Saturday, April 16, 2011

NYT profiles new Fairfield Jesuit residence.

It isn't often that a Jesuit residence gets a favorable write-up from a leading architecture critic, but that's exactly what has happened to the Fairfield University Jesuit Community Center. Already the recipient of major architectural awards, this weekend the year-old residence became the subject of a very positive New York Times article by Fred Bernstein. Here are the first few paragraphs:
When 10 Jesuit priests moved into their new home at Fairfield University about a year ago, some of them couldn’t fit their old desks into their new bedrooms. And "we live out of our desks," says the Rev. Mark P. Scalese, who teaches at the university. He was referring to the Jesuits’ penchant for learning, as reflected in a 10-year training period known as "formation" that includes extensive graduate education. Many end up with three or four advanced degrees.

But if the Jesuits at Fairfield had to sacrifice their old furniture, they were doing so to magnify their presence. Their new residence, boldly contemporary and centrally located, was designed to increase their visibility at a time when the number of Jesuits on campus has been falling.

At Fairfield’s leafy campus in southwestern Connecticut, the Jesuits teach subjects as diverse as philosophy and film production, while trying to help students develop "spiritual depth," in the words of the Rev. Dr. Paul J. Fitzgerald, the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs. Their goal is to remain relevant, a problem on a campus where student concerns range from the shortage of parking spaces to rules forbidding the distribution of condoms.

Once there were nearly 100 Jesuits — members of an order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century — at Fairfield. Today, there are 22. Only six are professors; the others are administrators, or retired. That means some of the university’s 3,200 undergraduates will make it through four years without having a single Jesuit professor.
The article cites the usual statistics about the numerical decline of the Society of Jesus, helping to put the dimunition of the Jesuit presence at Fairfield in a broader context. Bernstein also does a surprisingly good job of explaining how Jesuits at Fairfield have been working, in Father Fitzgerald's words, to make their lay colleagues "true partners in the enterprise of Jesuit education," by, for example, offering seminars on Ignatian pedagogy for new faculty and making the Spiritual Exercises available to lay faculty, staff, and employees.

Though Fairfield's general way of dealing with the reduced Jesuit presence on campus mirrors the approach that other Jesuit colleges and universities have taken to deal with this issue, the role that the new residence itself plays in efforts to enhance Fairfield's Jesuit identity deserves special attention. For more on that, consider these paragraphs from the NYT article:
Fairfield’s new Jesuit home, a 22,000-square-foot eco-friendly building, is part of an effort to reach out to students and non-Jesuit faculty. Unlike their previous house, in an isolated spot on the periphery of campus, the new structure commands a prominent hillside overlooking a main thoroughfare.

"There was a conscious desire to have a front door that opens to the campus," says Father Scalese, who was on the committee that helped plan the new building. It was designed by Gray Organschi Architecture, a New Haven firm, as both a symbol of openness and a tool for reaching out to the university community. The building contains a chapel, counseling rooms and a large social hall. "We can have people over, to talk about how, together, a small group of Jesuits and hundreds of faculty and staff do the Jesuit university thing," Father Fitzgerald says.

The Jesuit university thing, he says, includes helping students avoid fragmented lives — "when they party with their friends, they are tempted to have one personality and set of values, and then in class they have a second personality and set of values, and then they come home to see their parents for holidays, and they have a third personality and a third set of values."

One way Fairfield hopes to help is by requiring freshmen to take classes with their dorm-mates, so that they live and study with the same group. Sophomores choose dorms with themes derived from Jesuit teachings, including justice, leadership, environmental stewardship and creativity. One with a religious focus offers monthly mentor meetings to discuss such questions as "Who am I called to be?" Seven Jesuits live in apartments in the undergraduate dorms, where they hold weekly Mass and open-door hours.
To read the rest of the NYT article, click here. For a fuller report on the new Fairfield Jesuit residence from the architects who designed the building - including some excellent photographs of the structure - click here. AMDG.


At 4/16/2011 5:03 PM, Blogger Robin said...

Saw that this morning - LOVE that house.

At 4/16/2011 5:30 PM, Blogger Joe said...

I like it too, I think - I haven't yet had the opportunity to see the place close up, but in photos it looks very impressive. I find the design really striking, and I like the way it's integrated into the surrounding landscape; I admire the concern for environmental sustainability that went into planning the new residence, but I'm also glad that they tried to build a place that help make the Jesuits more visible and effective on campus. Hopefully, I'll have a chance to visit at some point.

At 4/16/2011 8:44 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

I love it from the photos, and went to high school with Gil Sunghera SJ who was part of the project (and it shows, particularly in the materials - echoing an early project in Oakland!).

I did think the comment about "simulating" the 30-days retreat was odd! I suspect they mean the Exercises in everyday life, but it's certainly not the word I would use to describe my experience of the 30-days!!

At 4/16/2011 11:34 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Interesting to hear that you went to high school with Gilbert. I know him from my time in Detroit - small world...

I did catch the "simulating" line - a bad choice of words, surely; I would go a step beyond your coments and say that the Exercises in everyday life are also the real deal - nothing "simulated" there, just a different time frame (making, of course, for a very different experience, but still a true experience of the Exercises).

In a larger way, though, I think the article actually did a much better job than most other news articles I've seen in making accurate and appropriate use of Ignatian language and themes. He also did a good job with the larger context, e.g. in mentioning the larger question of declining numbers and also taking note of Ignatian programs that benefit students as well as faculty and staff.

I wonder if it makes a difference that the author of this article is an architecture critic and not a religion writer - dealing with unfamiliar spiritual content, he may have taken extra care to try to get things right, succeeding for the most part even if he couldn't wrap his around the fact that laypeople can make the Exercises as well as Jesuits.

At 4/18/2011 5:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me, the most amazing bit of information in this article is that Fr. Scalese writes that he knows that there are many young men who identify strongly with the goals and values of your society, and would like to make sacrifices for them, but who don't ultimately decide to forswear having a family.

Has the Society ever considered creating a framework to harness this goodwill and enthusiasm (pun intended)? If the Anglo-Catholics and Byzantine Catholics have broad latitude to make norms they best feel serve their aims, might not Catholic orders led from along the Tiber have a tiny bit?

At 4/18/2011 11:38 AM, Blogger Joe said...


Various networks of this kind do exist - there are Jesuit-sponsored volunteer programs of different kinds, some focused on work in traditional Jesuit schools and others directed to work in the social apostolate. These tend to be limited in duration - one to three years, typically - but the hope (and reality, in many cases) is that such programs will lead individuals to want to make a longer-term commitment of working in Jesuit apostolates, either as Jesuits (some vocations do come from these programs) or as Catholic laypeople committed to Jesuit ideals.

At the same time, one of the things that many Jesuit institutions are trying to do now is to cultivate an appreciation for and commitment to Jesuit values on the part of lay faculty, staff and administrators. The NYT article notes some of the ways in which this is being done - seminars on Ignatian pedagogy, retreats, etc. - though another dimension is "hiring for mission," i.e. seeking faculty, staff and administrators who are already enthusiastic about the Society.

Of course, none of the above approaches is perfect, and each brings its own unique set of problems and challenges. Nonetheless, this is the closest that the Society of Jesus can offer in terms of providing the framework you're talking about; Since we're a religious order, celibate chastity is an indispensable and inescapable condition for membership in the Society, but there are ways in which others who have not made this commitment can nonetheless contribute to our mission.

At 4/18/2011 3:16 PM, Blogger Robin said...

You left out Protestants committed to Jesuit ideals.

I travel back and forth between both RC and Protestant worlds - not always comfortably, but I do it. It's thanks to an amazingly generous (the word magnanimity comes to mind) Jesuit that I made the Exercises five years ago; this year, according to the college freshmen students (and we know that self-reporting is not always accurate) whom I teach as an adjunct, I am the first person to have given them a dose of Ignatian and Jesuit history and spirituality -- which is only to say that cultivation of Jesuit values does "take," as does "hiring for mission."

The Exercises and the Jesuits I know have had an enormous impact upon my life. I view their heritage as a great treasure and trust, and consider it an enormous privilege to share a small bit of it - in both worlds.

At 4/18/2011 4:56 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Thank you for sharing some of your own experience. The kind of commitment that you've made is a blessing to all involved - one of the great things about moving between two worlds is being able to bring the two worlds to one another, even if doing so brings challenges.

In my earlier comment, I consciously sought not to leave anyone out - the Jesuit-friendly colleagues that we seek in hiring for mission are not limited to Christians of various confessions, but include people of all faiths (indeed, I've known people working in Jesuit institutions who were very supportive of the mission who were not Christian, never mind Catholic).

Of course - and this is another point I alluded to in my earlier comment - there are inherent tensions in this process. Inclusion is a positive value, but we also need to guard against the dilution or secularization of our mission, as can happen when 'Jesuit values' are expressed purely in terms of platitudinous statements about 'social justice' and 'care for the whole person' and related themes - all good things, but not uniquely Ignatian or Christian.

Another element of Anon's comment that I sought to respond to dealt explicitly with the question of people who may feel drawn to our life but do not feel called to celibacy. On that level, aside from short-term volunteer programs of the kind I mentioned, there is really nothing on offer; we don't have a 'third order' of the kind possessed by some other Catholic orders (Benedictines, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, etc.). Simply put, there are no 'third order Jesuits.' I think that is part of what Anon was asking after, so there's a simple answer.

At 4/18/2011 6:24 PM, Blogger Robin said...

Not to complicate (exactly) your simple answer, but it seems to me that the radical availability and mobility of the Jesuit commitment practically mandate a call to celibacy. It's the whole package together that constitutes a distinctive call to discipleship and mission.

At 4/18/2011 6:52 PM, Blogger Joe said...


You're right about that - as I wrote above, "celibate chastity is an indispensable and inescapable condition for membership in the Society" - it's part of who we are as a religious order (just as celibacy is indispensable for being a 'first order' Benedictine or Carmelite), but it's also bound up with our sense of mission.

Fr. Scalese is right that celibacy is a tough sell in our (small-s) society, but I hope that there is also a sense in which that aspect of our vocation (and the sense of availability and mobility that it promotes) says something even to those who are not called to become celibates - hopefully our example can help others to reflect on how they can more faithfully and lovingly live out their own vocations.

At 4/18/2011 7:01 PM, Blogger Robin said...

It really does - I have many family commitments that sometimes conflict with "official" ministry and require some compartmentalization, but I am always asking myself, "Am I making myself as available as Jesus is inviting me to be?" (usually the answer is "no, apparently not") - something I learned from Jesuits.

Isn't it interesting what discussion an architectural design can generate? God in all things.

At 4/18/2011 7:18 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Isn't it interesting what discussion an architectural design can generate? God in all things.

I was thinking the same thing! I guess that's one good way to measure the success of a building project, at least in a religious context.

At 4/19/2011 5:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your informative reply.

I've known more than a few men who thought many a time about a vocation, and who then later, having a wife, children, and a career, weren't able to give as much as they'd have wanted to, or would have been able to.

Jean, who forgot to sign his name.

At 4/19/2011 10:30 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Jean, who forgot to sign his name.

Quite alright - I suspected it was you.

I've also known some who thought about religious life, then went on to marriage and career. At least a couple I've spoken with expressed some regret later on that they had not at least given it a try - not as any kind of slight to their wife and children, but simply because they still wondered what it would have been like to have taken the other path.


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