make out exactly which students were returning.  Some students caught sight of the large redheaded priest waving enthusiastically at them.  They waved back.  Many did not see him as they were caught up in conversation with each other—no doubt ready to start school again and renew friendships.  “Those are my kids,” Dennis said.  He kept waving at them, “Those are my kids.”

The day after Dennis was ordained a priest, he gave a homily during his first Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan.  It was about faith and the holiness of the world outside the doors of the church—the arena where faith, hope, and love are enacted.  He meditated on the Latin inscription that one sees when exiting the nave of that New York City church: Hic est aliud nisi domus Dei et porta caeli.  The inscription is a Latin rendering of Genesis 28:17: “This is none other than the house of God and gate of heaven.”  Dennis emphasized that the inscription pointed the congregation outward from the church.  Sixteenth Street in Manhattan and the world beyond it is in fact the house of God and the gate of heaven.

Only a few weeks ago, in the midst of celebrating Mass for the Jesuit community and some of the school’s staff at Xavier High School, Micronesia, I encountered the Latin rendering of Genesis 28:17 once again.  At the words of consecration, as I elevated the host, I saw them engraved on the face of the paten that Dennis’ parents had given him for his ordination to the priesthood.  With palimpsestic grace, Dennis’ parents had been given the chalice and paten of the late Fr. Charlie Bierne, S.J., a courageous missionary in his own right, and they had engraved the words from Xavier Church in Manhattan on the paten that already bore an inscription of love from Charlie’s own family.  Aside from the layers of grace and Jesuit history etched in those holy vessels, the inscription moved me deeply.  I had to take it seriously.  It was clear in that moment, as clear and dramatic as the view of the vast lagoon and mountainous islands behind me, that Xavier High School—this Xavier, on the far, far western end of 16th Street on the island of Weno, some 7,000 miles away—Xavier Micronesia is, in fact, nothing other than the house of God and gate of heaven.  It was clear to me.  It was clear to me in the Eucharist.

On the face of it, the scriptural verse seems incongruous to the buildings which make up the home of the Navigators.  The main school building is a squat, hulking edifice built by the Japanese navy as a communications outpost in the early 1930s.  A tremendous amount of human labor and resources went into establishing this fortification atop a hill for the purposes of war, waged over a vast ocean.  The building now houses a rambling trophy case, a gym dented by US bombs from the war, a colorful mural depicting the history of the school, and administrative and faculty offices.  Time and the tireless efforts of Jesuits and lay faculty have transformed the sturdy war fortification into a place of learning and hope.  It is now a place of peace.

Scores of Japanese naval wrecks rest in the lagoon off the shores of the island of Weno where Xavier is situated.  Just as the ocean has written over these war machines with layers of marine life and bursts of color, Jesuits and their lay collaborators have written over the dry-land vestiges of war, poverty, and isolation with magnanimous hope for generations of students.  Students—themselves bursts of life and color—bring with them to Xavier High School their own hope for an education that will anchor their lives and nourish their faith.  With palimpsestic grace and with few material resources, the school continues to nurture young women and men to become, as the school articulates in its mission, “competent, conscientious, and compassionate leaders whose lives are guided by the Christian call of service.”  Xavier High School represents nothing other than a gate of heaven, an outpost of the House of God, and a place where God’s grace transforms and nurtures all its inhabitants in faith, hope, and love as well as chemistry, literature, Japanese, and ethics.

When I interacted with the faculty and staff—many of whom are new to working in a school—on retreat, it was clear that they are smitten.  It was clear that although at Xavier they experience the toil and tedium that accompanies education anywhere in the world, in addition to the realities of living on an island connected to the rest of the world by two United flights a day, they are smitten by their students—smitten like the school’s president standing on a runway in the afternoon sun.  Any one of them would point at his or her class or at a group of students playing volleyball or basketball and say with honest, unguarded affection: “Those are my kids…those are my kids.”  Such affection is born of grace and a robust belief that God is close, that God transforms, and that God writes over poverty and suffering with new life.

Xavier High School remains in my prayers.  Naoki, Wylly, Tom, Dennis, Martin, Joan, and the entire magnanimous faculty and staff of Xavier High School remain in my prayers, along with the students.  Hic est aliud nisi domus Dei et porta caeli.

 

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