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.


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