Fostering a Vibrant Jesuit Catholic Tradition

By Jennifer Tilghman-Havens

When I orient new faculty to the university, I begin by projecting a black and white like this 1948 photograph of the Seattle University Jesuit re-founders of the 1930s in their distinguished clerical attire. I remind our faculty that at one point our university was made up entirely of faculty and staff who looked like this. I flash to a second photo next, of a team of women faculty and faculty of color who collaborated on a multidisciplinary, community-based research project with the local Yesler Terrace neighborhood. These faculty represent another generation of “refounders,” as the majority of the administration and teaching at our Jesuit universities is handed on to lay people. What a profound shift has occurred over the past century! What a gift for laypeople to carry this tradition forward, and what a challenge to animate it so that it can thrive for the years to come.

Jesuits re-founders of the 1930s, (l-r) R. Nichols, S.J., A. Lemieux, S.J., J. McGoldrick, S.J., D. Reidy, S.J., H. Peronteau, S.J.

Jesuits re-founders of the 1930s, (l-r) R. Nichols, S.J., A. Lemieux, S.J., J. McGoldrick, S.J., D. Reidy, S.J., H. Peronteau, S.J.

As we discern the possibility of a vibrant, relevant Jesuit Catholic mission that will sustain our universities into the future, some considerations come to mind. The introductory question for AJCU schools beginning the Institutional Mission Examen is: “Do we want to be a Jesuit Catholic University?” Rather than a checked box before moving on to the rest of the process, this question is an honest, Ignatian-inspired invitation to reflect on our deepest desires. Our universities have a very real choice. Excellent secular universities with a social justice mission serve an important role in higher education. But if we believe Jesuit Catholic universities have something distinctive to offer, then a deep, abiding desire must animate us – a desire for transformative Ignatian pedagogy, for opportunities to seek sacred meaning and purpose, for spaces to grapple with the Catholic intellectual tradition, for just action inspired by the Gospel, for honoring the dignity of our students, for mutually enriching interfaith dialogue, and for beholding the sacramentality in all things. If we do indeed desire these things and want to see them flourish, how do we seek out colleagues to join in this mission who also reflect these desires from their own different backgrounds and experiences? Our desires for the transformative potential of Jesuit education are the seeds from which a healthy, ever expanding mission-inspired community can thrive.

The revered Howard Gray, S.J., spoke of Ignatian spirituality as “self-awareness leading to self-donation.” The purpose for reflection on our desires, our values, and our mission is to discern how to embody ever-expanding love. Do we have the courage to love into greater freedom our students, our colleagues, and our communities? This is no small task, especially amid pressures to raise funds, improve our pedagogy, maintain our scholarship, retain our students, update our infrastructures, and respond to our ever-proliferating inboxes. But how we do our work – our way of proceeding – is as important as what we do. At Seattle University, the tag line of our mission is “empowering leaders for a just and humane world.” We animate and honor the “humane” when we approach one another with respect, kindness, and joy.

Seattle University faculty today represent another generation of “re-founders.”

Seattle University faculty today represent another generation of “re-founders.”

Finally, our universities are invited to trust the movement of the Holy Spirit. When Pope Francis spoke to the Jesuits’ General Congregation 36 in 2016, he encouraged the Society of Jesus to align with the work of Holy Spirit wherever Jesuits find themselves. Can we, as collaborators in the Society’s mission, become free enough to trust this? I am reminded of the early Jesuits, whose intention was to sail to Jerusalem to minister there. When passage was blocked by the Venetian-Turkish wars, their mission became impossible. Yet the Holy Spirit was working through that impossibility to guide them toward something they couldn’t have imagined – opening schools. If that boat had sailed from Venice, none of us would be engaged in the meaningful work of whole-person education for justice and love.

What are the contemporary parallels? Where are we called to trust that the “ship isn’t sailing” because the Spirit is doing something new? Several examples come to mind. Even as the number of Jesuits who are able to serve in the university apostolate declines, lay faculty and staff hunger to make the Spiritual Exercises, to learn about the history and charism of the Society of Jesus, and to commit themselves to advancing the Jesuit educational mission. Programs like the NSF ADVANCE IT grant at Seattle University offer opportunities to honor the robust contributions of women and faculty of color through renewed promotion processes. The Spirit is also working through efforts to recognize the sovereignty of indigenous peoples and to build partnerships at our Jesuit universities. She is alive in the willingness on our campuses to examine whiteness, patriarchy, and privilege so as to dismantle them in our structures and policies. And she is working through the energy and passion of our students whose faith and love inspires movements toward fossil fuel divestment, just wages for contingent faculty, and race and gender justice.

The late Monica Hellwig reminded Jesuit Catholic universities: “If we are not always clear and successful in what we are doing, it is not from ill will or unconcern, but due to the uncharted nature of our situation.” Sometimes the mission feels impossible because we’re in uncharted places – places marked by challenging budget constraints or student demands for inclusion or the declining number of Catholics on our campuses. Jesuits have always been on the frontiers of something new, and the adaptation so central to Ignatius’ approach to the Exercises is a key resource in these times. Let us employ Ignatian imagination to envision what is possible now, as we read the signs of these times in 2019 and we honor the richness of the diverse colleagues who contribute to our mission. May our desires motivate us, our love sustain us, and our imaginations spur us on, emboldened by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

Jennifer Tilghman-Havens is director of the Center for Jesuit Education at Seattle University. A graduate of Notre Dame and Boston College, she is currently in the doctoral program in leadership studies at Gonzaga University.

The cover photo is featured courtesy of the Seattle University Instagram Page.