Friday, February 01, 2008

Georgetown panel discusses Jesuit identity.

My alma mater is currently celebrating Jesuit Heritage Week, a yearly tradition that began while I was an undergraduate. Among various offerings on Ignatian spirituality, film screenings and social events, the calendar for the week included a panel with the provocative title, "Jesuit Education, So What? Conversations with Priest-Professors." The Georgetown Voice had this to say about the event:
At a panel discussion about Jesuit identity earlier this week, Father John O'Malley scanned the twenty or so faces in the spacious sitting room in Wolfington Hall. Fewer than half of the faces belonged to students, most of whom drifted out of the room before the discussion was finished.

"True to Catholic form, you're all sitting in the back," he chuckled.

O'Malley kicked off the event - titled "Jesuit Education . . . So What?" and held as part of Georgetown's Jesuit Heritage Week - with an overview of the history of Jesuit education, describing the first Jesuits as an edgy bunch that were ahead of their time.

"They faced a lot of criticism for the introduction of dance and the arts into their schools," he said. "They studied what was the forerunner of the modern, natural sciences. Jesuit universities sponsored some of the first organized sports." Beside him, Fr. Kevin FitzGerald nodded vigorously.

By point out that Jesuits were the original sports fans, O'Malley sent the same message emitted by nearly every event that the Jesuit community has hosted this week: in the contemporary world, Jesuit education is not obsolete. The same message could be heard in the Jesuit community's Spirituality Series held in Copley Crypt, where O'Malley described Ignatius of Loyola's "Spiritual Exercises" as "a remarkably adaptive book and program." This year, Georgetown's Jesuit Heritage Week seemed not only to showcase the University's Jesuit identity, but to insist upon the compatibility of Jesuit education and the contemporary world.
To read the rest, click here. Discussions of Jesuit identity at places like Georgetown tend to excite passionate disagreement. This intensity of feeling is at least somewhat understandable; questions about what it means for an institution to be Catholic and Jesuit touch upon deeply held values. As a Catholic, a Jesuit, and a Georgetown alumnus, I feel strongly about these questions myself. I discovered the Society of Jesus at Georgetown and, in a very real sense, I found my Jesuit vocation there as well.

I could say a lot about the Jesuit identity issue, but for now I'll simply say that I'm glad the issue is being discussed publicly on the Hilltop and that I hope these discussions continue. Reading the Voice article, the only regret I felt was that relatively few current students attended the panel. Students have an important role to play in conversations about Jesuit identity, but first they have to be interested in the topic. I've met some undergraduates who genuinely care about the Jesuit identity of the universities they attend, for which I give thanks to God. I've also met students at Jesuit colleges who could seemingly care less about the issue, and I'm curious - not just as a Jesuit, but as one who hopes someday to work in higher education - how they could be persuaded to care about the mission and identity of the schools of which they will soon be alumni.

As an aside, I like what Father Alvaro Ribeiro has to say in the Voice article about his own vocation as a Jesuit and an English professor. The Voice errs in describing Father Ribeiro as an Englishman: he is actually from Hong Kong. Otherwise, the newspaper captures him well:
One Jesuit familiar with the challenge of connecting secular culture with Jesuit values is Fr. Alvaro Ribeiro. An expert in British and Shakespearian literature hailing from England [sic!], Ribeiro has a commanding voice, a spectacular vocabulary and no reservations about observing the connections between Jesuit tradition and secular literature.

"When people learn that I am an English professor, they are aghast," he said, "They cry, 'You are a man of God, you are supposed to speak of things of God!' To which I tell them I find the Word to be expressed in a hell of a lot of words, including 'to be or not to be.'"
I also know some people who balk at the idea of priests teaching in fields other than theology. In my own life, though, the place of what someone once called "hyphenated priests" in the Society of Jesus played a key role in my own discernment. The fact that the Society had room for priests who could find God in the humanities and the natural and social sciences impressed me deeply when I was a student at Georgetown, and it impresses me just as much today. It would be very sad, I think, if Jesuit educators wrote and taught only about "things of God" in the narrowest sense. As long as we have Jesuits like Father Ribeiro - and any number of others I could mention, at Georgetown and elsewhere - I doubt that day will come. AMDG.


At 2/01/2008 7:08 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

As a scientist, I am grateful for the "hyphenated priests" I know - some Jesuit, some Augustinian. They are models of how faith and reason, theology and life can co-exist.

And to have a (Jesuit - what else!) spiritual director who can appreciate how I might find God in a favorite differential equation - is a grace beyond measure.


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