Friday, February 26, 2010

The future of this enterprise.

The Order seemed to stand for great things - the spread of God's kingdom at every level. Chivarly was still a reality when I was a boy, and the Society of Jesus was to me a spiritual chivalry and a disciplined army. I came to see them as men formed in a great school, modeled on a noble pattern; and I thought if I could be that kind of man that they were . . . there was nothing better I could ask or do in life.

The man standing behind the lectern in the above photograph is Father Gerard F. Yates, S.J., who spent four decades as a professor and administrator at Georgetown University. The quotation below the photograph represents the answer that Father Yates once gave when asked to explain why he entered the Society of Jesus. I never knew Father Yates - he died eight months before I was born - but he was a part of my consciousness when I was a student at Georgetown. I knew him first as the namesake of Yates Field House, the student rec center, and I later came to know him in a different way after I purchased his Latin breviary at a library book sale. With creased and well-thumbed pages personalized with handwritten annotations and occasional holy cards serving as bookmarks, this old breviary offered mute but eloquent testimony to the life of prayer that anchored Father Yates' years of dedicated service as a scholar and teacher.

Though I never knew Father Yates in life, having known Jesuits like him helped me to discover my own vocation as a Jesuit. What inspired me most about the Jesuits I had as professors at Georgetown was their ability to harmonize the life of the spirit and the life of the mind. They were worldly in the best possible sense, able to combine a cosmopolitan sensibility with a genuine devotion to the values of the Gospel. If I had not encountered the Jesuits under these precise circumstances, I don't believe that I would have been able to hear the call to enter the Society of Jesus. If the first Jesuits that I met had not been scholars and college professors, I'm not sure that I would be a Jesuit today.

I've been thinking more about this topic lately on account of a story that ran in this week's edition of The Hawk, the Saint Joseph's University student newspaper, on a planned three-year process of reflection on the Catholic and Jesuit identity of the institution. Early in the text of the article, one of my brother Jesuits and fellow faculty members is quoted as follows:
"The day is coming, and I don't think there's any denying it, that there will only be a very few Jesuits here. . . . Anyone that thinks we're going to get back to days when we had even 30 Jesuits here is just naïve. I think it's likely that in my time here . . . we'll see only one or two Jesuits here. That's a fact, and that's something the school has to wrestle with."
The fact that the number of Jesuits is diminishing may be news to The Hawk, but it has been on Jesuit minds for quite a while. How to deal with shrinking numbers has been a topic of discernment and debate within the Society for decades. I was well aware of the situation even before I entered the Society; as a candidate, I had to ask myself whether I wanted to join an organization with a seemingly uncertain future. Summoning up the trust in providence that I needed in order to apply took a fair amount of effort on my part. On a practical level, though, the question remains a very challenging one: what will it be like to be one of a very few Jesuits working at a 'Jesuit' university?

Diminishment poses practical challenges for Jesuits as well as for the institutions in which we work. Discussions of the topic on an institutional level tend to focus on what diminishment means for the institution and devote relatively little attention to the question of what diminishment will mean for Jesuits who may seek to work at the institution in the future. The credibility and respect enjoyed by Jesuits in the schools that we founded depends in large part on relationships: lay administrators and faculty are more likely to value the future presence of Jesuit colleagues if they have had positive experiences with other Jesuits in the past. Once that personal connection is lost, it becomes harder to make a case that the presence of Jesuits really matters.

Some Jesuits approach the challenge of diminishment by suggesting that our task is to communicate the basics of what we're about to our lay colleagues and then disappear. Some who take this approach go so far as to argue that in some cases our lay colleagues understand 'the Jesuit thing' better than we do and can get along just fine without Jesuits around. In my experience, one hurdle that this argument can't overcome is the fact that many laypeople who really get 'the Jesuit thing' actually want us to stick around - they recognize that Jesuits bring something distinctive to the table, and they don't believe that they'll be able to inculcate similar enthusiasm in skeptical or indifferent colleagues without having some actual Jesuits around. It also bears mentioning that telling prospective Jesuits that our job is to disappear doesn't make for much of a vocation pitch.

I began this post by discussing a Jesuit I never met, Father Gerard Yates. As an undergraduate, I had a context for appreciating the contribution that someone like Father Yates made to my alma mater because I knew other Jesuits there who did the same sort of work and made as much of a mark as he did. If I hadn't known any Jesuits at Georgetown, I would have been less able to understand what made someone like Father Yates so special. Working in institutions like Georgetown and Saint Joseph's, Jesuits help to maintain a living link to the spirit of the founders. Even if there are only one or two Jesuits on the faculty to preserve that link, that's still better than having no Jesuits at all. (I have a related point to make about the importance of having Jesuits in the classroom, but in the interest of space that topic will have to wait for another post.)

In truth, of course, none of us knows exactly what the future holds for the Society of Jesus or for the many institutions of learning that identify as Jesuit. We may be tempted to dwell on what is to come, but there is also much for us to do in the present. Inspired by the example of the generations of Jesuits who preceded us, we must move forward in spite of our doubts about the future to offer humble service to the One who called us into the Society. AMDG.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Spiritual Exercises for Lent.

Many people think of Lent primarily as a time of renunciation and self-denial. The emphasis on fasting and abstinence that characterizes the season leads some to think of Lent merely as a time for "giving up," a time when Christians voluntarily renounce the enjoyment of some goods (certain foods, perhaps, or activities that one might ordinarily enjoy) as a sign of our commitment to the pursuit of the greatest good: union with God.

Personal sacrifice is an important part of this season, but there is much more to Lent than simply "giving up." As Father Alexander Schmemann wrote in his classic Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, Lent is "a school of repentance to which every Christian must go every year in order to deepen his faith, to re-evaluate, and, if possible, to change his life." This change may include giving some things up, but it should also include the embrace of new things - more time spent in prayer, for example, with the hope of more readily noticing the signs of God's presence and responding more readily to God's call.

If you're looking for new ways to deepen your prayer life during Lent, you may want to check out the Spiritual Exercises blog. Produced by my friend and former Ciszek Hall housemate David Paternostro and three other Jesuits - John Brown, Christopher Collins, and Kevin Dyer - this new blog provides daily Lenten meditations based upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Whether you've had some prior experience of the Exercises or are coming across Ignatian spirituality for the first time, the daily meditations featured on the Spiritual Exercises blog have much to offer you during your Lenten pilgrimage. Why not give them a try? AMDG.

Lent in New Bedford.

Our Lady in New Bedford (source).

Yesterday my hometown newspaper took a look at how some locals are observing Lent:
They may not attend Mass every Sunday, read the Scriptures or pray very often, but even for many nominal Catholics, abstaining from meat on Fridays or "giving something up" for Lent remains a part of their identity.

"Growing up with that, it's a hard thing to unlearn," said Scott Charbonneau, 43, of New Bedford. He described himself as a non-practicing Catholic but said he will not eat meat on Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.

"It's something that's been with me from my upbringing more than anything else. That's one of those cardinal rules."

. . .

A March 2008 survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that 60 percent of all Catholics - devout and lapsed - abstain from meat on Fridays. The survey also indicated that 45 percent typically attend Mass on Ash Wednesday and 38 percent "give up" something.

Jessica Fernandes, 31, of New Bedford gave up pork for Lent in 2002 and has not eaten pork chops or linguica since.

"It's tough. To this day, it still is," she said. "But it reminds me of what a huge sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. Oftentimes, we laugh about giving up chocolate and sodas, but they're such small sacrifices in the grand scheme of things."

The season's impact can be seen on local food businesses, which report a higher demand for seafood and non-meat products.

"We get a lot more people coming here and buying fish," said Alex Magalhaes, a manager at Amaral's Market on Belleville Avenue. In between answering a reporter's questions, he helped a customer with an order for salmon steaks.

"Lent impacts business in a good way for us," he said. "They spend more money."

Isaiah's Restaurant in downtown New Bedford stays open until 8 p.m. on Fridays during Lent.

"It actually helps boost sales," said Denise Worster, the owner. "People will come in after work for fish and chips. A lot of our customers look forward to it. The only thing is a lot of them give up dessert, so we don't sell a lot of those."

To read the rest, click here. Reading this article confirmed my long-held belief that Friday abstinence is as much a cultural practice as a religious one. That such practices can survive even after faith dims bears witness to the truth that Catholicism is a culture as well as a religion. At the risk of being somewhat provocative, I sometimes get the sense that "cultural Catholics" who don't actively practice the faith understand what Catholicism is about in a way that those who focus only on doctrine and ignore the role of culture simply do not.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that adherence to doctrine and regular practice don't matter. They matter a lot. What I do mean to suggest is that it would be wrong to dismiss as "bad Catholics" those who don't worship regularly but who nonetheless have maintained traditional Catholic practices such as Friday abstinence out of a sense that they are still part of an essentially Catholic culture. It strikes me that the resilience of such practices provides an opportunity for catechesis and, perhaps, for spiritual revival. If one still has a sense that one shouldn't eat meat on Lenten Fridays out of respect for one's Catholic upbringing, one may be led to consider whether the faith that shaped that upbringing is worth embracing in a new and deeper way.

Those of us who seek to serve the Church in an ever-more secular society must be careful not to snuff out the embers of faith that still burn in the hearts of apparently "lapsed" Catholics for whom religion is as much a matter of culture as of belief. To emphasize creed and doctrine while dismissing or ignoring the cultural aspects of faith is to open the door to an even more pervasive form of secularization. On the contrary, we who care about the future of the Church should be alert to the ways in which we might help bring about a renaissance of faith in places where the identification between religion and culture remains strong. My hope and prayer is that we may find the courage and creativity to rise to this challenge. AMDG.

Monday, February 08, 2010


Having received over two feet of snow this past weekend and with another major snowstorm expected tomorrow, Philadelphia is in the midst of what promises to become the snowiest winter in the city's history. The forecast for Friday and Saturday was grim enough to lead me to cancel a planned trip to Washington - a wise move, it turns out, as the District ended up with more snow than Philly and is apparently still paralyzed by the white stuff. Despite the heavy snowfall here, the Philly streets were sufficiently navigable by Sunday morning that I was still able to make it to church (joining ten others, out of a congregation that normally numbers around a hundred). With the forecast for tomorrow calling for another twelve to twenty inches of snow, I now wonder whether I can realistically expect to teach on Wednesday morning or whether I and my students will become beneficiaries of a midweek snow day.

The above photos offer a sense of the effect that this past weekend's snowstorm had on SJU. The first image in this set was taken in the parking lot of the Jesuit residence on Friday night, as the new-fallen snow began to accumulate. Taken from my bedroom window on Saturday, the second image replicates the first sight that I saw that morning. Normally bustling City Avenue was nearly deserted on Saturday (third photo), while the campus presented some postcard-perfect views (fifth photo) and a panorama of students at play in the snow (sixth photo). The final image in this set was taken from my window late on Saturday afternoon, after the storm had ended and as area residents began to dig themselves out. Happy to have endured the weekend in relative comfort and with minimal inconvenience (the cancelled trip notwithstanding), I can only hope to get through tomorrow's storm with equal good fortune. AMDG.